Reza Marashi joined NIAC in 2010 as the organization’s first Research Director. He came to NIAC after four years in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Prior to his tenure at the State Department, he was an analyst at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) covering China-Middle East issues, and a Tehran-based private strategic consultant on Iranian political and economic risk. Marashi is frequently consulted by Western governments on Iran-related matters. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, and The National Interest, among other publications. He has been a guest contributor to CNN, NPR, the BBC, TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, and the Financial Times, among other broadcast outlets. Follow Reza on Twitter: @rezamarashi
With Donald Trump threatening to invade Venezuela and start a nuclear war with North Korea, his stated intention to refuse certifying Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the nuclear deal between America, Iran, Europe, Russia, and China – has fallen from the headlines. However, the gravity of how he appears to be moving toward that end could spark a policy crisis. To hear his allies outside of government tell it, Trump’s plan to kill the Iran deal is the same one he uses to produce Trump suits and neckties: Outsourcing. Two key points highlight this scheme.
First, Trump’s failure to certify Iran’s compliance would give the Republican-led Congress ultimate decision-making powers over whether to stick to the nuclear deal. The reason for this is evident in the underlying statute – the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). Under INARA, the President is required to provide a “compliance certification” to Congress every 90 days, which verifies Iranian adherence with its JCPOA commitments.
Trump has reluctantly agreed to certify Iran’s compliance twice now, but has promised to refrain from doing so in future. His failure to re-certify, however, would trigger a legislative process under which Republican leaders in Congress can re-impose any or all U.S. statutory sanctions lifted pursuant to the JCPOA. Moreover, such a move would almost certainly be insulated from any opposition, as the legislation would be entitled to expedited consideration – and thus likely preempt any organized pushback from legislators, the policymaking community, and the general public.
Effectively, this means that even if Trump wanted to de-certify Iran’s compliance but nonetheless refrain from re-imposing the sanctions lifted under the agreement – the so-called “middle ground” approach – he would not have control over that decision. In other words, Trump would be totally reliant on Congressional restraint to implement his “middle ground” approach – not the best of bets when it comes to a Congress that has a long-standing track record of passing Iran sanctions legislation with vote totals ranging from 100-0 to 98-2.
No responsible White House would outsource its power over a decision as momentous as whether to kill a nuclear deal supported by the most powerful nations in the world – unless it viewed the so-called “middle ground” approach as a Trojan Horse for withdrawing from the JCPOA entirely and re-imposing on Iran all of the sanctions lifted under the agreement. This highlights the second key point: Public revelations regarding internal White House deliberations provide further evidence of Trump’s intent to sow doubt regarding America’s future compliance with its JCPOA obligations – and thus undermine the benefit to Iran of sanctions lifting.
Deal opponents have long undertaken efforts to limit Iran’s economic benefit from the JCPOA, viewing such endeavors as a precondition to any eventual U.S. withdrawal from it. Those efforts appear to have now gone from the fringe to center-stage, as Trump himself was reported to have urged G-20 nations to end commercial ties with Tehran. This is part and parcel of his team’s “middle ground” approach to the nuclear deal – intended to foment uncertainty regarding America’s commitment to the JCPOA, thereby increasing hesitation amongst Iran’s presumed trading partners and pushing Iran to respond in kind.
Less discussed, however, is how these efforts run counter to America’s express obligations under the JCPOA. For instance, Paragraph 26 of the JCPOA commits the U.S. to “make best efforts in good faith…to prevent interference with the realization of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting.” Paragraph 27 commits America “to support the successful implementation of this JCPOA including in their public statements.” And Paragraph 29 commits Washington to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with their commitments not to undermine the successful implementation of th[e] JCPOA.”
It stretches the limits of plausibility to read these sections of the deal and argue anything other than Trump is placing the U.S. in violation of the JCPOA in order to poke and prod Iran to take responsive action. Those who believe Washington should remain faithful to its international commitments should not only be warning off the Trump administration from withdrawing from the JCPOA, but also be urging the White House to act consistent with U.S. obligations under that agreement. Failure to do so could lead to a dramatic escalation in tensions between the U.S. and Iran, particularly if Tehran feels that it must respond with counter-measures to Washington’s failure to live up to the deal.
It’s no coincidence that those advocating the so-called “middle ground” approach is the same cast of characters that has been pushing for war with Iran. They know they cannot trick or strong-arm the rest of the world into erroneously deeming Iran non-compliant with its JCPOA commitments. Instead, by outsourcing the decision, they seek to kill the deal and obfuscate the blame. Washington is filled with smart people who have no excuse to fall for this ruse. Those same people now have an opportunity to prevent the same kind of willful ignorance that led to the Iraq war.
“How can dictatorships be deterred from developing operational nuclear arsenals?” This is a good question posed in an August 10 Haaretz op-ed about North Korea and its potential lessons for Iran. The subsequent answers, however, demonstrate either misdirection or a misunderstanding. Assertions to the contrary are less than honest. Israeli concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program are straight-forward: Tehran is a geopolitical adversary, and maintaining Tel Aviv’s qualitative military edge has been a top priority dating back to David Ben-Gurion. However, these concerns should not cause Israelis to draw the wrong lessons from failed nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. Here’s why.
