‘Maximum pressure’ campaign choking Tehran from the inside and the outside

The social and economic pressure on Iran might push the country over the edge.

Sunday 24/11/2019
A truck carrying UF6 fuel leaves the Natanz nuclear power plant in central Isfahan to the underground Fordow facility, November 6.   (AFP)
Risky gambit. A truck carrying UF6 fuel leaves the Natanz nuclear power plant in central Isfahan to the underground Fordow facility, November 6.

WASHINGTON - Iran is feeling the effects of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign as Tehran also struggles to deal with political protests and internal discontent.

The protests, sparked by rising petrol prices and precipitated by US sanctions, have become a stage for voicing demands for political reforms. Iranian officials claimed the increase in fuel prices would lead to direct subsidies for citizens.

“People can’t afford a 300% increase in [petrol] prices but the regime didn’t have any other choice,” said Alireza Nader, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The reforms were meant to decrease domestic gasoline consumption, leaving more for Iran to export, he said.

The Iranian government’s violent response to the protests has left more than 100 people dead and at least 1,000 arrested throughout the country. Amnesty International and the United Nations have raised concerns about the treatment of protesters. Reports said government forces shot into crowds of protesters and used other forms of excessive force. Iranian authorities shut down access to the internet, cutting off protesters from the outside world.

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said the dramatic response by the Iranian government indicates how much authorities fear the demonstrations. “While protests, especially after fuel price hikes, are not new in Iran, the speed with which the leadership brought down its iron fist indicates that it sees itself under siege,” Vaez said on Twitter.

Making matters worse for Iran, Washington revoked the sanction waivers for Iran’s Fordow nuclear facility. Although the waivers had just been renewed, the Trump administration announced the decision after Tehran said on November 7 that it had begun enriching uranium at the site again.

“The right amount of uranium enrichment for the world’s largest state sponsor of terror is zero,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

US President Donald Trump’s revocation of the waivers was applauded by conservative congressmen, including US Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham and US Representative Liz Cheney. They released a statement saying: “Ending this waiver is another important step in tearing up the catastrophic Obama-Iran nuclear deal once and for all. The administration should now end the waivers for the remaining projects related to the deal, especially the Arak reactor, Iran’s heavy water reactor.”

The Trump administration is on the right course with regards to Iran, said Michael Singh, managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This decision was unavoidable. Iran resumed enrichment at Fordow in violation of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear deal is formally known) and announced it had abandoned plans to convert it to a “nuclear, physics and technology centre, rendering the purpose of the waivers essentially moot,” Singh said.

The social and economic pressure on Iran might push the country over the edge. “The price hike and subsequent protests are a testament to the effectiveness of Washington’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign,” said Saeed Ghasseminejad, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy.

“Tehran is increasingly in desperate economic straits, in part because of intense US sanctions; Iranian popular discontent with the regime’s economic mismanagement seems to have reached a breaking point, and the regime is more frightened of popular unrest than at any time in recent years,” wrote Keith Johnson in Foreign Policy magazine.

Analysts said talks between Washington and Tehran may be less likely than before. Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the Trump administration “may think agreeing to talks now will be seen as weakness” amid its “maximum pressure” campaign.

There may be further escalation between the two countries as Washington offers support to the Iranian people. The Trump administration asserted such backing in a statement made by Pompeo. “I have a message for the people of Iran: The United States hears you. The United States supports you. The United States is with you,” he said.