As US and Iran knock heads again, Tehran hard-liners feel vindicated

The votes in Congress to extend US non-nuclear sanctions against Iran have hard-liners in Tehran fuming. And the Trump team isn’t likely to improve matters.

Iranian Presidency Office via Associated Press
President Hassan Rouhani speaks at Tehran University, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. Rouhani said Iran will not allow President-elect Donald Trump to "tear up" the landmark nuclear deal with world powers and warned Tehran will react to any extension of US sanctions.

In newspapers and on the airwaves at least, Iran’s hard-liners are feeling vindicated in their visceral anti-Americanism as the post-Obama world begins to take shape.

The hard-liners – who despise America as an enemy, the nuclear deal as a sell-out, and President Hassan Rouhani for his outreach to the West – are now reveling in what a Trump presidency may mean for their agenda of perpetual US-Iran hostility.

President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to “dismantle” the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement, under which Iran shrank its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Mr. Trump has called it “one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Rouhani said Iran would not “allow” Mr. Trump to “rip up the deal,” and analysts say that, for now, hard-line reactions in Iran are likely to have limited influence.

Yet Trump has surrounded himself with anti-Iran advisers, and is reportedly looking for new sanctions to squeeze the Islamic Republic without technically violating the deal.

The final proofs for Iranian hard-liners – in their constant search for US mendacity – were the near unanimous votes by both houses of Congress to extend the Iran Sanctions Act by a decade. The second vote was by the Senate last week, despite opposition from the White House. Iran says that violates the nuclear deal and that it will retaliate.

“Trump’s team and its penchant for regime change in Tehran are a godsend for Iranian hard-liners,” says Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“They no longer need to worry that Iranian pragmatists could go too far too fast through the door [of détente with the US] that had been opened a crack or two. They know that the door is now slammed shut,” says Mr. Vaez, contacted in Washington.

There is no way to overestimate “how easily a virtuous diplomatic quid pro quo could give way to a vicious tit for tat,” says Vaez. “Having said this, I don’t believe that Iranian hard-liners are itching for a fight. Iran compromised [on the deal] because it needed – and still needs – stability.”

The turmoil signifies how fragile and politically explosive the nuclear deal remains for both sides, a year and a half after it was reached by six world powers and Iran. It also exposes Rouhani’s vulnerability as he runs for reelection in six months.

Rouhani still has no serious hard-line challenger, but an economy facing less-than-promised post-deal growth and a Trump wild card that could disintegrate the nuclear deal and re-freeze relations are likely to take a toll on his approval ratings.

'Having an enemy ... is existential'

“I think it is really what the hard-liners wanted to see happening,” says an Iranian official in Tehran who asked not to be named. Analysts and this official say Iran is not likely to take serious, irreversible steps with Trump barely one month from taking office. The president-elect did not mention Iran in a video about his priorities for his first 100 days.

Yet Rouhani’s negotiating team has been accused of “naivety and too much trust in Americans,” says the official. “There are some whose sole intention is to return to the time when nothing was clear. They are [very] ready for trouble.”

Criticism of the nuclear deal in Iran was fierce in some quarters, but kept in check by the tacit support of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He nevertheless warned, as negotiations dragged on for years, that the US remained the “Great Satan” for Iran, and could never be trusted.

“Having an enemy is an inseparable part of hard-liners’ philosophy. It is existential,” adds the official. “Since Day One after the [1979] revolution, they have covered all their shortcomings with one thing, and one thing only: Enemy. You read [that] it is the US that stops us being developed, having a good life. To stay in power, they need this enemy, no matter what.”

A group of 88 Iranian lawmakers proposed legislation Sunday calling for a resumption of Iran’s nuclear efforts “in response to the US violations” of the nuclear deal. Separately, 264 of Iran’s 290 members of parliament called on the government to “respond in kind” to US “irresponsibility.”

An I-told-you-so moment

Chants of “Death to America” reportedly went up among some in parliament, when Rouhani said Sunday that a special committee of the national security council would report on US compliance with the deal. Half the lawmakers also signed a petition banning US imports, which could jeopardize a multi-billion dollar aircraft deal with Boeing.

Articulating its jubilation in an I-told-you-so moment, the day after the US Senate vote to extend sanctions, the hard-line newspaper Kayhan ran the headline: “American coup de grace on the nuclear deal; how trusting Satan pays off!”

Yet as a key architect and proponent of the deal, Rouhani said Tuesday that Iran would not be the first to walk away from it, and would solve all issues in the framework of the six world powers who negotiated it with Iran – not just the US.

“[Trump] wants to do many things, but none of his actions would affect us,” Rouhani told Tehran University students in a speech broadcast live on state TV.

“Do you think he can rip up the [nuclear deal]? Do you think we and our nation will let him do that?” asked Rouhani. He noted that there is “no doubt that the US is our enemy.”

Rouhani said Iran “will react” if Obama does not veto the extension of the sanctions act, and instead uses waivers to stop it being enforced – as has been the case until now, under the nuclear deal.

While such words may aim to mollify Rouhani’s hard-line critics, analysts say the consensus within Iran’s ruling system remains behind the deal, with few other options. So hard-line influence over events will be limited.

Political point-scoring

“The extreme hard-liners in Iran … are complaining, they are using it for political point-scoring against Rouhani,” says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii. “But given the fact that none of them are offering any alternative, in terms of what Iran should do, I don’t see them setting the agenda … or framing the discussion.”

While hard-liners may relish the prospect of a renewed exchange of brickbats with the US, there has been a noticeable absence of comment from Revolutionary Guard commanders. And Rouhani made clear in his live speech Tuesday that every detail of the nuclear talks had been coordinated with Mr. Khamenei, and that letters proving that still exist.

“I just don’t believe this meme that hard-liners in the United States are going to be empowering the hard-liners in Iran,” says Ms. Farhi. “It is true that when Iran is under pressure, the whole political spectrum has to become more reactive. But that does not mean folks like Rouhani would be in opposition to the leader.… Everybody moves in [the same] direction.”

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking in Beijing Monday, said that each of the so-called P5+1 world powers “have the obligation to fully implement” the deal. Over the weekend he said the US vote “shows the unreliability of the American government.”

Mr. Zarif has been a particular target of hard-liners, including one who controversially in the past week accused the veteran diplomat of being an “American agent.”

And the deal itself? The likeliest scenario is that the Trump administration will “kill it softly” by expanding non-nuclear sanctions that would “allow restoration of leverage while muddying the blame game,” such that Washington would not be blamed for any collapse, says analyst Vaez.

If that happens, “What will die with the [nuclear deal] is the willingness to ever again negotiate with the US in good faith,” he says. “The hard-liners in Tehran will be more convinced than before that it is futile; the pragmatists will deem it too risky.”

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