Troubles are mounting in Iran. Its currency, the rial, has lost more than half its value against the dollar on unofficial markets this year and inflation is soaring. Even middle-class Iranians are struggling to get by, with food prices rising and reported fuel shortages in some cities. Sporadic anti-government demonstrations are continuing, The Financial Times said in its opening on Monday.
Worse, the economic pressure on the country is set to mount. The US government last week reinstated economic sanctions that had been waived as part of the Iran nuclear deal of 2015.
These punitive economic measures are set to intensify in November, when the US will seek to ban Iranian oil exports.
EU nations have pledged to try to preserve economic ties with Iran. But it seems probable that most large European companies will sacrifice trade with Iran, rather than risk suffering from secondary sanctions.
The US government says its goal in re-imposing sanctions is to force Iran to make deeper concessions on its nuclear programme and to stop its military and political intervention in neighbouring countries — in particular Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Tehran charges that the Trump administration’s real goal is “regime change”.
It has some justification for its suspicions. John Bolton, the US national security adviser, asserted last week that changing the regime in Iran is not America’s goal. Before joining the government, however, Mr Bolton had explicitly called for the fall of the Iranian government.
Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the clerical regime has been guilty of serious abuses of human rights, economic mismanagement and the support of terrorism and insurgencies around the region.
The Iranian people and the Middle East deserve better. It would, however, be far preferable if Iran moved towards a more liberal and open regime through a process of domestic reform, rather than as a result of crushing external pressure.
The history of Iran and the wider Middle East gives ample warning that sudden violent changes in government have rarely led to happy outcomes — particularly when they have had external sponsors.
The outcomes of the Iranian revolution, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 and the Syrian uprising the same year all offer cautionary tales of dashed hopes and subsequent violent repression.
America’s intervention in Iraq in 2003 did rid the country of Saddam Hussein, but at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, and the rise of Islamic State.
The current pressures on Iran risk unleashing political forces that undermine hopes for moderate reform while empowering hardliners on both sides. Of course, things could take a more hopeful path.
But it would be a massive gamble for outsiders to deliberately encourage regime change. The US does have legitimate foreign policy goals that it might be able to advance through economic sanctions.
This newspaper, however, supported the Iran nuclear deal and continues to believe that the Trump administration was wrong to abandon an agreement that halted Iran’s progress towards nuclear weapons.
President Donald Trump’s offer to Tehran of unconditional talks suggests that the diplomatic path has not been totally cut off.
Iran will be extremely reluctant to make further concessions on the nuclear issue and is unlikely to abandon its regional allies in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
But mounting economic pressure and domestic discontent could yet force a reassessment. An Iran that was prepared to concentrate on vital domestic reforms rather than its regional ambitions would offer a better future to its people.