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June 26, 2018 8:57 am

After Iran Deal Pull-Out, Iran Gets a Taste of Its Own Medicine

avatar by Joel Sonkin


Recent activity at the Fordo nuclear facility in Iran. Photo: ImageSat International.

The Trump administration’s nascent campaign to pressure Iran is underway. Economic sanctions have been reinstated and global companies are pulling out of the Islamic republic.

Carmakers Mazda, Hyundai, and Peugeot have all either suspended contracts with Tehran or declared their intention to exit the Iranian market.

France’s Total is pulling out of a $2 billion natural gas project in Iran, while British Petroleum has halted its investment partnership with the Iranian Oil Company.

Boeing nixed its contract to deliver more than 80 aircraft, valued at nearly $20 billion. Even Nike canceled — at the last minute — a delivery of soccer cleats to the Iranian national team for the World Cup.

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Companies around the world are faced with a simple choice: You can do business with the US or you can do business with Iran. But you can’t do both. Being shut out of the world’s biggest economy in order to do business with the Islamic republic is too big a risk for these companies to take. As Siemens noted in a statement, its business with Iran represents a “very small portion” of overall revenue. The opposite is true of its business with the United States, where the German manufacturer makes about $20 billion a year and employs some 50,000 workers.

This avalanche of bad news for the Iranian economy comes as inflation is skyrocketing, banks are in turmoil, and the currency is collapsing. In short, the Trump administration’s pressure campaign has begun and is only going to get worse.

Yet what the White House plans to do next, once sanctions begin to take their toll on the regime, is not clear. It may be a new nuclear deal or even regime change.

For now, the White House is comfortable moving forward without a specific objective in mind, taking the more modest approach of playing spoiler to Tehran’s ambitions in the region. The administration hopes that sabotaging the mullahs’ quest for regional domination will provide relief — and eventually some gains as well — for the US and its allies.

While this approach may appear to be lacking in clarity and purpose, it’s worth recalling that playing the role of spoiler was the very strategy employed by the Islamic republic against the US mission in Iraq more than a decade ago. With hundreds of thousands of US troops on Iran’s eastern and western borders in Iraq and Afghanistan, a middling power like the Islamic Republic did not have the option of overtly challenging American military might.

Rather, the regime was forced to rely on its subversive capabilities. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards provided training and funding to militants in Iraq as part of a terrorist insurgency that led to the deaths of more than a thousand American troops.

Although US forces were able to employ an effective counterinsurgency campaign, Iran’s subversive tactics against the world’s superpower eventually paid off when President Barack Obama pulled the final US troops out of Iraq at the end of 2011. The mullahs were then able to consolidate their gains in Iraq and, in the following years, capitalize on the war in Syria.

For a regime that had been conducting a war against the United States ever since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iranian violence has often been intended not to achieve any specific objective, but simply to hurt the US. In what seemed to be mere tactical victories for Tehran in Iraq, playing the role of saboteur ended up bringing huge rewards to the Islamic republic.

While the mullahs knew that they couldn’t quite defeat the United States outright in Iraq, one thing they could do was prevent America from winning. When circumstances evolved, and an opportunity arose, they exploited it, laying the foundation for Iran’s Shiite Crescent stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

Today, the White House seeks a similarly cost-effective way of pushing back against the Iranian regime. A restrained approach, however, has forced the administration to aim for more modest goals. For now, that means preventing Iran from solidifying its gains, i.e. making sure that the mullahs don’t win.

The administration hopes that weakening the regime in the near-term will eventually bear fruit for the US and its allies. As President Trump wrote in the opening pages of The Art of the Deal, “I plan for the future by focusing exclusively on the present.” Trump utilized this approach as a businessman. Whether it can be successfully applied to America’s new Iran policy remains to be seen.

Joel Sonkin lives in New York City and writes about US foreign policy in the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @JoelSonkin.

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