Iran on hit list of USA
By Asif Haroon Raja
Islamic Revolution in Iran. Iran under Reza Shah Pahlavi was in best of books of USA and was made the policeman of the Persian Gulf. Riots broke out in Iran in 1978 against Shah’s authoritarian rule. In January 1979, Shah fled to Cairo where he died in July 1980. On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran after 14 years in exile to lead the country. On November 4, 1979, the US Embassy in Tehran was stormed by Iranian students and 52 diplomats were held as hostages for 444 days. The US imposed trade embargo and froze foreign assets worth $12 billion in US banks. Eagle Claw rescue operation was launched in April 1980 but the mission failed badly. Assets were unfrozen in 1981 in exchange of releasing the hostages on January 20, 1981. Diplomatic freeze between US-Iran remained till May 2007.
Iran-Iraq War. The US pumped up Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain to wage a war against Iran to snatch disputed Shat al-Arab waterway and fail the revolution. The two neighbors fought a bloody war from 1980 till 1988. While the two super powers, Europe and Arab world supported Iraq, the US financed the Nicaraguan ‘Contras’ rebellion against Sandinista regime by secretly selling arms to Iran. CIA passed on battle intelligence to both sides. Consequently, none emerged victorious. The war enabled Iran to stand on its own feet and to complete the cycle of revolution, while Saddam became more megalomaniac and ambitious.
First sanctions were imposed on Iran in 1979. In 1984, Iran was accused of exporting terrorism in Lebanon. New embargo on goods were enforced in 1987 and expanded in 1995. After Iran’s nuclear program became public in 2002, and Iran refused to suspend uranium enrichment program, the UNSC enacted sanctions in 2006. Crippling sanctions were levied by the US, UN and EU in 2010. In 2011, further sanctions were added. The EU banned import of Iranian crude oil and petroleum products. In 2012, UN imposed oil embargo on Iran. The sanctions were gradually lifted by January 2016 as a result of nuclear deal signed in July 2015, but Donald Trump re-imposed new sanctions on Iran in 2017 to curb Iran’s missile program.
Impact of Sanctions. Iran is world’s 6th largest oil producer and oil makes up 80% of Iran’s exports. Its GDP is $406.3, second largest in Middle East behind Saudi Arabia. It pumps out 3 million barrels per day and exports half of it daily. Sanctions put heavy strains on $483 billion oil dominated economy of Iran, since its oil exports declined in 2006/07. However, since it had no liability of foreign debts and China became largest trading partner, Iran withstood the shocks of sanctions. China, Turkey, India, Japan and South Korea became primary export markets of Iran. High oil prices from 2008 to 2014 allowed Iran to amass $135.5 billion foreign exchange reserve.
Ahmadinejad Rule (2005-2013)
Once hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with modest origins won the June 2005 elections convincingly securing 62% of the votes against well established and wealthy cleric Hashemi Rafsanjani, he adopted a confrontational foreign policy stance against USA and Israel. Honest, pious and incorruptible, he had appealed to the senses of the conservatives in particular. He reiterated Qaddafi’s stance of moving Israel to Europe, and questioned the veracity of the Holocaust in 2nd World War, and dubbed it as a myth and a hoax. He stated that ‘Israel is a disgraceful stain on the Islamic world which needed to be wiped from the pages of history’.
His stance against USA was no less deprecating. On several occasions he challenged George Bush for a live debate with him in response to Bush terming Iran the world’s leading supporter of terrorism. While addressing the audience in UNGA in September 2010, Ahmadinejad ruffled the feathers of Obama when he stated that the people widely believed that the US was behind 9/11 and sought an inquest. He repeated his stance in 2011 UNGA meeting. His friendship with Hugo Chavez and other Latin States leaders were not to the liking of USA. He defied Western demand to halt the development of its nuclear energy program suspected to be oriented towards acquisition of nuclear weapons, and vigorously pursued nuclear and missile programs with the help of Russia and China.
UN Trade sanctions contracted Iran’s economy by 6.6% in 2012 and 1.9% in 2013. Rial plunged from 11000 to a dollar in 2012 to 22500-31000 in 2013 and led to currency crisis. Inflation jumped above 40%; oil exports halved from 2.3 million barrels a day in 2012 to one million in 2013. Problems compounded due to low oil prices from 2014 onwards. However, despite the economic crunch, he increased number of centrifuges from 164 to 12000 and accumulated enough fissile material for 10-12 nuclear bombs.
