US sanctions and street pressure hold Iran regime in balance

US sanctions on Tehran came into effect on August 7 amid Iranian fury over their deteriorating economy. But will pressure from the street be enough to destabilise the Ayatollah's regime?

Website of Iran's Supreme Leader / AFP | Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rohani on June 15, 2018 in Tehran.

Inflation, economic instability, currency in freefall and jobs at risk – a sense of despair and outrage is growing in the streets of Iran after the first round of US sanctions came into effect on August 7, a consequence of US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the July 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

But can the US sanctions lead to regime change in Tehran?

Hawks such as National Security Adviser John Bolton have spoken openly about wanting to hasten the decline of the Iranian leadership. Even Bolton, however, denies that regime change is Trump administration policy.

And opinions differ on the chances of destabilising the regime by accentuating economic pressure on a country already in crisis.

'I cannot see Iranians agreeing to continue to suffer'

"[The] consequences of the sanctions will cause Iranians to eventually question the legitimacy of the regime. Sanctions will heavily weigh in the balance, perhaps to the point of undermining the regime in the long run," Jean-François Seznec, professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, told FRANCE 24.

Seznec thinks that sanctions could have consequences on Iran’s regional expansionist policy that is often criticised by the West.

"I cannot see the Iranians agreeing to continue to suffer while Tehran continues to finance foreign movements like Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Houthis in Yemen," he said.

“So, if the economy collapses, Iran will no longer be able to afford its regional ambitions. That is the goal pursued by the US administration and unless the leaders of the Islamic Republic can convince or even force the people to agree to make sacrifices, it is obvious that sooner or later, they will be forced into negotiating again with the Americans,” Seznec added.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the last word on everything; even if the Islamic Republic’s moderate president wanted to negotiate, he cannot do so without Khamenei's approval.

"[If] ever the regime’s hardliners take advantage of the situation to dismiss Rouhani, they will find themselves facing discontent and pressure from the streets. This can be dangerous for the survival of the regime,” Seznec said.

Eventually, due to economic sanctions and street pressure, the Iranian regime will find itself with its back against the wall, Behnam Taleblu of the American conservative think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) told FRANCE 24. “Leaders in Iran should take protests, organised in the provinces, since the end of 2017, with all seriousness. In fact, these provinces – which include the religious, the disadvantaged and the poor – are the regime’s social base for whom Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini founded the Islamic Republic,” Taleblu said.

'Tehran wasn’t weakened by previous waves of sanctions'

Few believe that sanctions aren’t effective against the Iranian regime. One of those is Azadeh Kian, an Iran specialist and professor of political science. “The Iranians didn’t wait for the American sanctions to come into effect to understand the gravity of the economic situation and the risk it poses to the regime,” Kian said.

While the regime fears the devastating effect of sanctions on the purchasing power of Iranians, it is important to note that these measures, which endanger nearly 1 million jobs, come at the expense of civil society and the middle classes. “Iran’s regime wasn’t weakened by previous sanctions that were in place before the signing of the nuclear deal. They even challenged them and enriched Uranium up to 20 percent,” Kian said. The US sanctions will mainly benefit smugglers and powerful politicians that will seize the opportunity to run illicit businesses.

"Even though economic difficulties have instigated widespread anger in the country, disorganised opposition forces with a clear lack of leadership will not likely want to cooperate openly with the United States to overthrow the regime. These forces know that such an initiative would be brutally repressed by the Iranian security forces, something reminiscent of the 2009 protests against the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that were met by extreme brutality,” said Massoumeh Torfeh, professor at the London School of Economics.

With alarm bells sounding in Tehran, as well as in Moscow and Beijing over the deteriorating economic situation of their ally, President Rouhani has called on the Iranians to come together in support of the government’s attempt to restore economic stability before the second round of even harsher sanctions hit the country in November.

It remains to be seen if Rouhani’s calls will be heard.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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