By Amir Taheri
October 19, 2108
Getting ready for what they think will be the regime’s biggest challenge yet, the leadership in Tehran is looking to Iran’s near or far neighbors to help beat new sanctions being prepared by the Trump administration in Washington. Under study is a plan with three key objectives.
The first of these is to make sure Iran exports enough oil to finance “essential expenditure” including the payment of salaries of civil service and military personnel. The second objective is to make sure enough foreign currency is available in the domestic market to slowdown an expected plummeting of the national currency which could fuel inflation. Finally, the plan aims at ensuring the availability of crucial items, including industrial parts needed to keep major factories going.
In all those domains success depends on the degree of goodwill that neighbors would be prepared to demonstrate in the face of threats of retaliation by Washington. As far as selling oil is concerned Russia and Iraq might be able to allow Iranian oil to be sold through their established channels or via partial swaps, making it hard for Washington to clearly identify the source and opt for punitive action. For its part, Turkey could reduce oil imports from other sources so as to release capacity for more imports from Iran.
As far as making more foreign currency available is concerned, both Afghanistan and Iraq are awash with US dollars, much of it controlled by small business and political elites always on the lookout for making even more money. In recent months reportedly large quantities of foreign currency has entered Iran from Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and even Georgia. For its part Turkey has taken action to stop a massive hemorrhage of foreign currency from Iran.
Iran’s urgent need for goodwill from its neighbors was the theme of a recent speech by President Hassan Rouhani, especially as the prospect of meaningful support from the European Union continues to recede. All indicates that Rouhani and his theme are convinced that they would eventually have to open a dialogue with the Trump administration. But they also hope to seek the dialogue when parts of the configuration have changed in favor of the Islamic Republic.
A poor showing by the Republican Party in next month’s midterm elections in the US would be welcomed in Tehran even if Trump does not lose control of the Congress. But more importantly, perhaps, Rouhani believes that if Iran could cope with Trump’s “toughest sanctions in history” for a year or so; Tehran would be able to seek a dialogue without obvious humiliation.
Managing to muddle along for six months or a year would also enable the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei to throw the weight of his faction behind talks with the “Great Satan” by claiming that his “resistance recipe” has worked.
The main problem with Tehran’s strategy is that much of it may be based on wishful-thinking. Right now there is more tension in Iran’s relations with all is neighbors, including Russia, than in their relations with the US. Despite the fact that Tehran abandoned its historic position on the Caspian Sea and agreed to sign a convention dictated by Moscow, the Russian leadership has not delivered on any of the many promises it had given to Tehran.
In Afghanistan, Iran remains the third largest donor of aid, after the US and India. And, yet, neither the official government in Kabul nor the armed groups including the Taliban, opposed to it regard the Islamic Republic as a threat to both their opposing views of “Afghan identity”. They regard the present Iranian regime as a vehicle for an ideology that is seeking to conquer the whole region in the name of its peculiar version of Islam.
Tehran regards the new Pakistani government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan as more inclined towards good relations with Iran than its predecessor under Nawaz Sharif. This may or may not be the case. However, the fact remains that Imran Khan heavily depends on support from the Pakistani army which, in turn, does not seem ready to break with the US to side with the mullahs of Tehran.
A big question mark also hangs above the new Iraqi government as far as its intentions towards Tehran are concerned. As things stand now it is unlikely that Iraq would be ready to side with Iran in what everyone sees as an ultimately losing battle. Top of the agenda of the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, is to obtain the full cancellation of all UN sanctions imposed on Iraq since 1991. And that would require strong support from Washington. Many Iraqis also resent the fact that relations with Iran are handled by the Quds (Jerusalem) Corps rather than the “normal” Iranian government. Many Iraqi Kurds are still sore about Tehran’s collusion with Ankara and Baghdad to crush their “independence” referendum. A majority of Iraqi Shiites also resent Tehran’s attempts at turning them into its Trojan Horse in Baghdad.
Though still strong, Tehran’s relations with Oman and Qatar are not free of tension. Oman has been able to work closely with Iran. It is not at all certain that the Trump administration would continue the same policy even if that means sanctions-busting in favor of the Islamic Republic. Qatar, too, would think twice before becoming part of an Iranian scheme designed to oppose Trump’s new strategy.
More importantly, perhaps, Turkey is unlikely to play the art scripted for it by Tehran. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown that, when and if needed, he can be as tough as anyone in defying the major powers. However, he has also shown that he knows the difference between braggadocio and suicidal behavior.
Iran’s “Supreme Guide” would do himself, and the Iranian people, a favor by pondering that difference.