America’s Attempts To Strengthen Sanctions on Iran amid the Chaos

You could think of the current U.S. administration’s reaction to the recent unrest in Iran as a flashback to former President Barack Obama’s policy after the events of the 10th Iranian presidential election in 2009.

Obama’s approach to Iran changed markedly before and after the riots that took place in 2009. He explained his response to Iran during the 2009 events in “A Promised Land,” his new memoir. Obama writes that, “In my inaugural address I had said we are willing to extend a hand to those who are willing to unclench their fists. By “those,” he, of course, meant Iran. Obama quickly got to work, and several weeks after taking office, he used U.S. channels to Iranian diplomats at the U.N. to send a confidential letter to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khamenei. In that letter, he suggested the two countries begin negotiations on a number of issues, including Iran’s nuclear program.

Before Obama’s book, former U.S. diplomat William J. Burns* provided details of this message in his own 2019 memoir, “The Back Channel.” In the ninth chapter, Burns writes that, “In early May, the president sent a long secret letter to the Ayatollah Khamenei. The letter tried to thread a needle—the message needed to be clear, but written in a way that would not cause too much controversy if it was leaked.”

Burns continued, “In the letter, Obama reinforced the broad points in the Nowruz message. He was direct about his unwavering determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and his support for the P5+1 position that Iran was entitled to a peaceful civilian nuclear program. He also made clear that it was not the policy of his administration to pursue regime change, and indicated his readiness for direct dialogue.” Then, in describing the supreme leader’s response, Burns wrote, “While it offered no explicit reply to the president’s offer of direct dialogue … (it was) at least by the standards of revolutionary Iranian rhetoric not especially edgy or sharp.”

But the outbreak of riots in 2009 quickly changed the Obama administration’s outlook and convinced the president he could use this new opportunity to intensify Iran’s economic woes. As the 2009 riots took shape, many U.S. think tanks and officials concluded they could increase pressure on Iran by stoking the flames of unrest. It was then that Obama decided to impose the harshest sanctions on Iran to date.

Later in “A Promised Land,” Obama dissects the protests in contrast with the results of the 2009 Iranian presidential election, saying, “Having been rebuffed in our attempts to open a dialogue with Iran, and with the country spiraling into chaos and further repression, we shifted to step two of our nonproliferation strategy: mobilizing the international community to apply tough, multilateral economic sanctions that might force Iran to the negotiating table.”

It appears that President Joe Biden, who served as vice president under Obama at the time of the 2009 Iranian election, is approaching today’s riots with the same mindset: stoking unrest to create leverage so he can exert pressure on Iran and diminish its bargaining position in the ongoing Vienna negotiations to lift sanctions.

On this basis, Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank who is closely aligned with the Democratic Party, suggested in a recent Washington Post article that the administration should reassess its policies regarding Iran and increase pressure on Tehran.

From the administration’s emphasis on this approach, we can discern that the U.S. feels Iran currently has the upper hand in the negotiations to remove sanctions and sees that it has no other choice but to respond to Iran’s legitimate demands.

Even those like Richard Nephew, considered one of the architects of the sanctions on Iran, acknowledge that if the West uses sanctions as a bargaining chip, it must create widespread dissatisfaction with the Iranian government and show there is a threat the government will be overthrown, thereby pressuring Iranian leaders into granting concessions.

But even the “maximum pressure” policy of sanctions on Iran won’t bring this about. Through the perseverance of our people, we have overcome the worst effects of total economic warfare. Now, Iranian decision-makers hope to leverage the failure to convince the West it must give up its oppressive policies and economic warmongering against the Iranian people.

Given the situation, Western countries and the media empires linked to them obviously need some sort of domestic turmoil in Iran to use in negotiations as proof of how effective sanctions are and in turn as a bargaining chip for maintaining its economic assault on the Iranian people. In fact, for the anti-revolutionary forces, this turmoil is a chance to muddy the course of negotiations and seek further sanctions.

If you put this all together, you can see that President Biden, realizing his sanctions and pressure policies are no longer effective, intends to sow dissent and to take advantage of it. However, this is the same mistake that Obama and later Donald Trump, to a much graver degree, committed, and they were unable to interfere with Iran’s willingness to continue along the path of revolution. Biden’s efforts will meet the same fate.

*Editor’s note: William J. Burns is currently the director of the CIA.

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