It is a false hypothesis to claim that US sanctions are the cause of the collapse in the Iranian economy and the dire situation experienced by the Iranian population, the majority of whom are now struggling to survive on income that has fallen below the international poverty line. The economic catastrophe in Iran has been directly caused by the theocratic regime’s venal corruption and by their long-standing funding and support for their clandestine nuclear programme, proxy wars in Syria and Yemen and for the terrorist groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. In addition, through the terrorist-listed Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which controls over 60% of the Iranian economy and pays no tax, and its extra-territorial arm the Quds Force, the regime has financed and co-ordinated acts of terror worldwide. The disastrous maladministration of the economy has been recognized even by the speaker of the Iranian parliament under former President Rouhani - Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who said: "The root of all the country's problems is mismanagement, not sanctions. With a hundred billion dollars in annual revenue, we also had a budget deficit, and now that we have a reduction in revenue, we are having the same problem."
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, has made no secret of his wish to dominate the Middle East. His policy of aggressive expansionism has seen him spend over $100 billion backing Bashar al-Assad’s bloody civil war in Syria, now in its eleventh year. He has funded, supplied, and controlled the brutal Shi’ia militias in neighbouring Iraq. He has funded and supplied arms and missiles to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, since the civil war began in that country in 2014. He has nurtured and financed the terrorist Hezbollah in Lebanon, deploying them as a proxy army in Syria and elsewhere in the region. It is little wonder that Khamenei and his acolytes now claim to control three Arab capitals, embracing Damascus, Baghdad and Sanaa and they would dearly love to add Beirut to that list.
Combined with their own collapsing economy and the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed 550,000 people so far, there is rising unrest in Iran. In a bid to control the 80 million Iranian population and prevent another nationwide uprising like that in November 2019, Khamenei shoe-horned his henchman, Ebrahim Raisi, into the presidency, following sham elections in June 2021. Raisi is known as the Butcher of Tehran, for his involvement in the massacre of more than 30,000 political prisoners, mostly supporters of the opposition People’s Mojahedin of Iran/ Mojahedin-e Khalq (PMOI/MEK) in 1988. In his previous post as Chief of the Judiciary, Raisi directed the killing of 1,500 young protesters during the 2019 nationwide uprising. Thousands more were injured, and many were arrested, tortured, and executed. Khamenei clearly believes that a ruthless hard-line president will enable Iran to re-establish its supremacy in the Middle East and flex its muscles worldwide. But first he must get sanctions lifted.
Against this background of corruption, proxy wars, terror and aggressive expansionism, it is perplexing to hear the views of Alena Douhan, the Belarusian State University professor, who is the UN’s special rapporteur on sanctions. Professor Douhan has just spent 12 days visiting Iran, an unusual concession in itself for a country that for the past 26 years has prohibited access to UN human rights experts. Professor Douhan claimed that “illegal sanctions” are the root cause of the Iranian people’s economic problems, and she has urged their lifting. Her remarks have, needless to say, been welcomed by the theocratic regime’s most infamous media outlets including Fars, the IRGC’s affiliated news agency, Tasnim, Mizan, the criminal judiciary’s news agency, Mehr news agency, affiliated to the Intelligence Ministry, and state radio and television, as well as Kayhan daily, Khamenei’s mouthpiece.
Ms. Douhan should note that when sanctions were lifted in 2015, following the signing of the deeply flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal by Barack Obama, it did not put bread on the table for Iran’s beleaguered citizens. On the contrary, the mullahs channelled additional funds to their terrorist proxies. President Trump’s decision to withdraw America unilaterally from the JCPOA and to reimpose tough sanctions in 2018, was aimed at stopping the Iranian regime’s aggression in the Middle East and their sponsorship of international terror. It is little wonder that crowds of Iranian protesters have repeatedly been heard to chant “Our enemy is right here. They lie it’s America.”
It is apparent that the Biden administration is urgently seeking ways to resurrect the nuclear deal with Iran. In talks that have continued in Vienna for more than a year, the Iranian regime has demanded the lifting of sanctions and the removal of the IRGC from international terrorist blacklists. Professor Douhan’s intervention will certainly play into the mullahs’ hands. Biden has faced strong opposition to such a move not only from Republicans but also from Democrats in the House and the Senate. Delisting the IRGC as a terror group would signal that the leader of the free world designates terrorist groups not on the merits of the case against them, but on political considerations, setting a dangerous precedent. There is overwhelming evidence that the IRGC is the largest and most powerful sponsor of global terrorism. Iranians and Iraqis view the IRGC, not as a force that ensures their safety, but instead as a mafia group that not only slaughters protesters in the streets but also exploits Iran’s abundant resources to pursue an expansionist regional policy while impoverishing the people. It would therefore be a grave mistake to resurrect the JCPOA based on the delisting of the IRGC and the lifting of sanctions on Iran. If the UN is serious about helping the Iranian people, they should support the PMOI/MEK main democratic opposition movement and call for the indictment of Khamenei, Raisi and the other Iranian leaders responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of human rights. All of them must be held accountable for their crimes.
Struan Stevenson is the Coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change (CiC). He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). Struan is also Chair of the ‘In Search of Justice’ (ISJ) committee on the protection of political freedoms in Iran. He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and is also president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA)