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Trump’s hostility to Nuclear Deal could polarise Iranian opinion even further

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed on July 15, 2015 to limit Tehran’s controversial nuclear enrichment programme in exchange for sanctions relief, seems now to be under serious threat. On October 13, in a widely expected but still alarming speech, US President Donald Trump described the deal as “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the US has ever entered into”, announced he would decertify it, and called for a renegotiation that would curb the Revolutionary Guards’ ballistic missile programme.

Although Trump stopped short of calling for a full cancellation of the JCPOA, commonly referred to as the Iranian nuclear deal, his wording reveals the extent to which his new strategy differs from Obama’s. Trump expressed solidarity with the people of Iran, whom he called the Iranian dictatorial regime’s “longest-suffering victims”, and chose to use the term “Arabian Gulf” instead of the internationally recognised “Persian Gulf” – a sign of his warmth towards Saudi Arabia.

So why, then, was Tehran’s immediate reaction so muted?

The Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani, attaches great importance to the deal, seen as crucial to Iran’s economic growth. Thus, although Iran’s long-term course of action probably will be determined by the US Congress decision to preserve, modify or back out of the deal on December 14, Rouhani’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, stated after Trump’s October announcement that so long as the nuclear deal’s European signatories stick to its terms, Iran will comply as well.

Rouhani wanted also to contain the potential harsh reaction of Iranian hardliners, who have opposed the nuclear deal since its inception, and tried to avoid further domestic polarisation over the deal’s merits by trying to keep the country united against Trump and defending the Revolutionary Guards against his allegations.

Nevertheless, the Rouhani government’s efforts to simply stay the course are not sustainable long-term. A closer look at Iranian media coverage of the decertification confirms just how complex and divided the Iranian political sphere is on this critical issue.

Press review

Across the board, the response of media outlets to Trump’s actions threw the country’s political debate into sharp relief. The conservative and moderate media alike depicted Trump as an unreliable counterpart who cannot be trusted. Mockery, caricatures, and invitations “to study the history of the Persian Gulf” were reported in a wide range of papers such as Ebtekar, Iran, Jaam-e Jam and Kayhan.

However, Iranian media outlets are financed by and related to all manner of different political factions, and they do not lack diversity in views.

The conservative media stuck to the anti-American themes that have been in constant use since the 1979 Iranian revolution. According to Jaam-e Jam, Trump has finally unveiled “his anti-Iran strategy”. For Javal, a paper close to the conservative Principlists and critical of the nuclear deal’s provisions, Trump’s attempt to mislead global public opinion reveals the US’s intention “to confront Iran’s increasing role in the region”.

One particularly interesting response came from conservative outlet Kayhan. Reflecting the hardliners’ longstanding opposition to the accord, the paper welcomed Trump’s speech, saying it would open Rouhani’s eyes to the unreliability of his Western partners and eventually convince him to scrap the deal.

More moderate papers, meanwhile, were bitter at Trump’s attack on the “historic deal”, but they showed little surprise. Ebtekar, Etemad, Jomhouri Eslami and Besharat-e Now all focused on Rouhani’s intention to preserve it with the support of the European signatories. Hamdeli, Aftab and Sharg strongly emphasised the need to “adopt a path of moderation”, while the Islamic Republic News Agency offered responses imploring Iranians not to fall into Trump’s trap and allow public opinion to become polarised.

Iranians take in the news of Trump’s decertification announcement. Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA

While the media landscape has been reproducing the different stances of Iran’s political factions, many Iranians are using social media, primarily Twitter and Facebook, to criticise Trump for taking a harder line on the Islamic republic. Words such as “mistrust”, “bully”, and “disappointment” have been widely used, with supporters of the deal clearly afraid that Trump will eventually undermine it. Their hope is that the deal’s other signatories will stand up for it and won’t surrender to Trump’s pressures to renegotiate.

Iranian critics of the deal have interpreted Trump’s decertification as a sign of the JCPOA failure. This narrative is particularly alarming if we set it against surveys on Iranian public opinion. Researchers at the Centre for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) and IranPoll found that Iranian support for the deal is still high (55%), but substantially lower than it was in August 2015 (75%).

Due to the slow pace of economic recovery, many Iranians feel that the nuclear deal is not living up with the expectations. They blame Washington for the JCPOA ineffectiveness as they perceive the US is limiting other countries’ trade with Iran. It is not surprising therefore that Iranians do not intend to renegotiate the deal with Trump.

Regardless of the immediate implications of Trump’s decision, it is sure to have long-term repercussions. The number of Iranians who want to resume the controversial activities suspended under the nuclear deal is already significant, and it may well increase. With Trump in office, international investors and multinationals will think twice before entering the Iranian market, in turn undermining the positive effects of sanctions relief.

Meanwhile, Rouhani is struggling to keep Iranian hardliners sweet; the Revolutionary Guards recently announced an expansion of Iran’s missile program, and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei threatened to shred the deal to pieces if the US backs out of it.

All this will only polarise Iranian public opinion further and undermine domestic support for the deal, which has been crucial to legitimise Rouhani’s foreign policy. The hope is that, regardless of Washington’s moves, the understanding between the Iranian President and the nuclear deal’s signatories will remain intact, and that Europeans leaders won’t cave in to Trump’s pressures.

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