Iran’s military forces staged war exercises and its president defiantly vowed Monday to “break” U.S. sanctions on oil sales that were reimposed at midnight, as Tehran resisted a Trump administration pressure campaign aimed at isolating the country economically.
“We will proudly break the sanctions,” Iran President Hassan Rouhani said during a meeting of government officials in the Iranian capital.
Rouhani’s vow to keep exporting oil came as the Trump administration snapped back sanctions on more than 700 individuals and companies that received sanctions relief when a landmark 2015 nuclear deal took effect.
The unilateral sanctions reintroduce some of the most crippling restrictions on Iran’s oil, shipping and banking sectors and seek to penalize even non-U.S. entities that do business with Iran.
Iranian leaders called the sanctions “illegal” and said they would only hurt ordinary people. Iran’s economy has faced stagnant growth and high unemployment, even after sanctions were lifted following the nuclear deal it negotiated with world powers. In recent months, its currency has plummeted, raising prices and wiping out savings.
“We have to make Americans understand that they cannot talk to the great Iranian nation with the language of pressure and sanctions,” Rouhani said Monday in televised remarks. He spoke to a conference of economists, who he said were at the “forefront of the resistance” against the United States.
“What the Americans are doing today is putting pressure merely on the people,” he said, according to a transcript of the remarks posted on the president’s website.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other administration officials have described the penalties as the “toughest sanctions ever placed” on Iran. While the sheer number of people and entities sanctioned is larger than ever, many Middle East experts believe they will be less effective than the U.N. sanctions in place before the deal. That is because virtually every country in the world was behind the previous sanctions, while all but a handful of nations oppose their reimposition.
The most significant of the new measures is a prohibition against oil and gas sales, which provide the Iranian government with 80 percent of its total revenue.
The blacklisted companies include 50 Iranian banks, an Iranian airline and dozens of its planes, as well as officials and vessels in Iran’s shipping and energy sectors.
President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal in May and gave nations and businesses 180 days to wind down their oil purchases to “zero.” The administration has granted waivers to eight countries that have reduced their oil purchases from Iran but not stopped them entirely.
The countries allowed to keep buying oil from Iran temporarily under the sanctions include China’s two biggest oil customers, China and India, Pompeo announced Monday. Also granted waivers were Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Taiwan.
In addition, Pompeo said the United States has granted waivers to continue three nonproliferation projects that provide oversight on Iran’s nuclear program. The only one he identified was in Bushehr, where Russia is building a second unit at an existing nuclear power plant.
Since May, Europeans have said repeatedly that they want to preserve the nuclear deal and have focused their diplomatic efforts on keeping trade alive with Iran however possible.
In August, the European Commission revamped its Blocking Statute, a 1995 law designed to help European companies and banks recover damages arising from U.S. sanctions on third parties. The legislation also implies that European courts could nullify U.S. decisions regarding sanctions.
However, many European companies with a U.S. presence remain cautious about those European tools, whose effectiveness has yet to be tested.
Reacting on Twitter, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that “U.S. bullying is backfiring.” He added: “The U.S. – & not Iran – is isolated.”
In withdrawing from the nuclear deal, the Trump administration complained that it did not go far enough in restricting Iran’s nuclear program and did not cover other activities it finds objectionable.
Under the deal, Iran curbed its atomic energy program in exchange for broad relief from nuclear-related sanctions. Iran has complied with the terms of the nuclear deal, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog tasked with monitoring the country’s nuclear activity. But the Trump administration demands that Iran change its “malign behavior” in the region, including ballistic missile development and support for regional proxies.
The U.S. pullout has handed a victory to Iranian hard-liners, who opposed the nuclear deal on grounds it gave away too much to the United States and five other world powers that signed it. The staunchly anti-American hard-liners have been the main drivers of Iran’s support for militant groups in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
Iran experts warn, however, that sanctions are unlikely to alter Iranian influence or activities in the region. A report released Friday by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group tracked Iran’s economic performance and regional policy over four decades and concluded that there was “little to no correlation between the two.”
“Tehran has continued to pursue policies it deems central to its national security no matter its degree of economic wellbeing at home,” the report said.
“The Trump administration’s aggressive policy is likelier to spur Iran’s regional activism than to curb it,” it said.
Also Monday, Iran’s military and its powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps staged joint war drills in the northern and western parts of the country, the official Islamic Republic News Agency said. The exercises include air defense systems and antiaircraft batteries.
In Tehran, residents were anxious Monday and expressed worries about the future.
One man, a 45-year-old manual laborer, said in a telephone interview that low salaries and high inflation mean that his family “cannot travel even to our own villages” anymore to visit relatives. He spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of government reprisal.
“I work two shifts now, including the weekends, and we buy whatever we can afford without worrying about the quality,” he said.
Another resident, a 30-year-old woman who works at a private distribution company, said by phone that she pays exorbitant amounts for prescription medicine for her parents on the black market.
“Many products cannot be found [on the market] anymore,” she said. The woman, a marketing supervisor, also declined to give her name so she could speak freely about conditions in Iran.
Neither Iran nor the United States “wants the best for the Iranian people,” she said. “So I don’t have any hope.”
“Sanctions are only bad for people,” she said. “We have seen this in the past.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Erin Cunningham, Carol Morello