On November 22nd, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran continues to follow the nuclear deal they signed with the United States, China, Russia, United Kingdom, France, Germany and the European Union in 2015. The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), required Iran to dramatically reduce its stockpiles of uranium and gas centrifuges for 13 years, in exchange for relief from U.S., E.U. and UN economic sanctions.
As part of the deal, the Iranian government allows the IAEA access to all of its nuclear facilities for inspection. The IAEA releases quarterly reports to confirm that the terms of the deal are followed. So far, the IAEA has found no breaches of the deal.
On April 30th, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a presentation suggesting that Iran lied, having not disclosed a past covert nuclear weapons program to the IAEA as required in the deal. The following week, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the deal and resume economic sanctions against Iran. He criticized the Iranian government for its involvement in Syria and Yemen and its ballistic missile program, none of which was part of the JCPOA agreement. In addition to direct sanctions, Trump also seeks “secondary sanctions” against companies that continue to do business in Iran.
Iran’s economy has struggled since the United States reimposed sanctions, causing the currency and the standard of living in Iran to drop and sparking unrest. So far the Iranian regime has managed to quell dissent by drumming up nationalist support and blaming the United States for unjustly breaking the terms of the deal.
Iranian ambassador to the IAEA Kazem Gharibabadi appealed to the remaining signatories of the deal. “In humiliation to all international community, the United States’ most recent illegal and unilateral acts and sanctions brazenly and boldly disregard Security Council resolution 2231,” he said. Gharibabadi claimed that the U.S. actions against Iran run “counter to the well-established principles as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and as accepted by the community of nations such as the sovereign equality of States, non-intervention and non-interference in internal affairs of Member States and freedom of international trade and navigation.”
China, Russia, United Kingdom, France, Germany and the European Union all continue to follow the agreement, insisting that Iran is still following the deal.
Although Trump has denied that it imposed sanctions in order to force regime change in Iran, his inner circle have spoken on many occasions about overthrowing the Iranian regime. In August 2017, eight months before becoming National Security Advisor, war hawk John Bolton spoke in front of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian exile group that the U.S. had listed as a foreign terrorist organization until a lobbying campaign removed them in 2012. Bolton told the audience, “The outcome of [Trump’s] policy review should be to determine that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution will not last until its 40th birthday… the declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullah’s regime in Tehran.”
Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani also spoke before the MEK this August, reaffirming the administration’s commitment to regime change: “we have a president who is as committed to regime change as we are.” He continued, “I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them. It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen.” In September, he followed up on his comments, saying, “the people of Iran obviously have now had enough… the sanctions are working. The currency is going to nothing … these are the kinds of conditions that lead to successful revolution.”
John Bolton, when pressed for a statement, claimed that Giuliani’s words did not represent U.S. foreign policy. He told the Associated Press that regime change is not U.S. policy but that the Trump administration does want a massive change in the regime’s behaviour.
The United States was previously involved in regime change in Iran in 1953. In order to prevent Iranian nationalization of its oil reserves, the CIA worked with British intelligence to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and install pro-Western autocrat Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Shah Pahlavi was eventually overthrown by Islamic revolutionaries in 1979, replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeni.
The economic sanctions reimposed by the United States serve only to hurt its standing on the world stage. By reneging on a deal made just three years ago, the U.S. demonstrates to the world that it is an untrustworthy and erratic state. In contrast, Iran is able to generate sympathy and support from the international community by abiding by the rules of the JCPOA. It is likely that American sanctions will hurt Iran’s people more than it hurts its government. As has been the case in Cuba and Venezuela, a sanctioned regime can use economic hardship to rally the population against the United States and solidify their power. As the U.S. withdraws from international deals, it looks more and more like a rogue state, and as a result grants moral victories to authoritarian states such as Iran.
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