In Iran, It's Trump's America That Looks Like a Rogue State
“Who’s not acting like a normal state?” The rhetorical question from Iran’s foreign minister to a New York audience took aim at President Donald Trump’s administration for exiting global treaties on issues from arms control to climate change. Yet foremost in Mohammed Javad Zarif’s mind was the U.S. decision to rip itself free from the 2015 nuclear accord.
Trump blames the breakdown on Iranian military meddling in the Middle East, and he’s struck at the nation’s economic jugular to try and force it to change behavior. But his riding roughshod over diplomatic agreements swung the pendulum of Iranian politics toward hardliners digging in for greater confrontation, rather than engagement, with the West. More moderate politicians face a dilemma: become more strident or be pushed to the margins.
“The political camp that opposed the nuclear deal is getting stronger,” said Hamidreza Azizi, an assistant professor of international relations at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran. Sentiment has nosedived since “it became clear that the U.S. is acting as a hegemon.”
About 40 percent of Iranians now disapprove of the multiparty agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, according to the latest survey by research firm IranPoll. That’s double what it was in early 2016, when most sanctions on Iran were lifted, and higher than a year ago before Trump pulled out of the deal.
While most observers consider it likely that Iran will attempt to wait out the rest of Trump’s first term and hope he loses in 2020 rather than walk away from the agreement, it’s signaling its patience is wearing thin, including with European nations who want to protect their trade from U.S. penalties.
“A year has passed since the U.S. left the deal and these countries still haven’t found ways to ensure gains for Iran,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said Wednesday. “The International Atomic Energy Agency in 14 reports has confirmed that Iran is standing by its commitments.”
As the mood sours, even reformist lawmakers are calling on Zarif to appear before parliament to explain why Iran’s still bothering to abide by the deal that Trump unilaterally trashed.
“The U.S. officially left the deal and is widening the scope of its cruel sanctions by the day,” Mahmoud Sadeghi, a member of the moderate camp, said April 24, according to a local news service. “Why isn’t the Iranian government pulling out?”
Reza Babaei, a taxi driver who works 15-hour days for what he describes as a paltry income, echoed that view. “If the U.S. is bullying, we must stand up to them,” he said. “Whether the nuclear deal is good or bad, we must decide once and for all.”
Surging prices and shortages of food and medicine that the standoff has created could yet feed into pre-existing grievances over unemployment, a lack of freedoms and official corruption to the point where the regime feels compelled to offer Trump concessions.
But for now the mood appears more in tune with the argument that caving will only invite more blows from a U.S. administration that’s made suppressing Iran a centerpiece of its Mideast strategy, to the benefit of Iran’s chief regional foes: Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Iranian leaders “have logic behind their actions and they have patience,” said Foad Izadi, a conservative foreign policy analyst at the University of Tehran who’s been critical of President Hassan Rouhani’s policies. “You could see a change of policy but it will be gradual, it’s not going to be overnight.”
The economic crisis unleashed by U.S. sanctions means Rouhani’s government has little to show for its engagement with the West 10 months before elections for a new parliament. The growing despair could help set the country’s political direction for the foreseeable future.
U.S. officials contend that political moderation in Iran is “a facade,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. But politicians like Zarif and Rouhani had enthused “a large segment of the Iranian public,” forcing their views to be accommodated by conservatives.
“If that portion of the population is deflated, then it’s much easier to rule over them,” he said.
Threats by Iranian military officials to close the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway vital for global oil shipments, have been dismissed by analysts as chest thumping to win concessions from Europe, China and Russia. Similarly, watchers of Iran doubt it’ll nix the nuclear deal and expand its uranium-enrichment program—doing so would carry the risk of military action and a return to pariah status—or exit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
One response might be walking back some of its commitments under the agreement, such as limiting the scope of nuclear inspections.
And there will almost certainly be more interventions from the likes of influential Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani, who directed many of Iran’s military operations to help defeat Islamic State and rescue allied governments in Iraq and Syria. His popularity has seen him tipped as a potential future president.
Last month, Trump formally designated Soleimani’s Revolutionary Guards, a unit of the Iranian military, as a terrorist organization.
“The enemy wants to drag us to the negotiating table,” Soleimani said this week. “These negotiations would be tantamount to surrender. We won’t agree to such indignity.”