First, conflating Pyongyang and Tehran is troublesome for an obvious reason: One has the bomb, and the other does not. Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons makes it fully aware of the geopolitical differences between haves and have-nots: North Korea has nuclear retaliatory capabilities when its survival is threatened; Iran does not. Weakness did not prevent Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama from threatening to attack Pyongyang over its nuclear program. Rather, it was the bipartisan consensus that existed until Donald Trump: Nuclear war is insane, so best to avoid writing checks that you cannot and should not cash.
Furthermore, the lessons learned by most of the world from America’s handling of authoritarian governments with nuclear programs are quite different than prevailing assumptions in Israel. Attacking Saddam was deeply unpopular and arguably motivated more Iranian officials to maintain some iteration of their nuclear program. Overthrowing Gadhafi after he relinquished his program likely reinforced that consideration. And today, much like in the early 2000s when Washington made the globally unpopular decision to torpedo the Agreed Framework, Tehran’s takeaway has not been “our nuclear program threatens regime survival,” but rather greater skepticism regarding Washington’s ability to sustain complex diplomatic deals.
Iran’s skepticism is increasingly shared globally. Europe, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea – essentially every country not named Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – is watching in horror as America threatens to kill another popular nuclear deal. Combined with Washington pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement, killing the TPP trade deal, and wavering on its Article 5 NATO treaty obligations, this erodes U.S. power and sows global doubt regarding its credibility far more than failing to threaten a war with North Korea that all of its regional neighbors actively oppose.
Second, the domino affect damaging U.S. credibility is not negotiating with North Korea or failing to attack it, but rather the precedent set by unraveling the 1994 Agreed Framework. Washington’s handling of Pyongyang’s nuclear program is indeed an important learning opportunity to prevent an Iranian bomb, but many Israelis appear to be learning the wrong lesson. Simply put: America was never going to allow North Korea or Iran to have an unfettered nuclear program.
One of the driving forces behind the North Korea deal was the political space that it provided. With the technical aspects of its program frozen underneath a firm ceiling – and the threat of war and weaponization eliminated – it allowed Washington to test the proposition of whether improved bilateral relations over time could facilitate peaceful, indigenous political change in Pyongyang. In my conversations with former U.S. government colleagues, many have privately conceded that if such change did not occur, the plan was to pull out of the deal or renegotiate it. Accepting an unrestrained nuclear North Korea was never an option.
Fast forward to 2017, and the exact same paradigm applies to Iran – and Israeli officials know it. Their fear is not only an Iranian bomb, but also the potential for improved U.S.-Iran relations that the JCPOA provides. That is why Israeli protests over Iran nuclear restrictions being lifted years from now ring hollow: Tel Aviv wants Tehran to remain in the penalty box, regardless of whether Iran has a nuclear program or what its construct looks like.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, advocating a military confrontation with North Korea over its bomb as a way of deterring Iran from building one highlights the very reason why nuclear deals with both countries are so important. Pyongyang did not have nuclear weapons until after Washington torpedoed their agreement. Had the Bush administration simply continued fulfilling America’s commitments, we likely would not be talking about a North Korean nuclear crisis today.
Again, the same principle applies to Iran. If Trump corrects course and fully implements Washington’s JCPOA obligations, the risk of Tehran pursuing Pyongyang’s path is slim to none. The longer he continues violating the terms of the deal, the more likely it becomes that Iran resumes systemically advancing the technical aspects of its nuclear program – without the unprecedented, state-of-the-art monitoring and verification regime currently in place. Given the chorus of Israeli voices calling for this disastrous latter outcome, one can be forgiven for thinking that they want to fight a war with Iran down to the last American.
Deterring the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a noble goal – one that America and Israel ostensibly share. How to go about doing so is another story. Short of being the change it seeks in the world and relinquishing its own nuclear weapons, Tel Aviv can still support Washington’s non-proliferation efforts elsewhere. Doing so, however, will require correcting its perceptions and right-sizing its expectations. Most American officials agree that war should be a last resort, if an option at all. Israel can enhance its own security by following America’s lead rather than trying to wag the dog.
This is not a drill, folks. Following a fight inside the White House over recertifying Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the nuclear accord between Iran and six major world powers, including the United States — President Donald Trump has signaled his intent to refuse such certification when the issue comes up again in October. Dissatisfied with the State Department’s adherence to the facts at hand, the president has set up a team at the White House to give him options on how to leave the agreement. Make no mistake, though: Decertification would risk undermining the nuclear deal, reimposing U.S. sanctions lifted under the agreement, and resuscitating the risk of war.
Trump’s abandonment of the JCPOA would be a major blow, but it need not be a fatal one. The agreement, after all, is not a bilateral deal between the United States and Iran — European countries (as well as Russia and China) also struck the deal and now have the opportunity to deter Trump from sabotaging it. If it has the political courage to chart a course independent of Trump, Europe can protect both American and European interests by preserving the deal.
