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Iran’s hardliners benefit from US ramping up talk of sanctions

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends parliament. Abedin Taherkenareh

The landmark nuclear deal struck in Vienna between Iran and a coalition of Western powers in 2015 aimed to reduce the global nuclear threat posed by Iran. In return for Iran accepting constraints on its nuclear programme, the P5+1 countries – the US, UK, France, China and Russia, plus Germany – and the European Union pledged to lift sanctions which had impoverished Iran for several decades.

A statement by former US president, Barack Obama, that Saudi Arabia would have to accept greater Iranian influence in the region as a result was also assumed to be a major policy shift for the US. But with the election of Donald Trump as president, this new power balance is under threat. A war of words between Washington and Tehran appears to reflect the new administration’s view of Iran as a global threat rather than merely a regional troublemaker.

The previous administration’s strategy was supposed to insulate the US from conflict in the Middle East – which Obama believed had nothing to do with America’s national interest. The nuclear deal would also ideally bring some peace in the region between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Iran signed the deal on the assumption that it would remove the military threat against Iran. In exchange for the International Atomic Energy Agency having more control over Iran’s nuclear programme, Iran would keep a presence in the region, there would be a guarantee of security of the regime, and the US would lift sanctions against it.

But the new US administration appears to now want to again control the country’s behaviour after Iran carried out a missile test and continued its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen. The US announced sanctions against companies and individuals suspected of being involved in Iran’s nuclear programme, and suggested further pressure to come. As Trump himself tweeted:

It is possible that Trump’s policy will push Iran to conduct more ballistic missile tests, get involved more in Yemen and other new targets in the region, play a counterproductive role in Iraq and possibly increase its aggressive cyber programme.

Hard times

Internally, securing the nuclear deal and improving Iran-US relations are President Hasan Rouhani’s two biggest achievements, which he hopes to use in a campaign to get reelected in elections on May 19.

Despite the implementation of the deal, its impact on Iran’s economy and Iranians’ daily lives is not yet palpable. Iranians, who in the last few years put all their hopes for a better economic situation on the nuclear deal, are now facing an escalating rhetoric from the new US administration. Despite this, Rouhani has pledged to further improve Iran’s relations with the West and even to remove the remaining sanctions, as a means of inviting foreign investment into the country and creating tangible economic change.

The immediate result of the rising tension now between the US and Iran is that it undermines Iranian moderates, including Rouhani’s government, which put all their political capital in the deal in the lead up to this month’s election. It is increasingly difficult for Rouhani to sell the deal to voters now given Trump’s rhetoric.

Rouhani’s hardliner competitors, Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, and Ebrahim Raisi, chairman of Astan Quds Razavi, one of the Muslim world’s wealthiest charities, have concentrated their campaign on the economic problems, which Iranians have continued to face since the deal. So there is a real danger that hopeless and tired Iranians will do the same thing they did 12 years ago when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president through a vote for that populist hardliner.

Trump’s foreign policy and the future of the Iran deal will play a significant role in Iran’s presidential election. On the one hand there’s Rouhani who is trying to convince voters and reassure the international community that the continuation of moderate government in Iran for the next four years will result in more integration of Iran in the global system and improve Iran’s economy. On the other hand are the hardliners trying to change the outcome of the election by questioning the intangible result of the deal in light of escalating tension between Iran and the US.

It is true that regardless of what happens in the election, Iran will not alter its overall anti-Western outlook. But it is also arguable that the only chance to diffuse the tension between the West and Iran in the long term is for the moderates to stay in power.

Pushing the Iranian public towards hardliners is the probable outcome of a harsher US line. The threat of another populist and anti-Western administration in Iran is real and dangerous, in light of the economic hardship people are currently facing.

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