In case you needed further evidence to support the contention that the reimposition of sanctions on Iran has at least as much to do with curbing the regional activities of the Quds as it does with stopping Tehran from pursuing that atomic bomb they aren’t pursuing, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin laid it out for you in a Sunday Op-Ed for the Financial Times.
At least it’s some semblance of honest, even if it’s littered with the usual propaganda and mischaracterizations.
As ever, it’s important to remember that you do not have to pretend as though the IRGC and the Quds are a force for good in the world to know why it is absurd to parrot the line that Iran is the “the world’s largest state sponsor of terror”, as Mnuchin explicitly says in the Op-Ed.
That line is a mainstay of U.S. foreign policy and relies on the blatantly (and purposefully) naive assumption that the only way to define “state sponsor of terror” is by what a state openly admits to doing.
Clearly, the Sunni powers have aided and abetted all manner of extremists across the region and it’s certainly not a secret that the ideology espoused by ISIS and al-Qaeda is institutionalized in the Saudi monarchy. That’s what made the 2017 Qatar blockade one of the most egregious examples of hypocrisy in the history of geopolitics. Recall this 2017 cartoon from Rainer Hachfeld:
That pretty much sums it up.
Apparently, all you have to do to absolve yourself of responsibility for fostering extremism these days is blame your tiny neighbor and then insult the intelligence of the entire world by establishing a “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology” in Riyadh or, in other words, establish a global center for combating extremist ideology in the global center for promoting extremist ideology. It also helps if you stand around and worship a glowing orb when you celebrate the opening of said hypocritical anti-extremism center.
The bottom line is that if you’re looking for someone to “thank” for the diminished capacity of ISIS (the worst example of Sunni extremism run amok in history), you can thank Qassem Soleimani, Hezbollah and the Shia militias loyal to the Quds in Iraq first, and then you can thank the Russian air force second.
Obviously, that is not what one might call a “desirable” state of affairs, but it just is what it is. The reality of the situation is that when Hezbollah and the IRGC enlisted Russian air power in the fight against Sunni extremists in Syria, the tide turned dramatically. You can also thank the Kurds for their efforts in assisting U.S. forces rout ISIS in the Eastern part of Syria, but at the end of the day, it is Iran and their proxies which decimated ISIS and that’s hardly surprising. ISIS’s shock tactics (the comically macabre videos of executions, the ridiculous caliphate fantasy, etc.), simply weren’t effective in scaring battle-hardened Shia militia.
The problem with all of that for the U.S., is that Soleimani has now cemented the Shia crescent and, when you throw in the Houthis in Yemen, has succeeded in encircling the Sunni powers. At the same time, the very last thing Israel wants to see is an emboldened Hezbollah. So, it’s Trump to the “rescue” with the reimposition of punishing sanctions which he and Mike Pompeo assume will squeeze Soleimani and thereby diminish the IRGC’s sway.
And look, that’s really more on the public than it is on the Trump administration. You could easily make the case that Iran’s regional ambitions need to be reined in without talking about nukes at all and, critically, you could even acknowledge their effectiveness in decimating Sunni extremism while still arguing for a crackdown on the Quds.
But doing that would require compelling the U.S. public to actually think about the real issues (both sides) and weigh the options. That is: Is this trade off worth it? Will the reimposition of sanctions actually make Israel safer and promote regional stability or, paradoxically, will reimposing sanctions actually achieve the opposite, by emboldening Iran to restart their nuclear program while doing almost nothing to curb the flow of funds to the Quds?
My contention would be that the latter scenario is more likely.
In his Sunday Op-Ed, Mnuchin at least acknowledges that the real goal here isn’t to curb Iran’s non-existent (basically) nuclear program. Unfortunately, he attempts to make the case that Barack Obama is indirectly responsible for Qassem Soleimani’s recent successes.
“[We will] end the relief the Barack Obama administration granted in the false hope of a change in the Iranian regime’s behavior”, Mnuchin writes, adding that while “the goal was that Iran’s leaders would use this influx of investment to lift up their people, the regime instead did what it always does: poured money into supporting terrorism, fomenting violence and promoting regional instability.” Here’s the direct reference to Soleimani:
We will impose sanctions on foreign financial institutions that knowingly engage in certain significant transactions with the Central Bank of Iran and designated Iranian financial institutions. We know that these transactions are critical to a network that fuels the radical ambitions of the Quds Force, which siphons millions of dollars away from legitimate activities to fund terrorism across the region.
As we’ve been at pains to emphasize since May, the only thing this is going to accomplish is impoverishing the Iranian people by facilitating an economic collapse.
Mnuchin seems oblivious to the irony in his own Op-Ed. He begins by bemoaning how sanctions relief under Obama wasn’t used to “lift up the Iranian people” and then, just a few short paragraphs later, Mnuchin says this:
Our efforts are already having a significant impact, subverting Iran’s efforts to fund destabilizing activities and putting pressure on the Iranian economy. The value of the Iranian rial has collapsed, losing over two-thirds of its value in recent months.
Congratulations, Steve, you accelerated a currency collapse! As of August, the black market rial rate was something like 112,000.
It looks to me like that’s gotten materially worse over the past two months, but I’m not going to bother recreating the chart, because you get the point – it’s bad.
Mnuchin goes on to insist that the point of the sanctions is not to punish the Iranian people and he highlights the efforts of his Treasury Department to exempt critical items such as food and medicine.
Of course that’s disingenuous. It’s easy to say “well, we offered these exemptions”, but that doesn’t change the fact that on the ground, the Trump administration is creating untold misery for the Iranian people.
For his part, Hassan Rouhani had this to offer as the sanctions went back into effect:
Today the United States is targeting our economy… the main target of sanctions is our people. America wanted to cut to zero Iran’s oil sales, but we will continue to sell our oil to break sanctions
On Monday, Pompeo granted eight countries temporary exemptions from the oil sanctions. China, India, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey with get waivers in order to smooth their (forced) transition from Iranian crude.
Don’t think for a second that the State Department isn’t hoping that by creating economic misery, the administration might be able to foment enough social upheaval to bring about organic regime change.
Ultimately, Mnuchin reverts the tired, old JCPOA excuse to close his FT Op-Ed. “Our pressure campaign is designed to bring the Iranian regime to the table to achieve a much better deal than the JCPOA”, he says.
That’s the default option in a world where the public can’t be bothered to seriously weigh the pros and cons of critical foreign policy decisions: Just chalk it up to make-believe nukes and blame the previous administration.