To start, Europe should preemptively and publicly communicate that it will not follow Trump’s lead if the United States leaves the deal, absent serious indication of Iran’s noncompliance with its nuclear-related obligations. Following the breakdown of nuclear talks in 2005, Brussels agreed to cooperate in imposing sanctions on Tehran under the belief that the United States and the European Union had a shared interest in halting the Islamic Republic’s nuclear progress. If the Trump administration indicates that it intends to abandon the JCPOA, European leaders would have reason to question Washington’s commitment to their shared interests. As a result, Europe should make clear that cooperation on any future sanctions regime will be at serious risk, including in areas where the United States and Europe ostensibly face shared threats like Russia.
Europe can also act preemptively to mitigate the consequences of any potential reimposition of U.S. sanctions by revitalizing an EU regulation forbidding European compliance with American extraterritorial sanctions. This regulation — which has fallen into relative disuse — prohibits European companies from acting in compliance with the Iran Sanctions Act, which, at the time, threatened sanctions on foreign energy giants investing in Iran’s energy sector. The EU should amend this regulation to add all U.S. sanctions lifted under the JCPOA. In doing so, Europe will send a clear message to the Trump administration that if it intends to abandon American and European interests as outlined in the agreement, it will do so alone.
The practical effect of this move will be twofold. First, it will provide European countries with confidence that their home governments will protect them from the extraterritorial application of U.S. sanctions. Second, it will deter the United States from effectively applying its sanctions to European companies. Europe would do well to note that the United States failed to enforce the Iran Sanctions Act during the entirety of its first decade in existence as a result of this regulation.
Europe will also need to think in the long term. The potency of American sanctions stems from the power of the U.S. dollar: Most international trade is conducted in dollars, and financial transfers related to such trade need to be processed through the United States. Efforts to create offshore dollar-clearing facilities to avoid the United States have been tepidly pursued thus far, but Brussels can take a big leap forward by announcing its intent to encourage and promote the development of such a facility.
Together, these moves can serve as potent warning shots to those who believe that Trump — thanks to the passivity of Europe — can revive America’s sanctions leverage. American and European interests should not be held hostage by a rabid pack of ideologues in the White House. Sanction-happy U.S. officials will not stop pushing for ever increasing economic warfare until they see a credible threat to America’s unique role in the global financial system.
Finally, Europe can encourage its international partners to enact measures ensuring that any reimposed U.S. sanctions have a limited effect on the Iran deal. It has done so before: When the United States first sought to aggressively impose extraterritorial sanctions on Iran in the late 1990s, Europe was not alone in resisting those efforts. Japan, South Korea, Canada, Mexico, and other countries either imposed or threatened to impose similar blocking statutes that prohibited home companies from complying with U.S. sanctions. Europe can once again encourage its partners to take preemptive action aimed at warning off the Trump administration from derailing the nuclear deal.
Trump is in clear breach of America’s JCPOA commitments, including its pledge to prevent interference with Iran’s realization of the full benefit from the original sanctions lifting. He has also openly stated his determination to blow up the Iran deal. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, and on the international level, enabling this belligerence need not be the prerequisite for maintaining strong transatlantic relations. Before the nuclear deal was successfully negotiated in July 2015, it was conventional wisdom in Washington that Iranian leaders only respond to pressure. That myth was shattered two years ago, but it looks increasingly true today about the Trump administration. Europe would be wise to proceed accordingly.
With two years of successful implementation in the books, Washington should be celebrating the anniversary of a historic Iran nuclear deal. Instead, President Trump is violating the pact and prompting its demise. With each passing day, it becomes less plausible that his violations are mistakes rather than malicious. This is all the more ironic given reports that his administration plans to once again re-certify Iran’s compliance with its Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) commitments. However, reaffirming that Iran is fulfilling its end of the bargain does not mean America is doing the same. As the deal turns two, all parties to the deal should consider three key points about their landmark diplomatic achievement as it exists today.
First, it is now clear that the Trump administration intends to flout the full scope of U.S. obligations under the JCPOA so as to limit promised business ties with Iran. For instance, a White House press briefing revealed that President Trump spent his time at last week’s G-20 Summit urging nations to stop doing business with Iran. Trump’s directive to world leaders is the latest in a string of evidence that the U.S. is acting in material non-compliance with its express obligations under the JCPOA. These obligations include not just the formal lifting of nuclear-related sanctions, but also express commitments to “refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran…” and “from any action inconsistent with the letter, spirit, and intent of [the] JCPOA that would undermine its successful implementation.”
Considering, too, that the U.S. has the positive obligation to “agree on steps to ensure Iran’s access in areas of trade, technology, finance, and energy,” Trump’s private urging to foreign countries to withdraw business ties with Iran puts the U.S. in irrefutable breach of the JCPOA. No one can any longer remain agnostic or in denial as to this basic fact.
