As Khamenei calls for unity, could international sanctions on Iran be working?

A recent speech by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to judges and senior officials in Iran’s Judiciary may be a sign that international sanctions by the United States and European Union against Iran are working.

In the speech Khamenei called on the Judiciary to hand out as few prison sentences as possible, citing the social undesirability of a large number of prisoners as well as the negative impact on inmates and their families. Khamenei tied this discussion to international criticism of Iran’s human rights record which,  alongside its controversial nuclear program and economic sanctions, he said were being used by Iran’s enemies to erode the popular base of the regime. Addressing economic sanctions, he emphasized that:

“The real goal of the arrogant powers in imposing sanctions are the people of Iran so that pressures result in popular discontent and separate the people from the Islamic regime.”

Khamenei asserted that this would not work because Iran’s enemies underestimated its people and regime, and because these foreign powers were too preoccupied with their own problems.

Regardless, Khamenei declared that during such trying times it is is necessary for the three branches of Iran’s government to reduce slander and conflict and cooperate with one another, as any “divergence” between the executive, legislature and judiciary would go against national interests:

“If any side wants to continually pay attention to the other sides’ [activities] our problems will not be solved.”

Editor’s note: Khamenei’s speech raises an important question about whether international economic sanctions against Iran, which have become more intense in the last two years, are beginning to cause high levels of economic and political distress in Iran.

In recent months there have been signs that Iran’s disparate political factions have sensed a potential economic and political crisis in the making and may be moving toward reconciliation. In March, Khamenei declared 1391 (the current Iranian calendar year) the year of “National production [and] supporting Iranian labour and capital”, hinting that the regime might make moves toward supporting businessmen and workers in the ailing domestic manufacturing sector. More recently, elder statesman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani harshly criticized the West for its position in nuclear negotiations and called for a higher degree of unity between the Iranian people, government officials, and different political currents within the regime. Rafsanjani, who quietly backed the Reformist faction during the 2009-2010 Green Movement protests, had until recently fallen out with Khamenei and regime hardliners. Finally, Brigadier General Mohammad-Reza Yazdi, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) head of legal and parliamentary affairs, implied that reconciliation between regime hardliners and the marginalized Reformist faction might be possible.

All of this talk of national unity may be a sign that stringent economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic may finally be having a significant impact. While scholars such as Risa Brooks have questioned arguments that say economic sanctions will cause people to rise up against authoritarian regimes, in the case of Iran this may be precisely what the regime fears. As Iran’s economic problems have multiplied, the conflict between the three main branches of Iran’s government has only become more intense, to the extent that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is having problems carrying on normal ties with Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani and Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani. Moreover, last week the regime carried out a mass arrest of labour leaders in Karaj, a sign that the regime fears labour unrest on a large scale as economic sanctions hammer away at the pillars of Iran’s economy, including the vital petroleum sector which is set to be hit hard by an EU oil embargo and maritime insurance ban at the beginning of July.

If oil prices remain well below the historic highs seen in the 2000s, as some predict they might, Iran could soon be facing an economic crisis that could quickly transform into a political crisis. In calling for greater cooperation and unity, the regime may be preparing for such a possibility. A political crisis deeply rooted in Iran’s many economic woes may be much harder to repress than the 2009-2010 Green Movement which was rooted in the urban middle class’ political demands and largely excluded the Iranian labour movement.