US sanctions cut deep, but Iran seems unlikely to budge

The New York Times | Vivian Yee: When Iran’s president on Saturday compared the country’s economic distress under hardening American sanctions to the miseries Iran endured during its worst war, it was a signal that Iranians are suffering deeply under the Trump administration’s tightening financial chokehold.

But in his address to political activists, President Hassan Rouhani also seemed to send a second signal: Iran has no intention of capitulating. He appeared to throw cold water on White House hopes that it can push Iran back into a room to renegotiate a nuclear deal.

Iran may instead be hoping to try to ride out the economic squeeze in the hope that it will find a friendlier American president to negotiate with after the 2020 elections. In that case, this period could go down as just another chapter in the country’s long history of gritting its teeth through hardship.

Still, some chapters are tougher than others.

On Saturday, President Rouhani said the impact of the American sanctions was like that of the devastating Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s — a remarkable comparison. That landmark crisis killed hundreds of thousands of people, swallowed nearly half the country’s oil revenue and scarred a generation of Iranians.

And international sanctions levied back then hit only arms purchases, not Iran’s banking sector, oil sales or other trade, all parts of the economy that American sanctions are pinching now.

“We are in a difficult situation today, but at the same time, I am not disappointed,” Mr. Rouhani said, according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency. “I believe that we can overcome these conditions, provided we are together and join hands.”

Linking the current financial emergency to one of modern Iran’s defining traumas is a sign of the seriousness of the situation.

Since President Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord, which limited Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear fuel for 15 years, his administration has been steadily escalating sanctions on Iran in hopes of getting a better deal.

In recent weeks, it has increased the pressure, ending waivers that had allowed other countries to buy Iran’s oil, sending warships and bombers to the Persian Gulf, declaring Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization and imposing sanctions on the country’s steel, aluminum, iron and copper industries. Those sectors account for about a tenth of its exports, according to the administration.

But analysts on opposing sides of the debate over the Trump administration’s pressure tactics drew differing conclusions from the historical parallel.

After nearly eight years of war with Iraq, the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was then Iran’s supreme leader, accepted a United Nations-brokered cease-fire in 1988, despite having vowed to wage war until victory. He likened the agreement to drinking from a “poisoned chalice.”

To Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish Washington think tank that advocates pressuring Iran into submission, that history suggests that Iran will fold if under enough strain.

“To say that there are pressures on Iran now that they didn’t have to undergo during the war is a major testament to how effective the sanctions are,” he said. “Iran will double down, triple down, quadruple down, but then ultimately do a 180 if they perceive that there’s no way out.”

But giving in to the Trump administration’s demands would amount to near-total capitulation for Iran’s leaders, something other analysts said Iranians would be unwilling to accept, given that it could lead to a wholesale regime change.

That is exactly what at least one member of the Trump administration seems to be looking for.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently acknowledged to Michael J. Morell, a former acting director of the C.I.A., that the administration’s strategy would not coerce Iranian leaders into a friendlier stance. But, he said, “I think what can change is, the people can change the government.”

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, said: “From the Iranian perspective, the only thing that’s more dangerous than suffering from sanctions is surrendering to them. Ayatollah Khamenei has believed over the years that if you give in to pressure, it won’t actually alleviate it, but it will actually invite more pressure. With that worldview, the Iranians are quite unlikely to be calling President Trump anytime soon.”

Mr. Vaez dismissed Iran’s decision to accept a cease-fire with Iraq as a historical model for what the Trump administration hopes to accomplish now. That compromise, he said, left Iran’s leadership intact and came with some strategic benefits.

Iran is likely to agree to new negotiations only if it has strong leverage to use, Mr. Vaez said.

Last week, Mr. Rouhani sought to secure just that by announcing Iran would restart the production of nuclear centrifuges and begin accumulating nuclear material again. He also gave European leaders 60 days to find ways to lift the financial pressure on Iran, forcing them to choose between siding with the United States in isolating Iran or preserving the 2015 deal.

Those moves come as Mr. Rouhani faces increasing restlessness at home from a public that has seen nothing good come of his signature deal.

Often seen as a moderate leader, under the pressure of the sanctions, he has begun to sound more and more like the hard-liners in Iran’s leadership who have been strengthened before the country’s parliamentary and presidential elections over the next two years.

Adding to Mr. Rouhani’s problems, there have been protests across Iran against the government’s military interventions in Syria and elsewhere. And dissatisfaction has run high with its management of the economy.

With his plea for unity on Saturday, Mr. Rouhani appeared to be trying to use the sanctions as a rallying cry.

“Surrendering is not compatible with our culture and religion, and people do not accept it,” he said. “If we stand together and understand that no way of thinking and faction can be eliminated, we can overcome the problems.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A7 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. Sanctions Are Cutting Deep, but Iran Seems Unlikely to Budge.