Second, in breaching the JCPOA, the Trump administration appears keen on adopting the failed playbook of the past. Soon after taking office in 2001, the Bush administration skirted U.S. obligations under the Agreed Framework, prompting North Korea’s departure from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and effectively weaponizing North Korea’s nuclear program. Neoconservative champions of that approach – one that haunts us to this day – are now pushing this same disastrous policy with Iran, hoping that death-by-a-thousand-paper cuts will sink the Iran deal and place Washington and Tehran back on the path towards war. To this end, the Trump administration is taking deliberate steps to breach the JCPOA and provoke an Iranian response.
So far, though, the effect of Trump’s policy is to isolate only the United States. Next week, the Joint Commission to the JCPOA will meet to discuss implementation of the deal, and there can be little doubt that a central focus of that meeting will be America’s failure to abide by the terms of the agreement. The Trump administration will have effectively inverted the order of things at the Joint Commission so that America, not Iran, is the subject of the meeting and its lack of commitment to the deal bemoaned by other world powers.
In the upside-down world of Washington, this is the position of “strength” from which the U.S. can challenge Iran. Pipe dreams aside, though, there can be no mistaking the fact that the U.S. has effectively ceased to be a constructive party to the nuclear deal. With the rest of the JCPOA parties indicating that they will move ahead with the nuclear accord regardless, the Trump administration has successfully cratered U.S. influence and caused the other parties to the deal to balance against it.
Finally, it cannot be overstated that all of this was entirely avoidable – because the Obama administration had put U.S.-Iran relations on an entirely different trajectory. Multiple channels of dialogue were established, and both sides sought to use the JCPOA as a foundation from which dialogue on additional points of contention could grow. The clock ran out on Obama’s second term before more progress could be made, but Trump could have picked up where his predecessor left off. Heightened tensions with Tehran were not a fait accompli, and that is precisely the problem: The Trump administration has chosen to double down on discord that was in the process of being managed six months ago.
There is time to reverse Trump’s policy direction. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, will be in New York next week. It would be the height of diplomatic malpractice if Trump does not send a cabinet-level official to privately meet with him. Hawks in Washington can no longer deny that diplomacy with Iran can help achieve American interests because the JCPOA is the receipt from Obama’s efforts. Whether or not Trump chooses to rip up that receipt remains to be seen, but the current trajectory on the Iran nuclear deal’s second anniversary should alarm anyone who thinks more war in the Middle East is a bad idea.
Much to the chagrin of leaders in Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh, Iran launched ballistic missiles into Syria on Sunday, targeting ISIS in retaliation for its terror attacks in Tehran two weeks ago. These strikes are the first time that Iran has launched missiles since its 1980-1988 war with Iraq, which begs the question: Why has Tehran shifted its three decades-long policy of testing, but not using missiles? The answer should now be clear: It’s a reaction to Trump’s escalation in the Middle East. Three reasons explain why.
First, Trump has needlessly increased America’s military involvement in the Syrian proxy war over the past month: More boots on the ground, three “self-defense” strikes on Iranian-backed militias, and shooting down an Iranian-built drone. All of this while simultaneously killing dialogue with Iran that the Obama administration wisely cultivated. This is a recipe for war. Assertions to the contrary are less than honest. At best, Washington’s policy has become dangerously incoherent, risking a direct military confrontation that both sides have hitherto sought to avoid. At worst, Trump’s team is trying to goad Tehran into war.
If there are vital American interests in Syria beyond combatting terrorists such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, proponents of military escalation have failed to explain them, let alone convince the American public. There is, however, a geopolitical conflict with Washington and Tehran on opposing sides of the chessboard. Arguments about the need to prevent a land bridge from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon are misleading because Tehran possessed long before Syria erupted in 2011. Thus, Trump is risking war not to prevent the expansion of Iranian influence, but rather to eliminate it. Knowing this, Iran’s missile strikes were in part to send a message: “We will not allow Syria to leave our orbit for yours.”
Second, Trump has given America’s traditional partners in the region a blank check on Middle East security, thereby emboldening them to pursue reckless policies vis-à-vis Iran. Less than a month after he blessed their Iran-is-the-source-of-all-evil approach during his visit to Riyadh, the Saudis called for taking the fight inside Iran, and terrorists attacked the parliament and Khomeini’s mausoleum in Tehran – allegedly with Saudi support. A growing number of Iranian decision-makers no longer distinguish between Saudi and American aggression precisely because the latter has blessed the efforts of the former.
Tehran is not foolish enough to lob missiles at Riyadh – and by extension, Washington – in retaliation for allegedly supporting ISIS terror attacks on Iranian soil. Instead, Iran targeted what it considers to be Saudi Arabia’s – and thanks to Trump’s blank check, America’s – proxies operating on Syrian soil. To that end, Iran’s missile strikes were also meant to send the following message: “Regardless of how you attack us, we have a variety of ways – and locations – in which we can respond.” Exposed American troops operating in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen have no doubt taken notice.
