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Iranian regime's credibility is shrinking

By Struan Stevenson
Iranian regime's credibility is shrinking
Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi addresses the United Nations General Assembly via video on September 21 in New York City. File Pool Photo by Eduardo Munoz/UPI | License Photo

Oct. 25 (UPI) -- Clearly there is a sense of panic in Tehran. The previous bullish rhetoric from the newly appointed President Ebrahim Raisi has been radically toned down.

He repeatedly claimed that the Iranian regime would never return to the nuclear negotiations in Vienna until all the American sanctions imposed on Iran by former President Donald Trump were lifted. Now, in a late-night interview on state television, he has admitted that Iran is "serious and committed" to return to Vienna to resume "result-oriented" talks aimed at restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. A spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry later clarified that this means the country has "no pre-conditions" for returning to the negotiating table.

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Raisi's humiliating climbdown may be because he has woken up to the fact that as president, he has inherited a poisoned chalice. The Iranian economy has collapsed due to corruption and incompetence. There is mass unemployment, plummeting household incomes and stagflation. Oil exports are at their lowest ever.

During the eight-year administration of former Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran earned more than $100 billion from oil sales. But under Ahmadinejad and his successor Hassan Rouhani, most of that money went to fund the regime's proxy wars in the region, its covert nuclear weapons program, its ballistic missile program expansion, and into the pockets of the mullahs and their Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps elite -- the regime's Gestapo. Little cash ever went to the people or in investments and development. Such is the extent of government corruption that a former IRGC commander, Javad Mansouri, famously said "even if gold fell from the sky, nothing will change." Well gold has not fallen from the sky and U.S. sanctions have killed oil sales.

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In a disastrous attempt to repair the damage, the theocratic regime has attempted to manipulate the foreign-exchange rate, drained resources from the central bank, sold state-owned companies and factories and plundered the stock market. They have even begun to deal in bitcoin. The Iranian Parliament's Research Center claims that per capita income has fallen from 5,760 million tomans in 2005 to 4,740 million tomans today, forcing 35% of the 80 million population below the international poverty line. Expert economists outside the country claim that the true figure is nearer 70%.

The economic collapse has been exacerbated by the regime's bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which is believed to have killed over 460,000 people and is entering a sixth wave. The regime claims that 44% of the population has been vaccinated, although it is thought that even this figure is an exaggeration. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's resistance to allowing imports of vaccines from the West and inability to pay for Chinese and Russian jabs led to a massive shortfall.

Raisi's panic may also have increased with the realization that, unlike his predecessors, he is unable to travel freely to the West. His pariah status as the so-called "Butcher of Tehran" forced him to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York by video and he has publicly admitted that he will not attend the COP26 Climate Change Summit in Glasgow next month, after he learned that he might risk arrest by the British police.

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A 111-page dossier of evidence has been handed to the police in London and Scotland, signed by dual nationality British/Iranian survivors of the massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners in 1988. They allege that Raisi, as a senior prosecutor, was part of a death commission that handed down arbitrary death sentences to anyone who pledged allegiance to the democratic opposition People's Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI/MEK).

Under the law of universal jurisdiction, which Britain has signed up to, the survivors are calling for a criminal investigation by the police into accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity by Raisi. Universal jurisdiction allows a state to claim criminal jurisdiction over an accused person regardless of where the alleged crime was committed and regardless of the accused's nationality, or country of residence.

Indeed, the news in early October that the International Criminal Court in the Hague has launched a full probe into Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, for his involvement in crimes against humanity and murder, in his so-called "war on drugs," has shown that even a serving president could face prosecution in the ICC and cannot rely on diplomatic immunity. Raisi knows that he could be arrested by the British police if he dared to set foot in Scotland for COP26. This will have come as a huge blow to his prestige, where he no doubt had hoped to rub shoulders in Glasgow with many of the world's leaders.

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Realizing that his only hope for ending sanctions and kick-starting the Iranian economy is to resume negotiations into the deeply flawed JCPOA nuclear deal, Raisi has begun to beg the United States and European Union to return to Vienna. He told the senior EU diplomat Enrique Mora, who visited Tehran on Oct. 14, "The Islamic Republic is serious in this. We must also see seriousness on the other side."

Enrique Mora's boss, Josep Borrell, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs & security, must know that the JCPOA nuclear deal was a grave error from day one. It forbade inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency from inspecting any sites controlled by the military inside Iran. Virtually all the theocratic regime's secret nuclear program was and still is being developed in military sites, so the deal was fatally flawed. And yet bizarrely, Borrell is desperate to see the talks resume, even if it means lifting sanctions, kick-starting the mullahs' economy and bankrolling them once again with cash to fund their proxy wars and terrorist activities throughout the Middle East and worldwide and to continue their savage repression at home.

The mullahs have even boasted about how they have breached the original terms of the JCPOA. They claim to have enriched uranium to 60% fissile purity, a fraction short of weapons-grade, in blatant contravention of the 2015 agreement.

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The Biden administration should take advantage of the clear signs of panic in Tehran by holding their nerve. There is no point in trying to resurrect the nuclear deal. It is redundant. And there is certainly nothing to be gained and everything to be lost by lifting sanctions and enabling the mullahs to continue funding Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Shi'ite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Allow the JCPOA to wither on the vine and support the Iranian people in their longing for regime change.

Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is chair of the In Search of Justice committee on the protection of political freedoms in Iran. He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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