Ahmadinejad tried to mend fences with the Arab countries and to develop closer ties with India, Turkey, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project was projected as a peace pipeline. He further strengthened the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah nexus and strove to bring Iraq ruled by Nurul Malaki Shia regime, Hamas in Gaza and Houthis in Yemen in the loop, apart from extending support to the Shia elements in Arab countries as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Expansion of Shia arc in the Middle East consternated Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf States, already reeling under the threat posed by ISIS, which had carved out its caliphate under Baghdadi in parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014. Likewise, the rising power of Iran miffed US, Israel and EU that had their own strategic stakes in the Middle East. As a consequence, the trio coupled with the UN resorted to the strategy of sanctions to bleed Iran’s economy and disrupt its nuclear program.
In addition to sanctions, massive covert operations were undertaken by CIA to destabilize the regime. Jundollah terrorist group based in Baluchistan was used for this purpose. Millions of dollars were poured in to support the Reformists. These efforts failed to evict popular Ahmadinejad in June 2009 elections who won 62.63% votes against Mir Hossain Mousavi.
Thereon, Green Movement was triggered in July 2009 after making the elections controversial. Despite largescale disturbances all over the country, the ruling regime managed to crush the movement and to complete its tenure. Ahmadinejad also developed differences with supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
During the period of 2011-2013, Iran came under sustained pressure from USA and Israel, both threatening to destroy Iran’s nuclear sites. The US moved its naval armada closer to the Persian Gulf and in response, Iran threatened to block Strait of Hormuz. Intruding US drone was shot down.
Sanctions badly hurt the economy of Iran which added to the social problems of the Iranians. Ahmadinejad was blamed for economic woes and economy became the burning issue in 2013. Socio-economic issues enabled CIA to topple the regime in June 2013 elections and empower American friendly regime of Reformists led by moderate and mild mannered cleric Hassan Rouhani who secured 50.7% votes.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei however continued to hold ultimate power over nation’s civil and religious affairs including nuclear program. He enjoys veto power over all policies and control of security forces.
Hassan Rouhani Rule (June 2013 onwards)
The new regime was befriended by Obama administration with a view to roll back Iran’s nuclear program which was 2-3 months away from producing a bomb. Another reason was to veer Iran towards Afghanistan, strengthen Iran-Afghanistan-India grouping, upgrade Chahbahar seaport to counter Gwadar seaport and isolate Pakistan. Yet another reason was to make Iran combat ISIS threat in Iraq and Syria with the help of Pasdaran and Shia Militias.
Iran-US nuclear Deal
Rouhani had promised to break off Iran’s isolation and inject new impetus into Iranian economy which had suffered under his predecessor. Ice began to melt in November 2014 after the Obama-Rouhani telephonic talk and John Kerry’s diplomacy which eventually led to the nuclear deal in July 2015 in return for lifting of four-fold sanctions. UK, France, Germany, China, Russia and USA signed the agreement. In other words, Iran was successfully coerced by isolating and putting it under sanctions to freeze its nuclear program.
Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for lifting the UN sanctions imposed in 2010. Arms embargo was to remain in place for 5 years. It agreed to reduce its 12000 kg stockpile of enriched uranium to 300 kg, and to remove 10,000 centrifuges (two-thirds of total); remove core of Arak plutonium reactor. IAEA was given access for inspections of all sites.
Under the Iran Review Act, the US President must certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran is complying with the deal, and that the accord remains in the country’s national security interest.
When the UN lifted sanctions on Iran, it called on Iranian leaders to cease ballistic missile tests but did not explicitly ban the nation from carrying them out.
Lifting of Sanctions. The UN lifted sanctions in January 2016 and it paved the way for unfreezing Iran’s frozen funds estimated at $29 billion, for export of oil to France, Spain and Russia, for investments inflow and for trade.
Israel, however, was averse to Iran-US rapprochement and saw Iran laced with variety of ballistic missiles a threat to its security and to its agenda of carving out Greater Israel in Middle East stretching from Nile to Euphrates. Critics in US Congress warned that agreement allowed Iran to build nukes after 10-year moratorium. They also feared that economically bolstered Iran could fund terrorist outfits in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen more liberally.
