Argument

Iran Is Not About to Fall for Trump’s Trap

President Hassan Rouhani is positioning himself to be the next supreme leader — and he isn't going to let U.S. threats to blow up the nuclear deal get in his way.

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President Donald Trump likes a good war of words with foreign leaders. And besides the North Koreans, the leadership in Iran makes a first-rate target for him. After all, one of his signature campaign pledges was to undo the 2015 nuclear deal that Barack Obama’s administration signed with Tehran and five world powers.

Since Trump’s earliest days in office, he has kept alive the threat that he might unilaterally withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a multilateral agreement unanimously endorsed by the U.N. Security Council. This represents a challenge to Trump’s counterpart in Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani, who made the deal his administration’s central accomplishment and is now banking that the U.S. president will stick to it despite Trump’s rhetoric.

But Rouhani can’t let Trump’s threats go unanswered. On Aug. 15, he warned that if Trump imposed new sanctions, Iran could turn the nuclear clock back to where it was prior to the 2015 deal and could do so “not within months and weeks, but in a matter of hours and days.” In Washington, this was interpreted to mean that Tehran might undo all the concessions it made during the negotiation process and, in a bat of the eye, move back to the edge of a nuclear weapons capability.

Iran has its own merciless politics, and Rouhani’s gambit is an effort to prevent Trump’s denunciations of the deal from acting as an anchor around his neck. At worst, U.S. opposition to the deal could hinder his domestic agenda and serve as ammunition for members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other hard-liners, who never believed that Washington would keep its end of the bargain. For Rouhani, the nuclear agreement was never an end in itself: Its successful implementation was to be the catapult that would propel him to the highest office in the Islamic Republic. He clearly seems loath to let Trump push him off his path.

No doubt, the recently re-elected Rouhani has greater political ambitions left in him. It is a safe bet to assume he is already eyeing the top job in the regime, the position of supreme leader.

The incumbent, 78-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has no plans to go anywhere just yet — but Rouhani has to start preparing the ground if he is serious about taking Khamenei’s post when the current supreme leader dies. In this jockeying for power, and with Trump’s threats in the background, Rouhani has no option but to up the rhetorical ante to mollify his right flank. For Rouhani, appearing soft in the face of Trump’s warnings is tantamount to political suicide.

Nonetheless, the Iranian president’s statements on the future of the nuclear deal are carefully considered. They in no way indicate that Iran intends to abrogate the nuclear agreement at the first opportunity. In fact, the unanimous view across the Iranian political space is that Trump’s aim is to goad Tehran to walk away from the deal on its own.

As Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, put it, Trump is laying a “trap,” and Iran will not fall for it. Elsewhere, in an explicit signal to the Europeans, China, and the Russians, Shamkhani also said that “Iran is not willing to keep JCPOA at any cost, for JCPOA is valid only if all parties continue to respect it.”

Iran wants to press the other parties to the nuclear deal to do their utmost to minimize the damage that may arise from American resistance. This is most evident in Tehran’s insistence that the major economic powers in Europe and Asia ignore Trump’s call to shun the Iranian economy. In other words, Tehran is engaging in its own systematic goading of international public opinion by trying to isolate Trump. As long as all the other signatories to the deal continue to abide by it, the Iranians will have no urge to walk away. Nor does the leadership in Tehran believe that Trump will have the political capital, at home or on the international stage, to mobilize support for renewed sanctions on Iran.

On Aug. 15, Rouhani made another point that did not receive as much attention as his remarks about turning back the nuclear clock. He said criticism inside Iran about the 2015 deal has subsided. He is right, and it is an important point. He is no longer depicted as the father of a deal that was meant to produce sanctions relief but that his hard-line foes said was a pledge that was dead on arrival. With the Iranian presidential elections over, the hard-liners are instead turning their condemnation to Trump for his anti-deal posturing.

What should Washington make of this political convergence in Tehran? It’s important not to get too excited: Yes, Rouhani and even his most ardent critics agree that the nuclear deal is both a reality and worth saving. But whether this confluence amounts to a new trajectory in Iranian politics remains to be seen.

Here is what we do know. Rouhani’s landslide election victory on May 19 was made possible only because Iran’s vast reformist-minded voter class opted to come out and cast a vote. The almost 24 million who backed him, many reluctantly, wanted to empower the president to forge ahead with bold policies that pressed for the release of political prisoners and increased representation for women and religious minorities. After all, that is what he promised as the incumbent candidate.

But so far Rouhani has shown no appetite for boldness in his second term. Instead, he appears to be doubling down on his first-term playbook — recognizing that change in the Islamic Republic can only be instituted by co-opting the supreme leader and not by attempting to force an agenda on Khamenei.

This is already evident. Just look at the makeup of Rouhani’s cabinet nominations, which are up for confirmation this week. Not only did Rouhani reportedly seek Khamenei’s approval before the list was sent to the parliament for confirmation, an unusual step and one that contravenes the constitution, but his nominees are hardly of the reformist ilk. Mohammad Khatami, the elder of the reformist movement, who had backed Rouhani, was forced to publicly remind the president about his campaign promises.

Meanwhile, in his inauguration speech on Aug. 5, Rouhani avoided any topic that might dismay Khamenei. There was no mention of freeing political prisoners or questioning the vast powers of the IRGC or its military interventions in Syria and Iraq. Rouhani focused on assuring that there are no serious splits inside the regime and dismissed the idea of duality of power in Tehran as merely a myth. Foreign businesses, he said, should feel safe investing in Iran.

The head of the IRGC, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, did not attend the inauguration — perhaps a signal that contradicts Rouhani’s attempt to prove Iranian politics is in harmony. It isn’t, but Rouhani is not the only one who wants to move the political pendulum toward the center.

Khamenei’s own recent appointments also suggest a desire to strengthen the nucleus of the regime by keeping both reformists and the far-right out of key positions. His appointments this week to the Expediency Council, an organ that mediates between the elected parliament and the unelected Guardian Council, were devoid of both radical reformists and any candidates from the far right.

The fact that Khamenei and Rouhani are acting in concert is not coincidental and should not come as a surprise. Neither man is interested in major disruptions inside the regime. Meanwhile, a feasible strategy for Rouhani, as he looks to make himself into the inevitable choice for the top job when the day arrives, is to broaden his base.

Rouhani successfully cajoled reformist voters to pull the lever for him in the last presidential election — but, going forward, this is not the constituency that he needs the most. If he hopes to rise to the Islamic Republic’s top post, he needs to move toward the political center and even further to the right, where he will find the IRGC and other hard-liners. Rouhani’s calculated war of words with Trump has to be seen in this broad context: Iran is unlikely to violate the nuclear deal as long as the EU, Russia, and China stick to it, but threatening to walk away will help the Iranian president’s political strategy at home.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Alex Vatanka is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Making of Iranian Foreign Policy: Contested Ideology, Personal Rivalries and the Domestic Struggle to Define Iran’s Place in the World. Follow him on Twitter at: @AlexVatanka. @AlexVatanka

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