Iran Puts on Brave Face As Domestic and International Pressure Mounts

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


Faced with renewed US sanctions, increased pressure from regional actors, and a worsening pandemic, the Iranian government insists that the country remains united and has the economic and military capacity to overcome the current challenges.  Many remain skeptical, however, whether Iran can in fact remain unscathed from the ongoing Trump administration campaign of “maximum pressure.” Coupled with ongoing efforts by the Saudis and the Israelis to push back against Iranian influence in the region, some have suggested that the next few months may witness volatility at home and abroad for the Iranians.

Writing for the daily Tehran Times, Mahnaz Abdi notes that a government report on domestic economic activity, in particular the “loading and unloading of commodities… at the ports of Iran,” shows no sign of a slowdown, despite that fact that, as the head of Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization (PMO) puts it, “The enemy is trying to halt Iran’s exports and imports through imposing sanctions…. Meanwhile… 11 new development projects with 59 trillion rials (over $1.4 billion) of investment are currently underway at the Iranian ports. Not only could the sanctions not stop development activities at the ports of Iran, some new development projects have also been defined…. While Iran is combating the U.S. unilateral sanctions on its economy, the country’s ports as the major gates of exports and imports play a significant role in this battle, and the ongoing operation at the ports indicates that they are playing their part perfectly.”

The message of remaining undaunted in the face of pressure by the US and its allies also continues on the military front, where the Iranian government, according to a recent Press TV report, announced the successful rollout and testing of the Bavar-373 air-defense system: “Iran’s domestically developed Bavar-373 air defense missile system has been put to the test for the first time on the second day of the country’s large-scale aerial drills, successfully destroying the designated targets. Thursday marked the second day of the large-scale drills, codenamed Modafe’an-e Aseman-e Velayat 99 (Guardians of Velayat Sky 99), underway in an area covering more than half of the country. Air defense divisions of Iran’s Army and Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) are participating in the joint aerial maneuvers…. The maneuvers feature different types of homegrown missiles, radar systems, reconnaissance, electronic warfare and communication systems as well as an optical surveillance network.”

Perhaps emboldened by recent developments in Yemen, Iran has also announced the return of its ambassador to Yemen after an absence of 5 years, a development that the Yemen Online staff claims confirms Iran’s “interventionist ambitions in Yemen… .Iran’s foreign ministry said Saturday that a new Iranian envoy has arrived in the rebel-held capital of the war-torn country, five years after the last ambassador departed…. Iran backs the Houthis in Yemen’s civil war with arms and military equipment against an internationally recognized government that is supported by a Saudi-led military coalition…. Eyrlou’s predecessor left Sana’a in September 2015 and in October last year Iran’s foreign ministry said the process of sending a new ambassador was hindered by ‘attacks on the embassy’.”

But not everyone is convinced that “all is well” in Iran, especially after the reimposition of US sanctions. In fact, Mohammad al-Kasim, in an op-ed published by Yedioth Ahronoth, suggests that, contrary to Iranian government reports, the “Iranian economy [is] on the verge of collapse under U.S. sanctions [and the] pandemic haymaker…. Even before the health crisis, the Iranian economy had been battered by low oil prices and crippling U.S. sanctions reimposed by Washington after President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018 from the nuclear deal with major powers…. Iran’s unemployment rate has skyrocketed in 2020, and on Monday, its rial currency plunged to its lowest point ever against the U.S. dollar, having lost more than 60% of its value in two years. Consumer prices have risen by 37% in 2020. The fragile economy has also been battered by a temporary shutdown designed to contain the coronavirus pandemic, border closures and a halt in non-oil exports.”

Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist, pushes the argument even further in a recent Baghdad Post op-ed by pointing out that the conditions are so dire Iran may soon have to face renewed instability at home. These conditions, he hastens to add, have “not only been caused by US sanctions, as some policy analysts, scholars and politicians suggest. The underlying factors are ingrained in Tehran’s political and financial institutions, which are the country’s backbone. In other words, it is the widespread corruption within the theocratic establishment and across the political spectrum; the mismanagement of the economy by the leadership; embezzlement and money laundering within the banking system; and the hemorrhaging of the nation’s wealth on militias, terror groups and proxies across the region that are the major factors contributing to the crisis.”

In a follow-up opinion piece earlier this week, also published by the Baghdad Post, Mr. Rafizadeh builds on this argument: “Divisions within the Iranian theocratic establishment  appear to have reached an unprecedented level and are now endangering the sustainability of the political system. Iran’s hard-liners — including those who are close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — are attacking President Hassan Rouhani and blaming his so-called ‘moderate’ administration for the extreme pressures that Tehran is currently encountering…. The quarrels between Iranian officials and the gaps within the regime’s political system have become more noticeable due to the extraordinary pressure the theocratic establishment is facing economically and politically. If the current pressure continues, the divisions in the theocratic establishment will inevitably widen and ultimately bring the regime to its knees.”

In addition to its troubles at home, Hamdan Al-Shehri, a political analyst and international relations scholar, argues that Iran’s international outlook continues to be a rather daunting one as pressure on the country continues to intensify due to balancing positions taken by its adversaries. Noting in a recent Arab News op-ed the recent meeting between US and Saudi officials, Al Shehri warns that “[l]ast week’s sessions attested to the depth and importance of the relations between the two nations…. The importance of the dialogue was seen as it also coincided with the US maximum pressure campaign on Iran. The purpose of this campaign is to isolate Tehran economically and force it to change its behavior. It includes the imposition of sanctions on 18 Iranian banks, as well as on a number of officials and entities involved in the Iranian nuclear program. The world must not forget the attacks and acts of sabotage carried out by Tehran in the region and around the world…. A constructive and fruitful deal between countries such as the US and Saudi Arabia would guarantee security and stability and frustrate the projects that Iran and its allies follow in order to achieve their goals.”

In a bid to put even more pressure on the Iranians, the Israeli government has also vowed to put a check on Iran’s regional expansionist aspirations. Arutz Sheva’s David Rosenberg reported recently that, despite the end of the UN-backed sanctions, “Israeli Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz (Blue and White) vowed Sunday afternoon that Israel will not permit Iran to take advantage of the expiration of the arms embargo against Tehran, adding that he will use ‘whatever measures necessary’ to block Iranian expansionism. ‘With the expiration of the arms embargo on Iran today, we must be stronger and more determined than ever. Iran has never been an Israeli problem, but, first and foremost, a global and regional problem’, Gantz tweeted Sunday. ‘As defense minister, I will continue to take whatever measures necessary, together with our partners, old and new, to prevent Iranian expansion and armament. All countries should get on board this important effort’.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top