When President Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday, he had the gall to say he was doing it for the Iranian people. Having lived in Iran for seven years, I have a very good idea of what Iranians probably thought when they heard this: “Thanks, Mr. President, but please don’t do us any more favors.”
One of the sad ironies of America’s ideological conflicts with other nations is that it’s almost always the ordinary people who suffer. This is especially true whenever Washington deploys the blunt and clumsy instrument of economic sanctions.
Once again, Iranians find themselves trapped between an authoritarian system that has little concern for their well-being and an American leadership that appears bent on making life harder for them at every turn.
When the Iranian regime faces heightened pressure from the outside world, it invariably responds with the behavior of a bully, by ratcheting up pressure on the people it rules over. This is what authoritarian systems do. We can expect the same now.
The United States will not bear the brunt of the government’s frustration. There won’t be any attacks on Israel or U.S. soldiers with Iranian-made bombs. There won’t be any Iranian suicide bombers, and no Iranian is going to hijack any commercial planes. Iran’s rulers are not irrational, nor do they seek a conflict with powers much more powerful than they are.
Instead the mullahs likely will tighten restrictions on the Internet, jam satellite television waves and arrest more dual nationals as a reminder to their subjects that they are still in charge.
The bleak economic climate in Iran will worsen. On Wednesday, Iran’s currency, the rial, slipped to its weakest position against the U.S. dollar in history. It will almost certainly continue its epic slide — and the purchasing power of Iranians who have no reliable access to dollars will drop along with it. Fear of new sanctions will only exacerbate the trend.
In recent years President Hassan Rouhani has offered a different approach, one that claims to take into account the public’s desires for better prospects, pushing for economic reforms and ostensibly calling for greater freedoms for the people of Iran. He has not embraced this agenda for noble reasons. The reality is that he and his cabinet with many Western-educated ministers understand that ruling an educated and connected populace in the 21st century requires improving the lives of citizens. In his more than four years as president he has failed to do that, for a variety of reasons, and the odds of success just plummeted exponentially.
There will be a backlash from those Iranian officials who believe that their bare iron fist is a more effective tool of keeping the masses in line than Rouhani’s velvet-gloved one. Rouhani will likely press forward with his agenda, but he will be sure to blame his domestic rivals and foreign powers for whatever bad news follows.
There is no doubt that many ordinary Iranians resent the theocratic leadership. We’ve witnessed that on several occasions since 2009, when millions of Iranians risked everything to protest. Now Trump’s action will deprive them of the ability to access the global economy and limit their ability to travel to freer shores. Small wonder that they will view his move as one directed primarily against them.
The majority of Iranians will not suddenly become more supportive of the regime in Tehran. That won’t happen. But as I witnessed during the last round of sanctions that led to the nuclear negotiations, when people are squeezed economically, their needs and aspirations become much more about survival than about working toward change. Iranians will look to their leadership for help in the form of subsidies and handouts. To the extent that it can, the system will provide them, and the whole wobbly operation will continue. For now.
Iran is a country of vast resources. Even when sanctions brought a drastic decline in exports — as was the case in the years leading up to the nuclear deal — the country managed to remain afloat. There’s little indication that things will be different this time.
Trump has promised to implement the toughest sanctions possible. The previous version of this policy led to a dramatic wealth disparity in Iranian society that only worsened as opportunistic members of the regime lined their pockets with the profits they made on smuggled imports.
This is the situation Trump is creating, and the people of Iran are already bracing for it.