As in 1990s-era Iraq, Obama-era sanctions also contributed to making Iranian society more socially conservative. A 2012 report by the International Civil Society Action Network noted that, “Women’s rights experts recognize [a] socio-economic pattern emerging similar to those in Iraq when sanctions were imposed. In Iraq sanctions and the ensuing poverty resulted in the withdrawal of girls from education and increases in child marriage (families were forced to marry off their young daughters to reduce the number of mouths to feed). Iranian girls are at risk of similar developments.” Between 2012 and 2014, according to the Statistics Center of Iran, child marriage rose 20 percent.
Iranian dissidents overwhelmingly supported the 2015 nuclear deal in large measure because it offered the prospect of lifting sanctions and reversing some of these trends. And despite the corruption and incompetence of the Iranian regime, and the continued skittishness of many international corporations, the Iranian economy—which had shrunk in 2014 and 2015—grew in 2016 at a rate of more than 12 percent.
The Trump administration has largely quashed these hopes. Even before withdrawing from the nuclear deal, it lobbied European governments to avoid doing business with Iran and refused to grant permission to American companies wishing to do so. Now, as part of his withdrawal from the agreement, Trump plans not only to reimpose the American sanctions Obama lifted in 2015, but to demand that European companies cease doing business with Iran as well—or else lose access to the American market.
European businesses will not comply entirely, and Iran will go on trading with China and India. But it’s likely that Iran will still grow significantly more economically isolated than it has been over the past two years. In the run-up to Trump’s withdrawal announcement, the value of Iran’s currency, the rial, plunged, sparking fears of hyperinflation. This predictably has played into the hands of pro-regime conservatives, who have responded by vowing to build a “resistance economy” dominated by the state. “For the hardliners,” notes Columbia University’s Richard Nephew, who worked on Iran sanctions and negotiations for Obama, the reinstatement of sanctions “is an opportunity to restrict access to the country and by people in the country to the outside world. This concept of economic resistance is very attractive to them, as they see that openness can damage and undermine their control.”
Iran may still witness uprisings against the regime. But the weaker Iran’s middle class grows, the less organized and coherent those uprisings will become. “If sanctions do indeed trigger a domestic backlash,” Iran experts Mohammad Sadeghi Esfahlani and Jamal Abdi have predicted, “it will not come in the form of a pro-democracy movement, but instead in the form of food riots that will provide an easy target for the Iranian regime’s well-honed apparatus of repression.” It’s also likely that Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal will make Iranians more anti-American. Iranians celebrated the deal because they were desperate for an end to sanctions. Now even the most anti-government Iranians must admit that those sanctions are returning not because their leaders violated the nuclear agreement, but because America’s did.
In 2003, American leaders fantasized about a liberal, democratic, non-expansionist Iraq only to find that America’s own sanctions policies had helped destroy that dream. Now another Republican administration—led by some of the same foreign-policy officials—is spinning similar visions about Iran. The Iranians most invested in that vision warn that America’s policies are making it impossible. And the Trump administration either doesn’t know or doesn’t care.