Third, Trump’s team has called for regime change in Iran, thereby eliminating the possibility of U.S.-Iran cooperation outside the JCPOA. Trump’s team believes that Iran only responds to pressure, but facts demonstrate the opposite. George W. Bush’s threats of regime change, as well as his abysmal handling of Iran’s nuclear program and two wars in the Muslim world, produced Iranian dominance in Baghdad and Kabul while systematically advancing the technical aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. Conversely, Obama’s diplomacy avoided war, and produced tacit cooperation in the fight against terrorists as well as an agreement that verifiably ensures Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon.
The danger of America’s regime change policy for Iran is highlighted in Syria. The UN and EU have long said there is no viable solution that excludes Iran. Yet Trump’s team is not debating whether to militarily confront Iran in Syria, but rather when. Defense Secretary Mattis is reportedly calling for restraint until ISIS is defeated, but skepticism is warranted given that he almost started a war with Iran in February. Thus, Tehran’s missile strikes in Syria were a clear signal to Washington: “Pursuing regime change won’t be cost-free. We may not be able to win a war, but we can survive one.”
All of this highlights an inconvenient truth: After six months of Trump’s presidency, Iran has used ballistic missiles operationally one time – thus far. During eight years of Obama’s presidency? Zero times. Some will blame Iran for firing the missiles and say it must take responsibility for its own actions. Fair enough. But many of those same voices refuse to acknowledge that Trump’s malpractice in the Middle East has been the primary action. What we are seeing now is Iran’s reaction. It’s not too late for Washington to re-embrace diplomacy – the only means proven to keep Tehran’s missiles at bay.
It took 14 hours after terrorist attacks abroad before Donald Trump assumed his now standard roll as the bull in a china shop. What was Trump’s vile response to grieving Iranians after terrorists struck Iran’s parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, killing and injuring dozens? You deserved it. Thus, his thesis on terrorism is as follows: “We must condemn all terrorist acts and eliminate them wherever they strike. Unless we don’t like you. In which case, you got what was coming to you.”
Can you imagine the (justified) uproar in Washington if, for example, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said we deserved 9/11? At this point, expecting Donald Trump to exude the dignity and poise of a superpower is like expecting a child to refrain from eating an unclaimed bowl of ice cream (two scoops, of course). Nevertheless, it remains important to juxtapose what an American president should do versus what Trump actually does – this time regarding his callous response to the terrorist attacks against Iran. If I was still working at the U.S. Department of State, here’s what I would’ve recommended he do immediately upon hearing the news – and should still do as soon as possible:
1) Unequivocally condemn the attacks in Tehran without any caveats or qualifications. Not through a terse, offensive White House statement, but rather at the podium and on his Twitter account.
2) Discreetly contact the Iranian government and offer American assistance in preventing further terrorist attacks inside Iran.
3) Offer a discreet bilateral U.S.-Iran diplomatic channel to discuss the shared interest in combatting terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, who openly call for killing Americans and Iranians.
This is not rocket science. Either America supports terrorism against Iran, or it doesn’t. You can’t be half pregnant. It’s time for Trump to choose. Then again, after his sword dance in Saudi Arabia and repugnant response to terrorism against Tehran, it looks like he already has. To that end, you may be asking yourself: “What would Iran do after a terror attack in the United States?” Good question! After 9/11, the following occurred in Iran:
1) Then-President Mohammad Khatami condemned the attacks and the terrorists who carried them out.
2) Two days after 9/11, a stadium full of Iranians who gathered for a soccer match in Tehran observed a moment of silence for the victims and their families.
3) Huge crowds in Iran held candlelight vigils for 9/11 victims and their families. There are a plethora of pictures online. Google it.
4) The Iranian government provided substantial assistance in fighting al-Qaeda, which the George W. Bush administration greedily accepted for months before foolishly including Iran in its asinine “Axis of Evil.”
The difference between Iran’s reasonable response to 9/11 and Trump’s disgusting diatribe also oozes with hypocrisy and privilege not seen since the bad old days under Dubya: the United States can draw links between terrorism and foreign policy, but no one else can. Such double standards cheapen the concept of American leadership, weaken the causes it seeks to advance, and irreparably damages its core national interests.
Moral of the story: Three weeks ago, Iranians chose peace at the ballot box and extended a hand of friendship to the world. After the terrorist attacks in Tehran, Trump had yet another chance to do the right thing and unclench his fist. While it may be wishful thinking to highlight such opportunities that are subsequently squandered, it does serve a key overarching purpose: Preventing the Trump-led Republican party from spinning an Iraq 2003-esque web of deceit to trick Americans into the war with Iran they’ve long lusted for.
American policymakers must be smiling from ear to ear. In a country with 56 million eligible voters, more than 41 million Saudis voted in their presidential elections last Friday – the 12th such election over the past 38 years. Despite a litany of obstacles arbitrarily imposed by unelected religious zealots, 73 percent turnout served as a catalyst to re-elect the pragmatist Saudi president with 57 percent of the vote. Moreover, reformists and moderates dominated city council elections across the kingdom. In the city housing Saudi Arabia’s most holy religious shrine, a woman won a council seat using the campaign slogan, “Let’s vote for women.” In one of the most conservative provinces, 415 women won village and local council seats, an increase from 185. In one village there were no men on the ballot at all.
