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Iran and US: Hostages Trade Places

Iran and US: Hostages Trade Places

Friday, 9 November, 2018 - 08:15
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987
Just days after the Trump administration in Washington reactivated a set of sanctions against the Islamic Republic, the mood music in Tehran is a mixture of boastful jubilation and ersatz defiance designed to cover and failure to develop a credible response.

“Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has implicitly welcomed the re-imposition of sanctions in the hope that it will strengthen support for his “resistance economy” policy inspired by North Korea’s “juche” (self-reliance) according to which Iran would benefit from a long spell of isolation in which to tighten its “Islamic” moorings.

In contrast, President Hassan Rouhani has pinned his hopes on a weakening of the Trump administration in the aftermath of the US midterm elections and the start of the next presidential campaign. In the meantime, he has kept the door open for talks with the US, presumably with a Democrat winning the White House in 2020.

By putting the US at the center of preoccupations both men make the same mistake in different ways.

Khamenei sees the ultimate success of his “juche” in a continued defiance of the US regardless of the cost for Iran, and presumably prays in secret that the conflict with “Great Satan” will never end.
His policy reminds me of the bug who, in a short story by Voltaire, is driven mad by the ticking of the clock on the wall and decides to do his own “juche” by rushing headlong into a mechanism it does not quite understand. Though the kamikaze operation ends badly for the bug, the champion of “juche” has a whale of a time while it lasts.

Rouhani makes the same mistake of putting the US at the center of Iran’s political life by linking everything to the American electoral cycles.

He reminds me of the goat in a Persian limerick who, dying of hunger, is consoled by its owner with a lullaby of “don’t die, the spring is coming, you shall have cucumbers and melons!”

Khamenei does not realize, or does not want to admit, that the Iranian economy is in a mess because of his regime’s bizarre ideology and the incompetence and corruption of the elite in charge, not because of any foreign sanctions.

The most serious set of sanctions were imposed on Iran under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s after the world learned of Tehran’s secret plans to develop a nuclear capability.

That meant that the Islamic Republic had already had more than a decade without what Clinton called “crippling sanctions”. And yet, thanks to incompetence and corruption, plus a deliberately prolonged war with Iraq, the Islamic Republic failed to create the governance institutions needed for genuine economic development.

The Islamic Republic’s economic failure was and remains largely due to its own contradictions of which the hate-fascination attitude to the US is only one aspect.

Rouhani is digging an even bigger hole by making Iran a “Republican vs. Democrat” issue of American domestic politics.

Even then, he is mistaken in believing that when it comes to dealing with the Islamic Republic, Democrats are “softer” than Republicans. Since November 1979 when the Khomeinist “students” seized the US Embassy in Tehran, successive Washington administrations have imposed 35 rounds of sanctions on Iran. Of these only 11 were imposed by Republican presidents.

Of the 24 rounds imposed by Democrat presidents, 14 came under President Barack Obama who, like Clinton before him, expressed a bizarre empathy for the Khomeinist regime.

Clinton apologized to the mullahs for “our past mistakes” but signed the sanction papers nevertheless. Obama was prepared to suspend the “crippling sanctions” but kept them dangling like a sword of Damocles above Iran’s head. He smuggled money to Tehran to help the mullahs Republic pay the military but, at the same time, “regulated” Iran’s access to its own oil income.

Trump has imposed no new sanctions.

What he has done is to reactivate sanctions imposed, but sporadically ignored, by Obama. However, there is one big difference this time.

After 1979, when the first sanctions were imposed by President Jimmy Carter, Iran succeeded in building a complex network of contacts to circumvent them. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the architecture of the sanctions-busting system was reliable enough to allow the Islamic Republic to ignore many of the punitive measures taken by the US and its allies.

The difference now is that the Trump administration seems to have obtained almost complete knowledge of the Iranian sanction-busting network that involves over 700 individuals, companies, banks, and false flag aircraft, tankers and ships in 30 nations in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Latin America and even the US itself.

As Islamic Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif told the Iran Chamber of Commerce, the US has “identified all our breathing points” and could take measures to block them.

The pro-Democrat faction within the Khomeinist ruling elite always argued that successive Democrat Presidents, from Clinton to Obama, went along with anti-Iran sanctions only to silence “the Zionist lobby” but in practice ignored sanction-busting operations because, in their hearts, they sympathized with the Islamic Republic’s “struggle against a bullying superpower.”

Trump, however, cannot be suspected of any such sympathies and thanks to the information he now has on how Tehran busted most of the sanctions is in a position to make life more difficult for the Khomeinist leadership.

Tehran has been jubilant about because eight nations have been exempted from an embargo on Iranian oil provided Iran’s income is put in an escrow account usable only for food and other humanitarian imports, a scheme that could morph into a modified version of the “oil-for-food” scheme seen in Iraq in the final years of Saddam Hussein.

Switzerland, which represents Iran’s interests in the US, is currently in talks with the Trump administration to devise similar exemptions for at least some companies that would be allowed to trade with Iran, provided Tehran isn’t allowed to spend the proceedings as it pleases.

Almost 40 years after Khomeinist “students” took US diplomats as hostages it is the Islamic Republic that finds itself a hostage of the ”Great Satan”.

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