Trump Has Strengthened Hardliners in Iran

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

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  1. Having an all smiling personality did certainly buy some time for the Ayatollahs. But the world has seen through all these airs and graces. At the end of the day, the hard core Ayatollahs, are the only version worth dealing with. But what is more embarrassing, is to read so many articles, from so many with modern education apologizing the Ayatollahs’ behaviour. They all thought that you can somehow blame the foreign countries for all the problems, instead of some very innocent looking Ayatollah. Now even the most die-hard US hater, knows better than to give the benefit of the doubt to any Ayatollah. It took us 40 years to get here. The world will only deal with the nastiest element in this horrible regime, as they are the only people who control that apparatus of power, until it self-destructs. And we are seeing it all just fall apart more and more, as all the various factions are starting to fight each other. No more funds, even from the Chinese. They are surrounded and they can’t go anywhere. This is the endgame. I pray to Ahuramazda that they go non-violently. Somehow I just cannot see this angry lot going calmly.

  2. Why the author presumed that the west favors a more Democratic Iran while it is not the case. West only wants influence and usually, democracy is not a way for it. See for instance how they are supporting Haftar in Libya and Sisi in Egypt and … If the help for democracy they have a coup plan in their pocket. For Iraq, they created the ISIS to do the work and when failed they are insisting on the removal of PMF because they have used to work with armies on coups around the world and a parallel force makes it hard to imagine! For Afghanistan, it is the same if the go out means that they have found a substitute for keeping the influence. That’s why they evacuated Iraq for ISIS but now with no treat for Iraq, they don’t want to do so.

  3. A note to the Lobe Log editor,

    Why picture of ayatollah Khamenei was chosen for this article? In addition to title and image chosen is the editor is trying to implement that Ayatollah Khamenei is the face of “hardliners” in Iran. Note to LL editors, it is the western propaganda that is trying to weaken the imaged of the leader by tenting him as a hardliner and someone who is not flexible. That doesn’t seem to be logical or true. IMO rightly so and for all good reasons he is skeptical and doesn’t trust the west on many solid historical grounds that is not hidden from anyone by now. But he never refused or stood up to negotiate with west as long as Iranian rights have been respected by the other side. After all he agreed with all Iran vs west negotiations ever since the beginning, but he always cautioned the Iran’ negotiators to “NOT to trust and verify “ that is in fact what Regan said. In the western tactics of negotiations someone who is cautious to protect his nations rights is labeled as hardliner since his not willing to do the west’ bidding. Considering, JCPOA, Obama and Trump including the rest of US’ European satrapies one can see he was absolutely right, Americans and their European subservient are not trustable or reliable. Lobe Log shouldn’t fall in propaganda trap.

  4. Jalil Bayat

    In my opinion, the economic war of US against Iran cannot be stopped; there is no venue for negotiations – except negativing articles of Iranian Surrender.

    It reminds me of the early days of Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein, having made major advances against Iran, was seeking negotiations and a suspension of hostilities (to consolidate his gains).

    This is no different.

    Iran, the Shia, and the members of the Iranian Alliance system are on their own; receiving some help from China, Russia and some of the like-minded states.

    The West wants Iran gone. why is it so hard for you to grasp that.

  5. Kooshy – As the supreme leader Khamenei bears the ultimate responsibility. Presidents and Prime Ministers have come and gone, so why is it that after 40 years Iran is still in a state of constant conflict? The revolution was over a long long time ago.
    If you want to call yourself a supreme leader, you also have supreme responsibilities. Iranian politicians are so subservient that they seek his permission for everything, yet when things go wrong, he is quick to blame others. Don’t give him a pass. Think how different things would be if Sistani was in charge.

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