The Obama administration has recently been seeking to draw attention to the impact of its new sanctions regime on Iran. Earlier this week, for instance, Treasury undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey told a large audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that "even at this early stage, as pressure is mounting, the strategy is beginning to give us the leverage we seek. It is already working." There are some signs to back this up. Iranian officials have begun to publicly acknowledge that UN/U.S./EU sanctions are taking an increasing toll on the country. Iranian envoys are touring around the world to identify and encourage small banks and entities that do not do business with the U.S. to take advantage of this opportunity and work with Iran.
But while the U.S. hopes that sanctions can affect Iran's calculation with regard to the nuclear program, it is actually pushing Tehran into a highly familiar area. Since its inception, the Islamic Republic has grown in an environment of conflict, isolation and sanctions. The hostage crisis and later the Iran-Iraq war allowed the Islamic government to marginalize its powerful rivals and solidify its base in a relatively isolated and hostile international environment. Sanctions and isolation are not uncharted territory for Iran. These ongoing pressures might bite, but they can also empower the IRGC and other institutions that are able to do an end run around the sanctions and get the country what it needs from the black market. A closer look at how Iranians have been arguing about the sanctions suggests that American hopes for the sanctions may be misplaced.
Levey quoted former Iranian President Rafsanjani, who recently warned the Iranian leadership "to take the sanctions seriously and not as a joke." But Mr. Rafsanjani, who has been accused by the ultra conservatives of masterminding the Green Movement, has also called for "unity" to deal with these unprecedented sanctions. Unity is a code word for reconciliation between the Iranian government and some of the opposition forces, which Ayatollah Khamenei has so far resisted. The opposition and the (quietly) unhappy conservatives have expressed concern over sanctions in order to force Khamenei to remove his support of President Ahmadinejad and move away from far right.
However, Iran's Supreme Leader offers a different interpretation of the situation. Khamenei sees the U.S. sanctions as a sign of the growing power of Iran. In an apparent reference to Under Secretary Levey, Khamenei said on Thursday: "the U.S. government has appointed one of its top economic and financial officials to...run committees, to travel around the world, to contact countries' leaders and constantly force other countries against Iran." He drew "several points" from this and claimed that it was precisely "because of the increasing power of awakening Islam."
Sitting next to Mr. Rafsanjani and before a large crowd of elderly clerical members of the Assembly of Experts, Khamenei strove to make a case that his two decades of leadership have paid off: "When you see the other side [the U.S.] is nervous and anxious, knocks on this door, knocks on that door, does this, sees that, meets this; it shows that this side [Iran] has gained some power that he is fearful and anxious of. If we were weak, if we were vulnerable, if they could bring us to our knees with one blow, all of these attempts would have been unnecessary. This attempt is a sign of this side's authority. That is the truth of the matter."
He reminded the very body that appointed him in 1989 that in the early days of the revolution, as president he had to go around the world and beg for weapons "i.e. 20-30 tanks" to continue the war against Iraq: "I went to Yugoslavia which received us really well and with a lot of respect. Nevertheless, however much we insisted, they did not agree to give us these conventional weapons." Khamenei, who is undergoing an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy since the presidential election last year, concluded that those days are long gone and under his leadership the country has reached a top position in the Middle East. Today it is the U.S. who is in the weak position of begging at the doorsteps of various countries' to join the sanctions effort against Iran.
Sanctions and isolation are not new for the Islamic Republic. In fact, what makes Iran's leadership particularly confused, nervous and fractured is American overtures and open interactions. Time and again, Khamenei has expressed concerns and even anger toward those inside who advocate engagement with the U.S. He feels more able to keep the country under his control in an anti-U.S. environment. Although he may have personal grudges against the U.S., it is more a practical issue than an ideological one. He received a blank check long time ago from the founding father of the Revolution that anything that can secure the state is indeed Islamic and permissible. But what he does not see on the horizon is an American administration that puts an end to the decades-old odyssey of trying to find and empower "moderates" in Iran. If Khamenei sees a possible scenario that ensures his (and I emphasize his, not the moderates', not the conservatives', not the clerics', not even Ahmadinejad's, but his) grip on power, he may very well take it into consideration.
In an unusual editorial article published last week in Kayhan, which is known as Khamenei's mouthpiece, such a scenario is detailed: "The U.S.'s big problem is that it cannot conceive of the characteristics of a probable win-win deal with Iran. The Americans' reaction to the Tehran Declaration clearly demonstrated this." The article argues that if the U.S. accepts the terms of the Turkish-Brazilian mediated agreement on nuclear fuel shipment, "it is probable that the results of the Vienna II negotiations provide a platform toward deeper talks." The article stressed that the immediate round of negotiations "have nothing to do with the enrichment issue," which has been both sides' redline so far. Reading between the lines, the article aims at opening the door for the U.S., while at the same time constructing a safe tunnel for Iran's leadership to enter this unfamiliar territory to negotiate with its archenemy.
But as long as this "win-win deal" is not possible, Khamenei remains content with the status quo: more sanctions and isolation. It conforms to his worldview, his experience and his vocabulary.
Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar is a lecturer at George Washington University and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.