10 May 2017

Trump plays into hands of Iranian hardliners

Ariane Tabatabai

Ariane Tabatabai

Ariane Tabatabai is a visiting assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and a former associate in the Belfer Center's...

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On May 19, Iranians will go to the polls to elect a new president. The moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who delivered the nuclear deal and tried to improve relations with the West, is seeking a second term. While he has significant political capital, name recognition, and popular support compared to the five other candidates, that support is eroding and he has lost the backing of key players within Iran, in particular Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It would be to the advantage of much of the world for Rouhani to retain the presidency. He represents an outward-looking and moderate Iran, and his world view is centered on engagement with other countries on crucial matters of shared interest, from human rights in his own country to the various conflicts in the Middle East. From the point of view of many outside Iran, then, it’s unfortunate that the new US president is, through verbal attacks and policy reversals, playing into the hands of Rouhani’s hardline opponents and feeding their criticism of his policies.

A rocky road for the frontrunner. Iran holds presidential elections every four years, following a short campaign season. Once candidates present themselves, they are vetted by the Guardian Council, a body composed of Shia clerics and jurists who supervise elections and interpret the constitution. Under the constitution, sitting presidents can seek a second four-year term, and since the 1980s, all presidents have had two terms in office. This indicates a penchant for continuity.

So far, Rouhani seems to have a decent chance of being elected for a second term. Among the five candidates opposing him, only three are currently notable contenders. Mostafa Hashemitaba and Mostafa Mirsalim, respectively a former Olympic Committee head and former culture minister, lack both political capital and name recognition outside policy circles. For a time, observers posited that the conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, head of the powerful and influential Astan-e Qods-e Razavi foundation, would be the president’s main challenger, as he seemed to have Khamenei’s backing, but he also lacks name recognition and failed to stand out during the first televised debate on April 28. A Rouhani ally, Vice President Eshaq Jahangari, is also a serious contender. And the hardline mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, may be the strongest opponent. He lost popularity over the deadly collapse of a Tehran high-rise earlier this year, but is well-known throughout the country and emerged strongly from attacking Jahangari and Rouhani in the first televised debate. Rouhani still appears to be in the lead, but he has a rough road ahead.

Rouhani’s chief legacy, the nuclear deal he concluded with six world powers in the summer of 2015, no longer has the popular support and broad establishment backing it once enjoyed. Rouhani and his team presented the deal to the Iranian public as the key to economic recovery and international reintegration. But as implementation of the agreement proceeds, and Iran continues to comply with its terms, Rouhani’s administration is still struggling to sell it to the Iranian public. Average Iranians haven’t felt the economic boost it was supposed to deliver. And matters have become more complicated as Khamenei has distanced himself from the agreement, arguing that the United States has been looking for excuses to isolate Tehran all along, with or without a nuclear deal. As Khamenei has stopped shielding Rouhani and the nuclear agreement, conservatives have increased their attacks against both. This isn’t to say that they want to tear up the deal. In fact, there seems to be a consensus even among the most hardline political fringes that it is here to stay. But the deal is nevertheless used as ammunition against Rouhani. At a second televised debate on May 5, both Qalibaf and Raisi said it had not brought about tangible economic benefits for Iran.

New US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric gives credence to the Iranian conservatives trying to tear down Rouhani. To be sure, various parts of the US administration have issued different—and at times conflicting—statements on the subject. For example in April, just a day after the State Department certified that Tehran was abiding by the deal, new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it “fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran,” and that the country was on the path to becoming another North Korea. For his part, Trump argued that Iran wasn’t “living up to the spirit of the agreement,” though he didn’t say what he meant. Earlier this year, US National Security Adviser Michael Flynn—who was later forced out of office—declared he was putting Iran “on notice.” Again, it wasn’t clear what this meant, as his rhetorical escalation wasn’t followed by a major policy shift.

Critical and confusing. More than 100 days into the new US administration, Trump’s Iran policy is still up in the air. The administration seems to want to uphold the deal, but only Iran’s end of it. The Wall Street Journal reported in late April that some White House officials said they expect the U.S. won’t withdraw from the nuclear deal, but enforce it to the letter and possibly reinstate sanctions that were lifted as part of the accord under different reasons, such as human-rights abuses or Iran’s ballistic-missile tests.” In short, despite Iranian compliance, Washington may very well re-introduce penalties that Tehran negotiated in good faith to get rid of.

In practice, Washington will have to choose between upholding the deal and rejecting it. It can’t enforce the Iranian end of the deal—monitoring compliance with measures to halt nuclear development—while falling short of its own obligations to lift the specified sanctions and allow certain business ventures, like Boeing sales of commercial aircraft to Iranian airlines, to move forward. But regardless of the path the new US administration chooses, it’s already done considerable damage with its flip-flopping. In Iran, the latest American rhetoric, backed by action or not, just strengthens the conservative position that negotiations don’t settle anything, and that the United States can’t be trusted and will seek regime change regardless of Tehran’s actions.

Currently, Iran indicates that it will continue to implement the nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA in Western policy circles and BARJAM in Persian, no matter what Washington does. The Rouhani government doesn’t want to stop there; it wants to build on the deal’s success to integrate Iran into the international community by prioritizing engagement and economic ventures. The European Union has already capitalized on the agreement by meeting with Iran on human rights and regional security issues. Rouhani also hopes to negotiate with the Gulf Arab states on finding solutions to the region’s conflicts. The same couldn’t be said of an Iranian government under any of Rouhani’s opponents, who may implement the deal but without shielding it or building upon it.

Just weeks before the presidential election in Iran, the future of the nuclear deal remains uncertain. Trump seems to have reversed his position on what he once called “the stupidest deal ever” and swore to undo. But the US administration’s approach to Iran is hectic, with conflicting statements coming out of different quarters. This unpredictability isn’t strengthening Washington’s hand. Instead, it is perplexing US partners in the nuclear deal implementation process, while undermining the agreement and making it more difficult for Rouhani to stand behind it at home. Rouhani, though, is the international community’s best chance for a more cooperative Iran, one that seeks to settle matters at the negotiating table.