Of course, none of this took place in Saudi Arabia, America’s long-standing partner of choice in the Middle East. Rather than holding meaningful elections, Saudi Arabia was fueling dangerous sectarianism, rejecting diplomacy and preparing to instigate a conflict with its Arab neighbor, Qatar.
The electoral outcomes mentioned above all happened in Iran, with whom the U.S. has been at odds with since 1979. And as Iranians danced in the streets to celebrate Hassan Rouhani’s re-election, Donald Trump danced to the steps of a war dance as he met with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Israel to denounce Iran and call for its full-scale isolation. To borrow from Barack Obama – Iranian society extended its hand to the world, and the governments in Washington, Riyadh, and Tel Aviv responded with threatening clenched fists.
This highlights the biggest – and most overlooked – problem regarding Trump’s emerging policy on Iran and the Middle East at large: America’s continued obsession with regimes in the region at the expense of societies. In the case of Iran, there is no denying the myriad political, economic, and social obstacles created by the government ― from indiscriminate vetting of electoral candidates to media censorship to inflated budgets for the security apparatus. Nor is it a regime that has been an exemplary actor in the region. But then again, no such actor exists in the region. From Israel – who has occupied Palestinian lands for more than 50 years – to Saudi Arabia, Middle East powers all have blood on their hands. Western powers are no less innocent: they instigated the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and have provided decades-long support to authoritarian regimes who brutally repress their political, economic, and social dissent
That is precisely why hope in the Middle East lies not with the regimes, but the societies. And what Iran’s society just achieved despite the obstacles it faces is remarkable.
Rather than violently revolt, engage in terrorism against the state, or boycott elections that are neither free nor fair according to international best practices and standards, Iranians overwhelmingly chose to pursue peaceful, indigenous change through the ballot box predicated on moderation at home and abroad. When juxtaposed with Saudi Arabia, the contrast is stark. The kingdom does not permit meaningful elections, therefore making assessments of Saudi society more challenging. Certainly women have little say in driving the political agenda, or indeed driving themselves. Not to mention that Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of both Al Qaeda and, according the U.S. government, the source ISIS’s seed money.
For its part, Israel is a real democracy where the undemocratic obstacles Iranians face do not exist for Israeli citizens. Yet, its society produces results that are wildly different from what transpired last week in Iran: Since 2001, Israelis have voted for increasingly right-wing governments that double down on occupation, launch wars of choice, and reject international law. As Iranian society time and again rejects extremism from its government, Israeli society repeatedly elects it.
All of this highlights a dereliction of duty by successive U.S. administrations. Sticking blindly to its regional partnerships without considering the conduct of their regimes or illiberal trends within their societies (Israeli right-wing extremism), while ignoring the trends within societies of countries on America’s enemy list, has created a chaotic and contradictory web of relationships in the Middle East that neither serve U.S. interests nor are compatible with its values.
This does not mean that Washington should end its working relationships with regional partners or turn a blind eye to its current conflict of interests with Iran. But it should recognize that the trends in Iran’s society serves America’s long-term interests as well as stability in the region. Continued enmity with Iran because of America’s current entanglement in antiquated Middle East security partnerships risks costing the U.S. not only a valuable friend in the future, but it may also earn it a much more potent foe down the road ― as a more democratic Iran is likely also going to be a more powerful Iran.
Iranians overcame significant undemocratic obstacles to cast their vote in favor of engagement. Meanwhile, the Saudi government chose to shut the door on diplomacy and bully Qatar to acquiesce to Riyadh’s hardline on Iran. Donald Trump should not take Iran or Saudi Arabia’s side in this conflict. But his administration should recognize where the long-term source of moderation in the region is ― and that acquiescing to Riyadh’s rejection of dialogue makes the risk of America getting dragged into another war in the Middle East all the more probable.
In a region rife with wars, occupation and a distinct lack of democratic freedoms, Iranian voters overwhelmingly re-elected pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani to a second four-year term. They did so knowing that fulfilling their long-standing political, economic and social aspirations will be a marathon, not a sprint. To that end, their willingness to double down on Rouhani demonstrates savvy, strategic patience on domestic and foreign policy. Not coincidentally, the two are interconnected. This begs the question: what do the election results mean on a global scale? Five key issues highlight the implications.
First, Rouhani’s vision for addressing Iranian society’s top priority – alleviating economic malaise – will require another four-year diplomatic charm offensive. His team wants investment, job creation and managerial development to boost the middle class and promote equality – all of which requires improved foreign relations. It is therefore not surprising that Rouhani said he would work to lift all sanctions in his second term. Doing so, however, will be no small task. Washington unilaterally imposes the vast majority of remaining sanctions, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has shown little inclination to engage Iran diplomatically.
