So tell me about these sanctions specifically do they affect oil—what do they affect?
Mark: Well, the sanctions that are coming back on Monday are going to affect Iran’s ability to attract investment in its energy sector, export its oil which accounts for about 70% of its export earnings, and it’s also going to affect Iran’s ability to tax at the global financial system—to move money around, to repatriate foreign exchange for its reserves, to defend its currency… so these sanctions are maximum pressure and they’re maximum financial pressure.
Harris: And what does that mean for the people on the ground in Iran because they will eventually as they have in the past I would imagine you know rise up and become part of the conversation again?
Mark: They’ve actually already risen up—since December there have been protests all over Iran. There been strikes by teachers and truck drivers, and what’s interesting is the protests are really the political base of the regime. These are blue-collar workers who normally have supported the regime but are now on the streets yelling “death to the supreme leader!” “death to President Rouhani!” “Why are you spending billions of dollars supporting Bashar Assad’s slaughter in Syria and funding Hezbollah instead of taking care of us?” So, the regime is being squeezed by the Trump administration externally and internally by Iranians who are very frustrated and angered by the regime.
Harris: And is there any reaching out that we would do [as the U.S.] to these people on the ground?
Mark: Secretary Pompeo has really had a really robust public diplomacy strategy in reaching out to the Iranian people through Farsi language Twitter, through broadcasting, through speeches that he’s given, and [Pompeo is] really underscoring that this is a wonderful culture, wonderful people with a great history. The only place where Iranians don’t succeed around the world is inside Iran, because the Islamic Republic represses them and deprives them of opportunities. So he’s made those points. He’s underscored that that’s been backed by the President and others, and I think that messaging campaign is critical going forward.
Harris: So Mark, these reimposed sanctions go into play on Monday, and then as we look ahead to 2019, I’ve heard you say that things could get worse for Iran—how?
Mark: They’re going to get worse for the Islamic Republic, because the State Department, under Secretary Pompeo’s leadership, hasn’t stopped reducing Iranian oil exports. What he’s done is he’s carefully calibrated how to take a million barrels off without spiking the price of oil and he’s been enormously successful in doing that. You know, the price of rent is the same as it was when the President withdrew from the deal in May, so that’s quite a remarkable achievement. Going into 2019, they’re gonna be locking up Arabian oil revenue so Iran has limited ability to spend it—and can only spend it on humanitarian goods—and as oil markets loosen, the State Department is really committed to taking another 500 to 800 thousand barrels a day off line. So the regime is going to get continue to be squeezed. And on the financial side, Secretary Mnuchin has been as successful in designating banks and designating 700 Iranian entities (300 more to come) and cutting off Iran’s access to the global financial system.
Harris: That is fascinating to me, because now the question becomes—with all that in play—does this bring Iran back to the negotiating table or not?
Mark: It’s an open question…the Iranians are always defiant until the day before they decide to come back [to the negotiating table]. We’ve seen that in the past. I think that the Iranian strategy for now may be to count on their hope that President Trump is a one-term President and wait him out for two years, and maybe get a President in the White House in 2021 who takes America back into the deal and isn’t willing to be as tough. So that is the strategy. The question is: can they make it over two years? And what happens if they’re wrong and President Trump actually has six years to impose maximum pressure? That may be a very difficult strategy to maintain.
Harris: I’ve always thought with a government agency that you put in place it’s hard to go back to what previously was there with any government, so, if they’re waiting out our politics, that seems like a fruitless strategy. But they’ll have to deal with it because those sanctions are in play—reimposed—on Monday. Mark, thank you so very much for giving us a kind of an inside look on how you’ve been supporting the Secretary of State on these sanctions against Iran.
Mark: Thanks so much for having me.