Iran’s Expanding Influence. Iran’s growing clout in the Middle East and expanding Iran-Iraq-Syria-Yemen-Hezbollah nexus vexed the US, Israel and the GCC States. These fears together with the threat of Daesh brought GCC States closer to USA and Israel and impelled Riyadh to form a 41-nation Islamic Military Alliance to combat terrorism. This grouping vexed Iran and not only intensified Saudi-Iran rivalry, but also bred tension in Iran-Pakistan relations since Gen Raheel Sharif was appointed as head of the military alliance, which Tehran felt was Iran-specific.
Trump’s Ascendency. Trump who ascended to power because of Jewish lobbying and votes in January 2017 adopted a hostile posture against Iran from the outset and based on his false accusation that Iran is not abiding by the 2015 agreement, he declared that he will tear off the nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions.
Riyadh Summit. During the historic US-Arab-Islamic Summit in Riyadh in July 2017, Trump truculently denounced Iran as an abettor of terrorism and the biggest exporter of terrorism in the world. In his bid to please Israel, he vowed to re-impose sanctions to cut to size Iran’s missile program and if need be scrap the nuclear deal.
Donald Trump’s Belligerence
On October 13, President Trump while announcing his new strategy toward Iran, adopted a highly aggressive posture on everything from the nuclear deal to Iranian ballistic missiles. Trump dealt a blow to the nuclear pact by refusing to certify that Tehran was complying with the accord, under which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in return for relief from economic sanctions. The U.S. Congress was required to decide by mid-December whether to re-impose sanctions lifted by the deal.
IRGC a Target
The White House focus was however on the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Saudi Arabia’s air defenses intercepted the missile, bringing it down near the capital Riyadh’s airport on 4 November 2017. Donald Trump accused Iran’s IRGC behind the firing of a ballistic missile at Saudi Arabia from warring Yemen.
IRGC, which is a military unit separate from the regular armed forces and loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was called as a “primary tool and weapon in remaking Iran into a rogue state.”
The US contemplated imposing additional sanctions on the IRGC as supporter of terrorism and asked European partners to join the US in imposing new sanctions on elements of IRGC. The head of Iran’s IRGC denied accusations by Trump, rejecting it as one of the U.S. President’s “slanders.”
US Pressure on Europe. The Trump administration has been pushing the Europeans to place new sanctions on Iran in response to its ballistic missile program. China, France, Germany, Russia and the UK — as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency, which conducts inspections of Iranian facilities, say that Iran remains in compliance.
Iran’s Stance. Taking advantage of this leeway in the UN stance, Iran has continued to carryout missile tests and refused to curb the missile program asserting that it was never part of nuclear negotiations. Iran has also maintained its stance that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only.
Hassan Rouhani’s Performance (June 2013-June 2017)
His reforms brought down inflation from over 40% to 7.5% in 2016; economic growth went up from minus 5.8% in 2013 to 6.6% in 2016; oil exports doubled and so did production. Lost export market was recaptured, investments gained impetus and tourism grew considerably. There were however grey areas. Unemployment stood at 12.7% in 2016. Progress on curbing corruption and improving business climate was unsatisfactory. Banking was another weak area needing refurbishment.
Rouhani’s Second Term
President Rouhani, elected for the second time last May, polling 57% votes, pledged to revive the economy. He has not been able to deliver much, leaving many Iranians frustrated. Iran’s economy has grown since the nuclear deal, thanks to resumed oil exports, but growth outside the oil sector has sagged. Inflation is running at nearly 10% and unemployment rate is 12%, while 40% youth is jobless. According to the government-run Statistical Center of Iran, youth unemployment is at 24.4 %. Prices are still rising by 7%.
Working-class Iranians and others, meanwhile, are increasingly unhappy with a stagnant economy and a jump in food prices. They are disappointed that the lifting of international sanctions on Iran in January 2016 under the nuclear accord with world powers has failed to deliver an economic boom.