This stands in contrast to the majority of the world, which remains eager to improve diplomatic and economic ties with Tehran. The European Union, Russia and China, among others, congratulated Rouhani on his victory and called for continued cooperation on all fronts. America instead called on Iran to affirm free speech – during a joint press conference with the Saudi government, which has long repressed free expression. Trump appears unlikely to reciprocate Rouhani’s diplomatic overtures, thereby causing American policy preferences to diverge from European, Russian and Asian interests. It remains to be seen if Washington can block their economic pursuits.
However, it is more difficult to isolate Iran when its president is calling for constructive engagement with the world. This is particularly true in the context of the Iran nuclear deal. If Rouhani lost the presidency to hardliners, they would have likely matched Trump’s hostility toward the agreement, thereby causing it to erode due to negligence.
Instead, Rouhani, Europe, Russia and China remain locked in to the nuclear deal. Only America is not fully living up to its end of the bargain. This is not sustainable over the long run, and Iran’s continued nuclear deal compliance during Rouhani’s second term will force Trump to choose: fix sanctions-related complications hampering implementation; encounter countries that seek to weaken U.S. control of the international financial system; or kill the deal and isolate America.
In addition to Trump’s America, there are two other countries that will continue to form an Axis of Rejection in response to Rouhani’s foreign policy. One is Saudi Arabia. Despite Tehran’s repeated outreach, Riyadh has refused to respond in kind. During Trump’s state visit to the kingdom, the quid pro quo offered by Saudi leaders was straightforward: “We invest billions in the U.S. economy, you take on Iran for us.” Even if Saudi-Iran relations continue to deteriorate over the next four years, Rouhani will ensure that Tehran’s offer to negotiate remains on the table because his team has long acknowledged what the Saudis are unwilling or unable to: zero-sum policies benefit no one, and no country can truly be a regional power unless its neighbors are willing to accept its power.
The third chief Rouhani rejectionist is Israel. To be clear, Iran’s president has no plans for formal diplomatic outreach to Tel Aviv. He has, however, helped usher in a policy shift predicated on greater restraint. For example, when Israel bombarded Gaza in 2014, Rouhani was relatively silent and disengaged compared to his predecessor. More recently, he openly criticized the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps for painting anti-Israel slogans on missiles. Such efforts will likely continue during his second term. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government refuses to acknowledge Rouhani’s restraint, Israeli defense officials have privately conceded as much to me on numerous occasions.
All of the aforementioned complications in relations between Tehran and its rivals in Washington, Riyadh and Tel Aviv manifest most deeply in Syria. As a disastrous proxy warcontinues to kill and displace millions, the costs steadily increase for all sides. In his second term, Rouhani’s preference is to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement that stops the killing. He may be able to convince more skeptical Iranian stakeholders to accept a Syria in which Assad is no longer head of state if the Axis of Rejection relaxes its position and agrees to two compromises: Syria’s security apparatus remains largely intact, and any opposition members and groups must be mutually vetted and agreed upon by foreign powers at the negotiating table.
Rouhani’s re-election presents a tremendous opportunity on a global scale to double down on dialogue and reduce the diplomacy deficit. His team knows there is no other way to fully accomplish its domestic economic objectives. They are therefore clear-eyed about the challenge ahead: a variety of deep geopolitical disagreements remain intact, none of which can be solved overnight. However, Rouhani’s track record demonstrates that sustained engagement can lower tensions and produce peaceful solutions to conflict. By electing him to a second term, Iran has once again extended its hand. It remains to be seen if the world will unclench its fist.
As Iranians head to the polls to vote in their presidential elections on Friday, much attention has rightly focused on the choice they will make. The incumbent Hassan Rouhani, and his hefty coalition of reformists and pragmatists, are trying to fend off a hardline conservative ticket headed by judiciary stalwart Ebrahim Raisi. Iranian elections matter: After all, the differences between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani’s presidencies clearly demonstrate the consequences for tens of millions of Iranians who have long sought the fulfillment of their political, economic, and social aspirations. Also important, however, is choice that Iran’s political establishment must make on Election Day.
From Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei down to local officials in the provinces, Iranian officials across the board stress the importance of high voter turnout. The impetus is straightforward: political elites seek to utilize elections as a means of re-socializing society into the Islamic Republic every few years, with campaigns and debates providing a unique airing of grievances that paradoxically helps breathe new life into the system – so long as they stop short of protests à la 2009. On the other hand, an equally diverse electorate – with different political, economic, social, and cultural backgrounds – demands that their interests be addressed in return for electoral participation that legitimizes the system.
And therein lies the rub. It has long been clear what most Iranian voters want. The electoral results speak for themselves. Reformist President Mohammad Khatami won in 1997 and 2001 with 79.9% and 66.8% voter turnout, respectively. Rouhani won four years ago with 72.9% turnout and 18.6 million votes. In contrast, no hardline presidential candidate has ever exceeded Ahmadinejad’s 17.2 million votes in 2005 – and his numbers were boosted by the lowest voter turnout percentage since 1993, and droves of disenchanted reform-minded voters staying home on Election Day. Thus, if voter turnout is anywhere near 2013 levels, a Raisi victory would require an electoral feat that hardliners have never before accomplished.
