Trump’s Iran Policy Is More about Rollback than Nukes
by Joshua Landis The renewed US offensive against Iran is not so much about its...
Published on November 14th, 2016 | by Farideh Farhi2
Trump Presidency and Iran’s Domestic Politics
by Farideh Farhi
Ever since the 2009 Iranian elections, when I suggested in my writings and interviews that fraud was involved, a supporter of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad takes delight in sending me emails regarding events and information that in his mind prove me wrong about the electoral fraud. I hadn’t heard from him for a while but, sure enough, after Donald Trump’s victory, I received another delighted note. He uses a different name every time he sends a note. This time, his apt chosen self-title was Binam Irani (unnamed Iranian). And this is what the Iranian hardliner who is too chicken to name himself wrote:
As Americans take to the streets in protests and riots across the country at the shock election of Donald Trump, one can only feel a little bit of schadenfreude for what happened seven years ago. Despite a decisive victory at the polls, some Iranians rejected a democratic outcome and chose instead to burn buses and pelt police with rocks. The twist in the tale is that Trump won despite alleging the possibility of massive fraud which, as with Iran 2009, did not occur.
Anyway, at least according to Iran’s constitution the person who gets the most votes wins the presidential election – unlike in the United States where the loser of the popular vote can win and, in this case, did win. Enjoy the next four years of Trump which, hopefully, will see the end of the Iran nuclear deal and the removal of Rouhani next year.
Setting aside the conflicted first paragraph about whether post-election protests are delightful or not (apparently yes in the US and not in Iran), the “hope” expressed in the second part about the Trump presidency ending the Iran nuclear deal, then leading to Rouhani’s loss in his run for a second term, caught my eye. Observers of Iranian politics, like my correspondent from Iran, have proclaimed the Trump presidency and the potential end of the nuclear deal a preferred outcome for hardliners and calamitous for Rouhani’s presidency.
I have no way of knowing what President-elect Trump will eventually do. At this point I am not even sure if he does. But, as a supporter of the nuclear agreement, I have good reason to fear that pressuring Iran is the easiest issue over which Trump can accommodate the Republican Party establishment and, given the advice Hillary Clinton was getting, even the Democratic Party honchos. Going after Iran has always been the lowest hanging fruit around. Compared to deadlock and paralysis regarding most other issues, it’s relatively easy to build consensus around beating up Iran. And it can certainly happen again.
However, I am not at all convinced of the connection made between the scrapping of the nuclear agreement and hardliners rise (and by implication Rouhani’s demise).
What Do Iranian Hardliners Want?
The so-called hardliners in Iran are not of one type. The likes of my correspondent Binam are actually on the margins of the Iranian political system with little sway within the establishment these days (hence the expression of hope about Rouhani’s removal). Meanwhile, the folks that Iran observers in the West usually identify as hardline—Leader Khamenei himself and the top ranks of the Revolutionary Guard and other security services—may be hawks in US parlance but are neither crazy nor take delight in sanctions and confrontation. They do believe in responding to threats with counter-threats (and bluster with counter-bluster). But they gave support to the nuclear negotiations and approved the agreement.
Furthermore, unlike marginalized hardliners such as Binam who never liked the accord to begin with and now take delight in its potential unraveling, this hawkish cohort have not shown any signs of preferring to abandon the nuclear accord—whatever their complaints about the Obama administration not playing its part in easing financial transactions,. Conservative and reformist commentators and politicians have speculated about the possibility of Trump being less threatening than Clinton because he’ll be less able to mobilize an international consensus against Iran. They have also pointed to his statement that fighting the Islamic State is more important than ousting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his emphasis on domestic affairs and economic rebuilding as opposed to military forays abroad. But the Iranian political and security establishment’s posture is basically a calibrated wait, see, and then react based on how Trump manages the multilateral nature of the agreement.