Unrest in Iran – December 2016/January 2018
Deep sense of economic disenchantment and anger over the country’s flagging economy in all probability triggered protests in the second-largest northeastern city of Mashhad on December 28. The protests quickly spread across the nation to Tehran, Tabriz, Isfahan, Shiraz and Zahidan. Focus of unrest remained confined to provincial towns and cities and is leaderless. Initially, slogans were against inflation, corruption of the political elite, weak purchasing power, a weak Rial, and unequal distribution of wealth. However, what followed took many politicians by surprise. Within a day, the unrest had spread to some 25 towns and cities, and slogans went beyond the economic. What began as frustration over Iran’s sluggish economy has broadened to include open defiance of Iran’s Islamic leadership itself. The protests against the president quickly turned into rallies against the country’s clerical leaders. Slogans of “Death to Rouhani” gave way to “Death to Khamenei”, Iran’s supreme leader. They called on security forces to join them.
Tens of thousands of Iranians are protesting against unelected cleric elite and Iran’s foreign policy of interfering in other Middle East countries to expand the Shia arc but at the expense of national wealth being wasted in covert operations and gaining animus of others. The country’s expensive foreign policy adventures in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza where cash, weapons and fighters were sent to prop up proxies and allies were scorned by some demonstrators who chanted, “Leave Lebanon and Syria, think about us!” Portraits of Gen Qasim who had taken active part in war against the ISIS in Iraq and Syria were burnt. There is however no clear leader to guide the protestors.
So far 21 people have died and several dozens injured and the protests have engulfed the entire country spreading up to Zaidan next door to Pakistan. Over 500 people have been detained by security forces.
The demonstrations are the country’s largest protests since its 2009 presidential election, when millions disputed the election victory. Those protests were brutally suppressed, with at least 30 people killed and thousands arrested. In contrast to the 2009 uprising — which challenged the reelection of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and was driven primarily by Tehran’s educated elite — the current protests have occurred throughout the country and in traditional government strongholds. Interestingly, unlike the past practice since 1979, this time the protestors are chanting slogans against their own leaders and not the usual ‘death to America and Israel’.
The situation became dangerous when Trump regime announced its support to the protestors. US President Donald Trump tweeted in support of the protesters, writing: “The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!” The US made it clear that it will not tolerate human rights violations under the garb of curbing dissent. In case of a crackdown to quell disturbances, possibility of re-imposing sanctions and another regime change cannot be ruled out.
Sudden upsurge of protests is not spontaneous and not based on genuine emotions of the people that have largely supported the clergy since 1979. There is certainly an invisible hand fomenting trouble. All movements in the developing world are planned, funded, guided and stimulated from the offices of world powers while the execution is done by the cronies and lackeys. The US, UK, Israel and India are adept in the game of intrigues and in hatching conspiracies and in brewing unrest. The four strategic partners that have bloodied the Muslim world in the aftermath of 9/11 are responsible for spreading extremism and terrorism in the world and in making the world insecure but have the temerity to blame the victim countries.
There was no apparent evidence of cracks in Iran’s ruling network of clerics and security networks, including the powerful IRGC whose influence extends deep into Iran’s economy and policymaking and Baseech Militia
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, making his first public statement on the violence, claimed “enemies of Iran” had stirred up unrest using “cash, weapons, politics and intelligence apparatus to create trouble for the Islamic Republic”. In response to Trump’s sympathy for the hungry Iranians, Iran retorted that he should be more worried about hungry, jobless and homeless Americans. Iran’s UN Ambassador angrily accused the US of meddling in its domestic affairs thereby violating international laws and UN charter. Russia has urged USA not to interfere in Iran’s internal affairs.
To control the damage, the ruling regime organized pro-government and pro-Khamenei rallies in ten cities on 03 January. By 4 January, disturbances have begun to lose momentum. The Army Chief Gen Abdolrahim is confident that the police will be able to ‘put out the fire of sedition’. Rouhani in the meanwhile has firmed up to deal with peoples economic problems on priority.
Rouhani will have to take immediate measures to improve the economy and pacify the people. To ease discontent, he may need to create more jobs, restrain inflation by supporting the Rial exchange rate and do more to eradicate the widespread corruption. Without dulling Islamic values, moderation will have to be brought in to curtail radical tendencies in the society and in the laws. Policy of austerity will not work unless the huge expenditure incurred on IRGC and paramilitary forces as well as on covert operations abroad are curtailed. It will be in interest of Iran to mend ties with its archrival Saudi Arabia, restore old warmth in relations with next door neighbor Pakistan, and get hold of foreign inspired moles responsible for fomenting unrest in the country.
The writer is a retired Brig Gen, war veteran, defence and security analyst, columnist, author of five books, Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre, Chief Editor Better Morrow magazine.