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The Economic ‘Forever War’ on Iran

Aaron Stein reviews the Trump administration’s Iran policy and concludes that it is weakening the U.S.:

The lesson, of course, is that missiles and bombs can win even the nastiest regime on earth the respect of the world’s superpower. This will be the legacy of the Trump administration’s nonproliferation policy. It may feel good to sanction the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and talk loudly about pressure, but this only matters if the United States turns that pressure into a tangible policy outcome. Thus far, there is no evidence to suggest the Trump administration is any closer to its goal of Iranian regime change. Just the opposite. The American pursuit of maximum pressure has eroded tools to counter proliferation, and lessened pressure on allies to acquiesce to American hard asks in support of decades-old efforts to limit the spread of enrichment and reprocessing. These twin failures, and the broader inability to accept that Washington cannot topple the Iranian regime without severely damaging itself, is bad for the country. What is worse is that the ongoing efforts to entrench this bad policy has put U.S. troops at risk (again) and made it harder for more rational policymakers to fix nonproliferation policy in the future. The Trump administration’s efforts to topple Iran is just making the United States weaker.

Stein understandably emphasizes the damage that has been done to U.S. nonproliferation policy, but the current Iran policy also gives many other governments an additional reason to distrust U.S. intentions and to doubt U.S. promises. Revoking promised sanctions relief gives other states an incentive not to cooperate with the U.S. in applying diplomatic pressure and it gives states targeted by sanctions another reason to refuse to make concessions. When the U.S. makes a habit of imposing sanctions for their own sake or as a thinly-veiled attempt at regime change, it will quickly find that its allies want no part of its obsessions. The U.S. will be more isolated, less influential, and less trusted as a result, and that will damage relations with many other governments to the detriment of American interests. It isn’t surprising that supposedly “tough” hard-line policies sap U.S. strength and influence, but it is worth noting when it happens.

At the same time that Trump’s bankrupt Iran policy is making the U.S. weaker, there is good reason to believe that the irresponsible decision to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization is actually making it stronger inside Iran. Kayhan Barzegar explains:

This development is a turning point in changing the perspective of Iran’s public and intellectual circles towards the significance of national security issues and the necessity of enhancing the country’s deterrence strength, consequently legitimizing Iran’s regional policies and missile program. At present, any possibility of talks or negotiations on Iran’s missile program is considered a red line to national security and an element of weakening the power of the “state” of Iran.

The White House action has also led to more solidarity within Iran’s political spectrum, whether reformists or conservatives. In a symbolic move, members of Iran’s majority moderate parliament turned out in the dark green uniforms of the IRGC the day after the US designation in a sign of comprehensive support. This wave has been increasing and extends to the media, university students, intellectual circles, and even some opposition forces abroad. The logic of this support is clear: The IRGC is being perceived as the main custodian of Iran’s national security.

When a country faces sustained hostility from outside, it is unfortunately all too common for this to create a siege mentality that empowers the national security establishment and gives the hard-liners within that establishment more clout. Following the U.S. betrayal of its commitments under the JCPOA, Iranian hard-liners have been able to claim vindication and have used our government’s actions as cudgels against their domestic rivals. The IRGC designation has further poisoned the atmosphere between our countries and provided the IRGC with a major political boost at the expense of their reformist critics. Once again, regime changers imagine that they are weakening the regime when they are really achieving just the opposite inside the country.

The prospect of a very prolonged siege with no relief is sure to continue that process. Esfandyar Batmanghelidj looks at the effects of the new IRGC designation as evidence of an economic “forever war” against Iran:

Rather, by designating part of Iran’s state as a terrorist organization, a label that extends to millions of conscripts, those who wish to build a “sanctions wall” are seeking to close a political feedback loop. Not only does the FTO designation aim retroactively to justify the whole architecture of US sanctions on Iran, but even if the political circumstances between Washington and Tehran change in the future, sanctions will continue to be justified as a matter [of] basic definitions. A future US administration seeking to lift sanctions on Iran will not merely need to argue the political expediency of that decision – it will now be forced in effect to “redefine” the most powerful force in Iranian national security, a tall order after 40 years of entrenched animosity.

What the FTO designation makes clear it that “financial war” on Iran is America’s new “forever war.”

An economic “forever war” makes it clear to everyone in the Iranian government that there is no point in negotiating or cooperating with the U.S., and it tells the Iranian people that there will never be any relief from U.S. sanctions. Iran hawks are doing this in the hopes of provoking upheaval, but it is much more likely that it will simply stoke resentment among the people and cause many young Iranians to despair of finding any opportunities at home. That is likely to drive the most talented and educated to leave the country while impoverishing the population and stifling any hope of political change. The economic “forever war” on Iran will keep the regime in place while destroying the people’s aspirations for a better future.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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