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Maximum pressure on Iran is driving internal change

Only two weeks after designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization, the Trump administration also announced that it would no longer allow waivers for the purchase of Iranian oil after the current ones expire in May. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even said there would be no grace period for compliance by the eight countries (China, India, Greece, Italy, Taiwan, Japan, Turkey and South Korea) that were previously granted limited access to Iran’s vital export. Fortunately, at least two of those countries have reportedly already reduced their imports to zero. The other six will have to follow suit immediately or face serious economic consequences.

These back-to-back initiatives demonstrate that the White House is moving quickly to implement its strategy of “maximum pressure” on the Iranian regime. The hope is that that pressure will bring its global oil exports as close to zero as possible, thereby forcing it back to the negotiating table and convincing it to, in Pompeo’s words, “behave like a normal country.”

The IRGC terror designation was a crucial and long-overdue gesture in support of that goal. Many Iran experts recognize that a change in the regime’s behavior is virtually unattainable as long as the IRGC continues to exert such outsized influence over the country’s security apparatus and civil society. 

That influence has steadily grown over the years, especially under the nearly-30-year tenure of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. After taking over the theocratic regime from its founder, Khamenei employed the IRGC as a personal army, and made it the primary beneficiary of a privatization project in exchange.

Today, the IRGC has a hand in every major Iranian industry, and exerts control over the judiciary virtually any time it chooses to. According to the intelligence network associated with the opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), and the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), the IRGC controls the vast majority of the nation’s gross domestic product. 

If not for the newfound pressures originating in Washington, the IRGC’s consolidation of power would surely have continued or escalated. For this reason, Iranian opposition groups have eagerly embraced the terror designation. They have even urged the White House to extend that designation to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security. 

Now that the taboo on sanctioning foreign government entities has been broken, this should be a fairly easy sell. After all, it seems that the ministry is primarily responsible for the planning of terrorist attacks that have been thwarted on Western soil in the past year. It is just as culpable for actual and potential deaths in terrorist incidents as the IRGC and its militant proxies such as Hezbollah.

Last June, multiple European authorities stopped the bombing of a pro-democracy rally organized outside Paris by the PMOI’s parent coalition, the NCRI. Had the plot succeeded, it might have killed any number of the dozens of American and European policymakers and activists in attendance. But the main victims would have been the same as those of most IRGC activities over the past 40 years: The Iranian people.

This goes to show that the interests of the people and of Tehran’s Western adversaries are generally one and the same. Though many critics of the Trump administration’s foreign policy would have us believe that Iran’s population stands to suffer from increased sanctions, the reality is that they will suffer much more if the country’s repressive authorities remain unconstrained.

Iran is ready for change. If this was not previously evident, it became clear at the beginning of last year when the country was rocked by nationwide anti-government protests. The leader of the PMOI and NCRI, Maryam Rajavi, predicted that it would lead to the people’s “final victory” over the clerical dictatorship. But she and other staunch opponents of the regime understand that this victory will not occur in isolation. 

Maximum pressure is therefore the correct strategy for dealing with Tehran, and specific policy initiatives should continue to push aggressively in that direction, as they have clearly done in the past few weeks. The White House and its allies must avoid being discouraged by the pushback that they will no doubt receive from Tehran. Its open defiance is only a sign of its desperation in the face of dual pressures from its people and beyond Iran’s borders.

The regime’s intransigence only provides the people of Iran with greater motivation to rise up and demand change, which they will be well-positioned to secure when the IRGC’s power falters.