Iranian hardliners saying, 'I told you so,' after US withdrawal

Iranian hardliners saying, 'I told you so,' after US withdrawal
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE’s withdrawal of U.S. participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran nuclear deal is dangerous and built upon significant risks and miscalculations for the U.S., the wider Middle East and Iran.

Rather than address Iran’s wider interference across the Middle East and beyond its borders, Trump’s strategy is designed to accomplish one of two difficult outcomes — that increased U.S. economic pressure on Tehran will force it to capitulate to Trump’s demands to improve upon the “worst deal ever,” or that such pressure would weaken the already fragile Islamic Republic and lead to political change in Tehran.

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This high-risk strategy is predicated on the misplaced belief among Trump’s advisors and allies in Tel Aviv and Riyadh that Tehran only responds to confrontation and pressure.

 

This forthcoming U.S. pressure coming to bear on Iran though will not yield the results that Trump seeks. In fact, quite the opposite is likely to happen.

It is worthwhile recalling that despite almost four decades of U.S. sanctions against Tehran, the Iranian government has yet to alter its ideological course or change its meddlesome behavior in the region.

Indeed, one could argue that Iran has honed its asymmetrical ties and deepened its proxy relationships in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Moreover, it is also worth recalling that the narrative of regime survival against international pressure can be seen in Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq from 1980-88 and its standoff with the international community over its nuclear program from 2003-2015.   

Iranian hardliners, like Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have been further vindicated by the U.S. withdrawal. Despite repeated reports of Iranian compliance in the deal confirmed repeatedly by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Khamenei was dubious from the outset that Washington could be trusted to live up to its commitments.

As early as August 2016, a mere six months after the implementation of the nuclear accord, Khamenei stated “The JCPOA, as an experience, once again proved the futility of negotiations with the Americans, their lack of commitment to their promises and the necessity of distrust of US pledges.”

Drawing on the fraught history of tensions and deep mistrust on both sides, Khamenei has long held the belief that the U.S. seeks regime change in Tehran and would move the goal posts as it just did.

This has cultivated a paranoid anti-American narrative and existential fear of survival among hardliners who always saw the nuclear deal as a vehicle for increased foreign influence in Tehran at their expense. Ultimately, the end of the JCPOA emboldens their vision and narrative of resistance against U.S. influence and interference.

For them, this is best achieved through the “axis of resistance” alliance between Hezbollah, Syria’s Assad and Tehran and support of other proxy actors in Iraq and Yemen, all of which has the potential destabilize the region.

Iran’s pragmatic relationships with Russia and China are now more important than ever to forestall Tehran’s economic isolation and provide diplomatic cover.

This “told you so moment” is Khamenei’s opportunity to build upon domestically too. To stave off this American threat, Iranian factionalism will be tamed under the banner of national unity.

President Rouhani’s failed legacy of economic integration with the international community will be used to weaken him further leaving him as a lame duck president.

Nationalistic rhetoric will also be used to translate popular frustration and deep disappointment into anger against the United States, giving the regime a newfound ability to connect with its citizens and rally around the flag.

Iranians, who were long considered the most pro-American Middle Eastern population, now feel increasingly abandoned by the United States. This might be hard to imagine after the world witnessed nationwide protests throughout Iran in December 2017 and January 2018.

These protests are indeed important and bear witness to the widespread economic and political challenges and cleavages that exist in Iran. Those will not go away, but in the face of international pressure they will also not bring down the Islamic Republic. 

Sanam Vakil, Ph.D., is the James Anderson adjunct professor teaching Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Europe and an associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House.