Despite being one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, Iran still stands firm on their nuclear program. One simple conclusion from this is that economic sanctions don’t work as intended. In fact the constant economic pressures placed on Tehran, and the ensuing economic, political, and social crisis, help entrench power within the current leadership. The Ayatollah and Revolutionary Guard are still robust, and the regimes anti-US narrative remains an integral part of Iranian foreign policy.
Indeed, the current Iranian administration is highly restrictive of their people but this is a reaction by a government that is being attacked, politically and economically. Sanctions have crippled the economy, which now rests at 15.6% inflation rate and has crippled the rial, Iran’s currency. Additionally, they are unable to export 40% of their oil, a major sector of the economy. Such constant economic pressures have allowed the political elites to leverage themselves as major providers of goods and services to people.
But this is not simply a reactionary process; it’s a cyclical one. The Western narrative and the Tehran narrative feed off each other, something Iran has masterfully taken advantage of. The West has mythologized Iran to the point that it actually helps reinforce Tehran’s version. By focusing on opposition to the nuclear program, politicians in the US have undermined stopping it because Tehran is able to make it look as though the US doesn’t want them to become developed, polarizing the issue. Take for example the oft-used sound bite regarding wiping Israel off the map. The media and politicians have spun this out of context: Iran would like Israel gone, but only in terms of a Jewish state.
In turn, politicians in the West seek to implement more sanctions against Iran. The government in Tehran uses this to advance their narrative and continue to be the sole provider for people. These narratives build off of one another and this allows the individual narratives some level of control at home. This cycle has helped anti-US views become part of the official narrative since the late 1970’s.
To understand the role US sanctions have played in reinforcing the government in Tehran, we need to have an understanding of the complexities that exist within the ‘Iranian identity’ and how they relate to Iran’s ‘westernization’. Prior to the revolution of 1979, the state had been molded into a highly pro-western society. In an effort to appear more western the Shah banned ‘ethnic clothing’, encouraging people to dress like western businessmen, in suits and ties, while women were not allowed to cover their faces.
Many people saw the Shah as a Western puppet and this greatly influenced policy decisions following the 1979 revolution. The thinking was that the Shah has destroyed the country and to reverse this they had to do the exact opposite of what he had done. Thus they adopted more “traditional” Islamic values and attempted to form a new national identity. This has lead the government to also issue dress codes, promote more traditional family values, and legislate morality, supposedly to keep the Iranian/Islamic values safe from what the believe is a Western cultural invasion.
In an effort to defend their power and form a “cohesive national identity” the government has particularly turned to Islamic codes and state agencies to maintain its legitimacy. But this new identity is contested internally; there is no one definition of what it means to be Iranian. In fact there are varying levels. On one hand you have traditionalists, who argue for the preservation of nationalism and tradition. And on the other you have modernists, who seek out the values of the West. But, as much as Tehran’s reaction to sanctions is about protectionism, it also highlights the domestic social tension that prevents nationalism from working on a large scale. This itself is a reaction to changing social pressures, such as the desire to modernize—in many cases through processes of westernization—as well as the desire to globalize.
The US government has attempted to use economic sanctions to exploit this gap, but that pressure has alienated the most moderate politicians in Tehran. Without room for economic or diplomatic growth political elites have instead focused on marginalizing their competition, including the president, in their quest for power. An augment could be made that Hassan Rouhani might have staked his whole career on trying to come to a nuclear agreement, in an effort to lessen sanctions. If he fails, chances are Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could again assume the presidency in the next elections, resetting the cycle yet again.