The U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran as of Monday are an additional, vital step in the West’s long struggle to curb the ayatollah regime’s nuclear, territorial and religious aspirations.
This battle has been going on for more than two decades at a changing pace, combining a variety of economic, diplomatic, operational and media-oriented measures. Throughout this period, Iran has repeatedly defied and defrauded the international community and has only suspended its nuclear work twice: after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and with the formulation of the nuclear agreement in 2015.
In both cases, Iran’s leaders felt the noose was tightening around their necks and sought to ensure the regime’s survival. In 2003, Iran believed that after the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that it would be next, and in 2015, it really only agreed to the nuclear deal when the vast economic sanctions threatened to completely overwhelm the Iranian economy.
This is also the undeclared goal of the current round of sanctions: to push the Iranian leadership into a corner and force it to make different decisions.
There are those in the United States and Israel who hope that the growing economic pressure in Iran will topple the regime. Yet despite recent unrest on the street, that scenario seems far-fetched. The Islamic republic is strong, and the current momentum is not enough to rattle it.
The new round of sanctions is different from those that were imposed up to 2015, as they are solely American. Europe, Russia and China have not joined the American efforts, which therefore cannot encompass the Iranian banking sector as a whole.
It is likely that Iran will try to maintain its economy in the near future on the basis of cash transactions and foreign currency, all while looking for loopholes or partners that will enable its economic survival.
This, however, is a tall order. The European effort to formulate ways to bypass the American sanctions is likely to fail because it is doubtful that any Western company would prefer to deal with Iran over the United States. On the other hand, Russia has the potential to undermine the American effort if it agrees to export Iranian oil and deliver the proceeds in cash.
Still, even this type of move would fall grossly short of saving the Iranian economy, which has yet to recover for the crippling, pre-2015 sanctions.
As always, it is the Iranian citizens who will pay the price. Washington and Jerusalem hope that the sanctions will affect wider circles supported by Tehran—namely, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
This will not happen automatically and without a clash between extremists and moderates in Iran, but the ayatollahs will soon have to decide between their desire to export the Islamic Revolution or investing their resources domestically to appease the Iranian people.
This is good news for Israel. If Iran opts for the path of war, it would expose its true colors even to the biggest skeptics. If it opts to withdraw, its regional proxies would become less of a threat, as reducing terrorism financing means fewer weapons, less training and, as a result, diminished motivation to embark on war-like adventures.
Tehran most likely hopes to weather the storm until such time as a new American president is elected, but its ability to do so is doubtful. This will force the ayatollahs to choose between violating the 2015 deal completely and, based on the North Korean precedent, make a mad dash for a nuclear weapon in hopes that it would grant it immunity, or negotiate a less convenient agreement that would allow its economy to recover.
As far as Israel is concerned, such an agreement must be far broader than the one devised in 2015. It would have to include not only the nuclear program, but also significant restrictions on the development of long-range ballistic missiles and Iran’s involvement in terrorism and the destabilization of the Middle East.
To date, talks of such negotiations have proved nothing but rumors, but it is likely that intermediaries will soon emerge to promote the idea. The more pressure that Tehran feels over the new U.S. sanctions, the more eager it will be to reach a compromise to lift them.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.