Trump's unintended allies in Iran: the hardliners

Trump's unintended allies in Iran: the hardliners
© Getty Images

If champagne were halal, the hard men of the Islamic Republic of Iran would still be raising glasses to toast President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. They had long scorned the agreement as a futile parley with perfidious Washington; now they can claim to be prescient.

But their festive mood stems mostly from self-interest: The U.S. president has arguably lifted their political and economic fortunes for years to come.

Since 2013, the more hardline forces of Iranian politics, known as the Principlists (for their professed deep belief in the principles of the 1979 Islamic revolution), have lost every election: local, parliamentary and presidential.

Unlike their pragmatist rivals, who believe that the revolution should mellow and make its peace with the world, they have little to offer a population that is exhausted from crisis and economic hardship and seeks normalcy and repose.

ADVERTISEMENT

In 2017, for the first time in years, the hardliners managed to transcend internal squabbles and field a single presidential candidate, the cleric Ebrahim Raisi. They threw everything they had at the pragmatist incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, to no avail. Rouhani won in a landslide that endorsed his vision of greater engagement abroad and cautious reform at home.

 

The Principlists’ only chance at a comeback is for their pragmatist rivals to falter. Rouhani and his allies gambled, investing the whole of their political capital in the nuclear deal with the U.S. and five other world powers.

Iran’s full compliance notwithstanding, the deal’s promised economic dividends never fully materialized; the prospect of those benefits is now fading amid a massive exodus of multinational firms fearful of the reach of Washington’s sanctions.

Rouhani, advocating restraint, is negotiating with the Europeans to preserve as many of the deal’s dividends as possible. The hardliners gloatingly dub his overtures “beggars’ diplomacy." They argue that Europe has neither the will nor a way to stand up to the U.S. and is certain to cave as Washington ratchets up the coercion.

The Principlists mock Rouhani’s seemingly indefatigable hope in engagement with the West: from the Iran-Contra deal with the Reagan administration in the 1980s through the agreement to suspend uranium enrichment with the Europeans in the early 2000s and on to the 2015 nuclear deal.

In each case, they say, the West has betrayed Iran. That the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has enjoined his negotiators to “preserve Iran’s dignity” in the talks with Europe has increased the stakes and diminished their maneuvering space.

The damage to the pragmatists’ standing comes at a fortunate time for the Principlists. Regardless of how much the nuclear deal’s other signatories resist Washington’s pressure, the U.S. sanctions will be felt widely in the run-up to Iran’s 2020 parliamentary and 2021 presidential elections.

The hardliners are sharpening their knives for the moment (inevitable, they believe) when the other signatories let the pragmatists down again.

In 2005, Rouhani (then Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator) failed to get the Europeans to reciprocate Tehran’s voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment, in part due to pressure applied by John Bolton — then at the State Department and now President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE’s national security advisor.

That led to the downfall of the pragmatists and catapulted hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency. This time around, the hardliners are openly promoting the idea of electing a revolutionary guards commander as the next president.

With the 78-year-old supreme leader’s succession looming, control of the Iranian revolution’s direction is up for grabs. Rouhani is tipped by some as a contender to take Khamenei’s place.

The hardline chairman of the assembly of experts, the body responsible for selecting the next supreme leader, accordingly lost no time after the U.S. withdrawal in casting doubt upon Rouhani’s political acumen.

He sent the president an open letter, demanding his apology for overlooking Khamenei’s guidelines in negotiating the nuclear deal, both rubbing salt in the fresh wound and hinting that Rouhani lacks what it takes to be supreme leader.

Of course, vested economic interests are at stake. During the previous sanctions regime (2006-2013), companies affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards and the institutions controlled by the Principlists filled the vacuum left behind by multinationals.

A new stratum of Iranian nouveau riche emerged, flaunting Porsches and Maseratis on the streets of Tehran and buying mansions in Toronto and elsewhere. They made their billions through circumvention of sanctions and embezzlement.

As Washington tries once more to stifle the Iranian economy, it is breathing new life into those whom Rouhani has called the “merchants of sanctions.”

Observing Iran’s aging leadership, ailing economy, depreciating currency and growing popular discontent, the Trump administration senses vulnerability.

What it neglects is that existential angst also empowers the system’s security brigades, who have developed a formidable capacity for repression of a population that has scant appetite for chaos and violence.

Overestimating the yearning of the latter for change while underestimating the determination of the former to “reign in hell rather than serve in heaven” would be a grave mistake.

In 1980, Washington winked at Saddam Hussein when he invaded Iran in the hope of nipping the revolutionary order in the bud. The brutal eight-year war ended up solidifying the Islamic Republic, instead of subduing it.

Now, as the Iranian revolution nears its 40th anniversary, a cavalier steward of American power is likely to help enthrone Iran’s most zealous elements, while condemning its moderates to the political wilderness. 

Ali Vaez directs the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization.