(Persia Digest) - President Trump has made no secret of his desire to isolate and impoverish Iran. After withdrawing last year from the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration and five other nations, Mr. Trump launched his campaign of “maximum pressure” designed to change Iran’s behavior — and perhaps its leadership.
The editorial board of The New York Times writes that Mr. Trump dialed up the heat again this week by lifting waivers that had allowed eight countries (including China, India, South Korea and Turkey) to continue importing limited quantities of Iranian oil. Most of these countries have worked to reduce such purchases, but the Trump administration demanded that they end them outright or face American financial sanctions. On Thursday, Turkey said it couldn’t find other suppliers quickly enough to meet the deadline.
The goal, pressed most forcefully by the national security adviser, John Bolton, seems clear: to strangle Iran’s oil-dependent economy and lay the ground for regime change. Although Saudi Arabia has promised to stabilize the market by making up for Iranian oil losses, there is a risk the effort could backfire, triggering a hike in world prices.
Mr. Trump’s pressure tactics are having an effect. According to the International Monetary Fund, economic sanctions, reimposed by Mr. Trump after President Barack Obama lifted them when the nuclear deal was signed in 2015, have pushed Iran into recession and pushed its inflation rate to nearly 40 percent. Its economy is forecast to contract this year by 6 percent.
Ending the oil sale waivers is just the latest twist of the screw. Last month, Mr. Trump added Iran’s most powerful military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, to the United States list of foreign terrorist organizations, opening the door to economic and travel sanctions on the group and its associated entities. It marked the first time an official military organization of a foreign state was so designated.
There is no doubt that the Revolutionary Guards is a malign actor. Founded in 1979, it was the revolution’s protector. In time, the corps became a tool of violence and military adventurism as Iran expanded its regional influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria.
It is deeply ingrained in Iranian life, enforcing Islamic codes and crushing political dissent. It is dominant in the economy, controlling construction, engineering and automobile manufacturing companies, as well as nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.
Details of the new policy haven’t been sorted out, a result of Mr. Trump’s rushed effort to announce the decision before the Israeli election on April 9 to benefit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The George W. Bush and the Obama administrations decided against the terrorist listing after the Pentagon raised concerns that the move could pose risks to American troops stationed abroad. Mr. Trump rejected similar advice. Shortly after he labeled the Revolutionary Guards terrorists, Iran retaliated by slapping the same designation on American forces in the Middle East.
The administration has been considering imposing sanctions on European, Chinese and Russian entities working with Iran to convert facilities capable of pursuing nuclear-weapons related activities into peaceful, energy-oriented projects. According to Bloomberg, work at three key facilities will be allowed to continue for 90 days, but the administration will reconsider at the end of that period. Two other nuclear-related activities will be ended.
Iran is still abiding by the 2015 agreement which put strict limits on its nuclear program, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors its compliance. But the pressure campaign is strengthening hard-liners in Tehran, and there are signs that the regime’s leaders may withdraw.
The Trump administration is playing a dangerous game in Iran, risking a serious miscalculation by either side. Even enemies can find ways to talk. Establishing a channel for heading off potential conflicts should be a priority.
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