Between American sanctions and regime crisis

Christian Malard (*)

On March 21, the day of the Iranian New Year, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei , the supreme leader of the revolution, surprised everyone by calling for “unity and national reconstruction.” So we wondered: are US sanctions starting to take effect? The answer is yes, if I believe most observers.

On March 21, Iranian New Year’s Day, the Supreme Leader of the Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, surprised everybody by calling for “unity and national reconstruction”. We then said to ourselves: are the American sanctions starting to take effect? The answer is yes, according to most observers. And the financial crisis in Iran, exacerbated by the sanctions, is hitting the Allied militias hard, blocking Iran’s presence and influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and the Gaza Strip.

Militias in Syria have seen their salaries significantly reduced. The projects that Iran had promised to help a faltering Syrian economy, have failed. Many Hezbollah fighters admit that they lost half their salary or didn’t get paid at all in January and February. They even say they expect the worst with more cuts to come. Even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah acknowledges the difficulties caused by the US sanctions.

However, one question remains: can all these financial restrictions have an impact on the behavior of all these militias who remain ideologically attached to the Iranian politics? The reactions of combatants, officials and observers are all in the same direction: American sanctions hurt!

If, in Lebanon, Hezbollah remains the main military force and an essential political actor, in Syria, Iranians are forced to reduce the presence of certain militias, not only because of financial problems, but also because after 8 years of war, Bashar El Assad defeated all opposition. That said, it is in Iraq that Iran will become more involved in strengthening its political and economic ties. The militias, which he had supported, will now be financed by the Iraqi authorities. Iran also maintains links with allies on the other side of the Iraqi political spectrum who defend Iranian interests by defying the American military presence in Iraq.

It must be remembered that there is an underground war of influence between those whom we, Westerners, undoubtedly wrongly call the regime’s moderates (Hassan Rohani, the President, and Mohamad Javad Zarif, his Minister of Foreign Affairs) and the ultra-conservative clan embodied by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Revolution, General Souleimani, the all-powerful Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and the Corps of the 160 000 Pasdarans (Revolutionary Guards) who lock down all the country’s political, economic and military sectors. Today, this war is well opened. We can even talk about the beginning of a regime crisis.

Hassan Rohani and Javad Zarif now risk to pay the price for the openness they have advocated towards Westerners. The ultra-conservative regime will not forgive them for not having obtained the dividends expected from the nuclear agreement. Nor do they believe in the barter system introduced by the Europeans to circumvent American sanctions and better ensure their economic survival.

Indeed, a few days after the announcement of the barter system, Khamenei, who has the final say on all foreign policy decisions, warned that his country should not trust Europeans.

All this could therefore lead to a disavowal by the moderates, a retreat of the regime on itself, with a tightening of its policy towards the United States, Israel and Europe. With, at the end of the day, a possible withdrawal of the nuclear agreement, a revival by Iran of its nuclear program, not to mention the maintenance of Iranian troops on Syrian territory and of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

If this were the case, I am not sure that Israel, the United States and its allies in the region would remain idle!

* International policy expert and diplomatic consultant