To be sure, prior to Trump election, Khamenei did suggest that Iran would “light the agreement on fire” if the US reneged on its side. But his complaints about the nuclear accord have always been framed as a reason to prevent further interaction with the US over other issues of conflict. Yes, he agreed to nuclear negotiations and gave his stamp of approval, but US conduct since the nuclear accord suggests that it could not be trusted in talks regarding other issues. Further, his assent to the inclusion of a highly complex mechanism for addressing “non-performance by another JCPOA participant” through the establishment of a joint commission, consisting of all the countries that negotiated the nuclear accord, is precisely intended to reiterate its multilateral nature. Such a measure is designed as an insurance policy, albeit not a perfect one, against such rash reactions.
Proponents of continued pressure on Iran seem to understand the problem the multilateral nature of the accord poses for its unilateral rejection by the US. This is why their hope and strategy in the post-Obama era, even if Hillary Clinton had been elected, was to provoke Iran into rejecting the nuclear deal through efforts to bring back some of the old sanctions, either under a new guise or through lack of vigor in implementing the nuclear accord.
For instance, contemplating a Trump presidency, physicist and former nuclear weapons inspector David Albright, in a July 2016 interview with the Persian language Radio Farda, acknowledged that the nuclear agreement derives its existence and legitimacy from the UNSC and this makes its abandonment “difficult but possible.” But if Trump is “smart,” he could tinker with the agreement in such a way as to “lead Iran into taking the first step in violating” it. Using the example of the US-North Korea nuclear agreement that was abandoned, Albright goes on to say (my retranslation from Persian into English):
When the Bush Administration came to office he said that he did not like the agreement but everyone remembers that it was North Korea that took the first step. The Bush Administration in a way created the incentive for North Korea to move away from the agreement. North Korea was accused of having a high enrichment program. It was called a non-compliant country. But if we look back, the reality was that it was the Bush Administration that moved away from the agreement but it was North Korea that did it officially and this can happen regarding the JCPOA….The Iranian regime is invariable, to some extent nationalist, and and at times violent and such a regime could be provoked to move away from the accord.
Trump may end up being very “smart,” but Iran’s leadership is probably not stupid enough to fall into such an openly articulated trap. In fact, the aforementioned set-up within the JCPOA to discuss and address non-performance or violations within the P5+1 framework is designed to prevent all sides from being provoked and making any rash moves. The set up allows Iran to publicly identify the United States as the violator of an international agreement with Iran. It’s the best option for Iran if Trump heeds advice to go back to the first-term of the George W. Bush administration and its posture of military threats, economic pressure, global isolation, and push for regime change. Iran does not have the power to isolate the United States, but the P5+1 set up allows it to isolate the US on this one particular issue.
If Iran’s best option is to not fall in the reactive trap and continue working with other countries who participated in the formulation of the JCPOA, stability and continuity at the top combined with active diplomacy to paint the US as the egregious party will be needed more than ever. In the face of an erratic and unstable leadership in the United States, Rouhani’s reelection can best project steady direction and collective management while a foreign policy team that has developed deep rapport with other members of P5+1 can optimally pursue the task of isolating the US position on Iran.
As to what the Iranian population would do if Iran’s main interlocutor rejects Rouhani’s signature achievement, it may be foolhardy to speculate at this point. In this world of unreliable forecasting, one perhaps should not go on a limb and declare anything definite about any populace. But the Iranian electorate has already had its moment of replacing an articulate and erudite president (Mohammad Khatami) with another president endowed with adolescent vocabulary and vulgarity (Ahmadinejad) who won against an establishment candidate (Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani). It has also witnessed its polarizing political and disastrous economic consequences, which were not that long ago to be forgotten. No wonder the presumed hardline leader of Iran just recommended that Ahmadinejad not run in the upcoming presidential election for fear that he would polarize the country at a time when stability and consensus is needed.
All in all, irrespective of what Trump does regarding the nuclear accord, the centrist course and continuity Rouhani represents should be deemed right by both the Iranian political establishment and public in the face of an internally unsettled US with a leadership that now looks way scarier and more unpredictable to most of the world than its counterpart in Iran.
Photo: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei