World News

Iran Is Changing, but Not in Ways Trump Thinks

Posted June 25, 2018 12:50 p.m. EDT

TEHRAN, Iran — President Donald Trump says his decision to leave the nuclear agreement is already having a huge impact on Iran. He is right, Iranians say, but for the wrong reasons.

Trump said this month that Iran is changing its behavior in the region, implying that its leaders had been chastened or cowed by the U.S. move and were pulling back.

“They’re no longer looking so much to the Mediterranean,” he told reporters. “They’re no longer looking so much to what’s going on in Syria, what’s going on in Yemen and lots of other places. They’re a much different country over the last three months. Iran is not the same country that it was a few months ago. They’re a much, much different group of leaders.”

But analysts say there has been little or no change in Iran’s regional posture. The real impact to date has been on internal politics, with a repression on the slightest hints of dissent, and the economy, after the reimposition of sanctions.

“A good economic and political process was underway in Iran,” said Mirzababa Motaharinezhad, a spokesman for Mardomsalary, a moderate political group. “Unfortunately, after Trump pulled out from the deal openness ended here and a crackdown on activists resumed.”

In the region, though, it seems to be business as usual. Last week an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander, Hossein Salami, noted that Iran’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, has 100,000 missiles ready to destroy Israel. In Syria, where Iran has played a crucial role in keeping President Bashar Assad in power, three Iranian soldiers were killed this month during battles. For the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Israel is still a “cancerous tumor” that must be removed.

“Trump has this illusion that because he left the nuclear agreement, we are forced to change our behavior in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine,” said Hossein Sheikholeslam, a special adviser to Iran’s foreign minister on regional issues. “No way we are doing that. If we ever change our policies, it will have nothing to do with Trump or anyone in the White House or elsewhere.” Most Western analysts largely agree with that assessment.

“Iran is rethinking its role in the region, but not because of Mr. Trump directly,” said Walter Posch, a Middle East expert at the National Defense Academy in Vienna. “Tehran is becoming overstretched. Iran thought it could hold the ground easily: getting strong in Syria, putting pressure on Israel indirectly but not provoking it to attack. But it is getting more difficult by the day.”

Far away from the conflict zones in the Middle East, in the small alleyways of Tehran’s bazaars and the luxury car dealerships in the affluent northern parts of the city, Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement has definitely added to economic woes, which are contributing to political tensions.

On Monday, protesters gathered outside the Parliament building in Tehran to complain about the economy, and police fired tear gas to disperse them. On Sunday, the Grand Bazaar had to close because of protests.

Iran’s economy already was in a bad state. In less than a year, the rial, Iran’s currency, has declined by 50 percent in value against the dollar. The International Monetary Fund reported that a record amount of capital, $27 billion, was taken out of the country last year. Khamenei, in a sermon recently celebrating the end of Ramadan, called upon Iranians to stop taking leisure trips abroad, to make sure no more foreign exchange leaves Iran.

The currency crisis has led to a sharp increase in the prices of imported goods. In an effort to shield their savings, many people are buying real estate, gold and cars, driving up prices of those assets.

“Finding a safe place for my savings has become nearly impossible,” said Asgar Kouhpaee, 55, a tradesman who for years made his living as an egg wholesaler.

He said he always kept his savings in cars, but this year he missed his chance. A Toyota RAV4, a midscale SUV model that costs around $25,000 in the United States and sold for $68,000 here in August, now costs around $100,000.

“Everything has gone up, even locally produced cars are now 40 percent more expensive,” Kouhpayee said. “Not only am I unable to purchase a new car, but who can afford to buy it from me with these prices?”

The prospect of new sanctions and pressure are terrifying him.

“It just feels as if everything is spinning out of control,” he said. “We must do something to stop this.”

Such feelings are widely shared. Many people seem to be blaming their leaders, rather than Trump or others, for most of the problems, making the government hypersensitive to expressions of dissent.

“The impact of Trump’s pullout from the nuclear deal is very very low,” said Reza Khandan, the husband of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer who was arrested last week. “Even if the nuclear agreement was fully implemented, and all the money reached here and the banking system was not under sanction, the mismanagement inside the country would have squandered the oil revenue and other transactions. We are in bad economic and social states, and it has nothing to do with Trump and sanctions he imposed or will impose.” Last week Iranian authorities were caught off guard when an Instagram post from a former Iranian soccer star, Ali Karimi, calling for a consumer boycott was shared 800,000 times.

“Let’s not buy anything from the market for a month, neither gold, nor cars nor anything that’s gotten more expensive,” Karimi wrote. “All of you support this until the hands of the middle men and the thieves are cut off from this country.”

Karimi, who has criticized authorities for their policies of barring women from soccer stadiums, was promptly hauled into court that handles media-related matters to explain his call for a boycott. His case is still under review.

Numerous editors, journalists and prominent figures have been summoned before the same court for questioning.

Judicial authorities have also ramped up pressure on dissidents, most notably with the arrest of Sotoudeh.

A man was hanged last Monday, convicted of killing three police officers by running over them with a bus during a protest last winter. The driver, Mohammad Salas, denied the charge, saying his confession was coerced. His lawyer, Zeynab Taheri, was arrested the day after his client’s execution for undisclosed reasons.

Meanwhile, anticipating fresh protests over the economy and rising political dissatisfaction, the government has allocated four stadiums and six parks across the capital as locations for legal protest rallies.

Khamenei, the supreme leader, in his recent speech, insisted all is well.

“The people are awake. They are motivated, and they are not tired,” he said. “Those who promote the idea, following the enemies’ propaganda, that the people are tired and exhausted are tired themselves. They themselves are exhausted!”