“Maximum pressure hasn’t helped with opening political space in Iran but appears to have led to increased repression and closed space for human rights advocates on the ground,” according to Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher on Iran at the Human Rights Watch, speaking at a Capitol Hill briefing organized by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). She went on to say that “this administration has been very open about its double standards on human rights,” which has discredited claims by the administration that they are standing with Iranian dissidents and the Iranian public.
Ms. Sepehri Far, who authored a Human Rights Watch report on the effects of U.S. sanctions on humanitarian aid to Iran, highlighted how the current sanctions regime has hampered banking channels used for humanitarian aid, “making aid much more difficult this time around.” Moreover, the Trump sanctions have “contributed to an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that basically pushes companies, mainly banks, away from doing trade that should be legal under [the] U.S. sanctions regimes.”
Concerning the implications of maximum pressure on regional dynamics, Dina Esfandiary, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center who focuses on Iran’s foreign policy, said that “from Tehran’s perspective, it is unclear what the main goal of maximum pressure is. As a result, [the campaign] has changed Iranian behavior, but for the worse rather than for the better. You see an Iran that is now more daring in the region.”
Sina Toossi, NIAC’s Senior Research Analyst, went on to argue that the U.S. pressure campaign has decimated reformist and moderate factions in Iran and emboldened hardline forces within Iran’s political milieu. “Maximum pressure led to the collapse of moderate and reformist elements in Iran’s political elite. The notion of a Trump-Iran summit amid maximum pressure without sanctions relief up-front is untenable given Rouhani’s current political position.”
According to Mr. Toossi, Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s head of the judiciary and the former Presidential challenger to Rouhani, is “now overseeing an unprecedented corruption drive targeting all political spectrums. Hardliners hope it will remove moderates from power and strengthen their hand in a post-Khamenei era,” solidifying their control as the country begins its transition from old-guard political leaders to a new generation born after the revolution.
Ms. Esfandiary also underscored that sanctions alone add little value provided they are never traded in. “Sanctions are useful only insofar as they can be lifted to obtain a change in behavior,” she said. “Iranians have been clear being able to sell oil is a big deal. Some kind of relief in the energy sector would help calm tensions and provide space for a diplomatic channel.”
The discussion concluded on comments from Ms. Sepehri Far on the Trump administration’s goal of instigating unrest in Iran that might topple the regime, stating that “it is hard to generalize how 80 million Iranians feel. Iranians have seen a revolution, an 8-year war and many years of sanctions over 40 years. Iranians are demanding greater social and political freedoms – but not calling for radical departures.”