by Jalil Bayat
Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran—including his decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA)—has empowered the position of hardliners in Iran’s foreign and security policy establishments. Europe’s inability to salvage the JCPOA in the face of U.S. sanctions has also contributed to this trend.
In an interview with NPR on July 19, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said:
Engagement has lost credibility at home. People don’t look at engagement with the international community—the United States, for one reason, for not keeping its word; the Europeans for another reason, for not being able to stand on their word. So, yeah, engagement is losing credibility, and by extension, I am losing credibility.
This admission by Zarif can be better perceived by observing the measures Iran has taken in recent weeks. Iran’s moves to down a U.S. drone, allegedly in Iranian airspace, and seize a British oil tanker, in response to the British seizure of an Iranian tanker earlier this month, indicates the rising influence of internal political forces opposed to interaction with the West.
Important security and foreign policy decisions in Iran are made by the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). Council members include the heads of the three branches of government, the chief of staff of the armed forces, the head of the Plan and Budget Organization (PBO), two representatives of the Supreme Leader, the foreign minister, the minister of the interior, the minister of intelligence, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the commander of the army. Decisions made by the Council must be approved by the Supreme Leader.
It can reasonably be concluded that recent Iranian decisions with respect to its compliance with the JCPOA or its response to the seizure of the Grace 1 were made by the Council and approved by the Supreme Leader. Although hardliners were always powerful in Iran, all evidence now points to the dominance of hardliner views, including in the SNSC, over those in favor of interaction, like Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani, who are in charge of the executive branch.
Rouhani took office in 2013 by campaigning for interaction with the West and a solution to the longstanding nuclear crisis. He is now in a position of weakness following Trump’s exit from the JCPOA and the institution of his maximum pressure policy. Both Rouhani and Zarif are under increasing attack by their political opponents for choosing the path of negotiations with the U.S. and European Union.
Rahim Safavi, a former IRGC commander who now serves as an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has severely criticized the current situation in Iran by saying, “Sometimes it looks like the country can be better managed without the [Rouhani] government.” In December 2018, the hardline newspaper Kayhan accused Zarif of deceiving the Iranian people by signing the JCPOA and asked parliament and the judiciary to reprimand him along with other statesmen. Its managing editor, Hossein Shariatmadari, who serves officially as Khamenei’s representative in Kayhan Publications, went on to criticize Zarif’s July 1 interview with CNN as an invitation by the U.S. to destroy Iran. Iranian state TV also televised a series on the arrest of a U.S. spy recently in which Rouhani’s cabinet was condemned time and again in its approach to relations with the U.S.
At the same time, the downing of the U.S. drone and seizure of the British tanker brought a sense of pride to Iranians, especially Iranian youth, bolstering the influence of pro-resistance factions. The drone downing boosted the confidence of Iran’s military leaders, contributing to the seizure of the British tanker. This confidence, taken to the extreme, could be a detriment if it leads those military leaders to overestimate Iran’s strength.
Western leaders who have claimed there is no difference between Iranian moderates, like Zarif and Rouhani, and hardliners must now reconsider their analysis. The present situation has only weakened the position of those who favor interaction with the West. Trump’s actions have undermined their credibility inside Iran. The U.S. president must know that if he hopes to conduct negotiations with Iran one day, he can only do so with the moderate camp. The hardline, pro-resistance camp will not be amenable to talks with the U.S.
The bad news for President Trump is that Iran will hold parliamentary elections in February 2020. If the current trend continues moderates can be expected to suffer a significant defeat, leaving parliament in the hands of hardliners. That trend could then reach its apex in Iran’s 2021 presidential election. As when George W. Bush repaid Iran for its cooperation with the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan by including it in his “Axis of Evil”, leading to the 2005 election of conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in place of outgoing reformist President Mohammad Khatami, the policies of Donald Trump may culminate in an electoral victory for Iranian conservatives.
Such a future serves the interest of none of the parties. Iran must interact with the West to lift sanctions and rebuild its economy. The U.S. and EU must also interact with Iran for stability in the Persian Gulf region and to secure the flow of oil exports. The present situation is a lose-lose for everyone.
Jalil Bayat is a PhD candidate in international relations at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran.
Photo Credit: FARS News Agency, Mehdi Bolourian