This is the political establishment’s dilemma: precisely because it seeks to cement the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy through voter turnout, its top priority above all else is high turnout. A close second, however: ensuring that after it secures high turnout, voters perceive the electoral process as legitimate, thereby facilitating a peaceful post-election atmosphere within (and between) state and society. Rouhani knows this, and he has utilized it on the campaign trail to make arguably the most forward-leaning remarks of any Iranian president in the 38-year history of the Islamic Republic.
While it’s true that election season in Iran traditionally allows for an expansion of otherwise taboo political discourse, Rouhani taken it to uncharted waters. First, he publicly committed to engaging in the process of lifting all non-nuclear sanctions if he wins a second term. Then he told a rally that he had not forgotten his 2013 campaign promises, openly stating: “Either they have been achieved, or I have been prevented from keeping them.” And remarkably, he directly told voters: “I’ll need votes higher than 51% in order to do certain things.”
These comments might seem innocuous because they are obviously true, but they openly challenge Iran’s long-standing political orthodoxy in ways that former Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami – as well as Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – never dared to do. Rouhani is clearly emboldened: partly due to his candid personality, and partly due to the fact that significant electoral malfeasance remains extremely costly – but not impossible – for the entire system, as evidenced by chants for Mousavi and Karroubi at Rouhani’s campaign rallies across the country.
Nevertheless, the pushback against Rouhani’s recent remarks has been swift and equally direct: His campaign headquarters in Tehran have reportedly been hacked and physically attacked. The basij and its associated networks have been mobilized across the country – and at times, bused in from different cities – to attend Raisi’s campaign events. Top judiciary and IRGC officials have openly called for voters to choose Raisi. And perhaps most notably, Iran’s interior minister announced that election results might not be announced as they come in per traditional practice, but instead as a final result after the first round is complete. This latter point is noteworthy because while Iran’s Guardian Council technically certifies election results, it only does so after receiving Khamenei’s blessing.
All of this must be taken into account with one additional factor at play: The Islamic Republic after Khamenei. The framing of Iran’s election is Rouhani vs. Raisi. And indeed, both men want the same job – but it’s not the presidency. This election is important for the internal political balance of power leading up to the inevitable day when Iran must choose its next Supreme Leader. There is no way for anyone – inside Iran, or outside Iran – to predict how this process will play out. Instead, various Iranian stakeholders are trying to build as much leverage as possible for when the time comes. Controlling the presidency, various ministries, and budget planning is one of many ways to maximize such leverage.
Thus, the political establishment is now faced with a choice come Election Day: bend to the will of the people and maintain stability, or don’t – and risk the consequences. Increasingly, Iranian stakeholders go all out during presidential elections less because they can shape society, and more because society requires it of them. With that in mind, we already know what kind of future the majority of Iranians want. Friday’s election results will go a long way toward telling the world whether Iran’s political establishment shares and supports those aspirations.
As Iran’s presidential campaign heads into the homestretch before Election Day on May 19, most attention is focused on the candidates. Will the incumbent Hassan Rouhani win a second term? Or will his conservative challenger – Ebrahim Raisi – make him the Islamic Republic’s first one-term president? However, trying to predict Iranian politics can be a humbling experience. Many presidential elections in the past produced surprises and upsets: 1997 (Mohammad Khatami), 2005 (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), 2009 (pandemonium) and 2013 (Rouhani). Precisely because anything can happen, it’s more effective to focus on trends rather than candidates. Many factors influence voter behavior. Five will likely go a long way toward determining the outcome of this election.
1) Elections Can Impact Policy
While it’s no secret that candidate disqualifications deeply narrow the field of permitted presidential contenders and reduces reformist influence, the election results are far from a given. Competition amongst political elites – albeit within a more limited ideological range – continues to intensify, and this election is serving as a catalyst for evolving relations between key stakeholders and factions. Many Iranian officials and voters agree: Preventing a repeat of the colossal damage caused by Ahmadinejad’s presidency requires new ways of sharing political and economic power, as well as recalibrating the balance of power within the establishment.
To that end, voter intrigue in 2017 seems within the range of Iran’s 2009 and 2013 elections. This demonstrates a sophisticated self-awareness among Iranian voters – an attribute not often appreciated in Washington – of the obstacles and opportunities they face. I was in Iran during its 2005 election, and when I asked friends and family whom they planned on voting for, most responses were automatic: “Nobody” or “It doesn’t make any difference.” After Ahmadinejad quickly slashed many political, economic and social freedoms, it didn’t take long for them to admit that the elections do impact policies directly affecting their wellbeing.
The president is one of the most powerful men in Iran for a variety of important reasons, including but not limited to: his ability to make personnel changes in the cabinet as well as
leadership positions inside government ministries, which in turn helps facilitate his role as a catalyst for many of Iran’s economic and foreign policies. And precisely because these key policy decisions are made by consensus rather than decree, the election of a new president changes the range of views sitting at the decision-making table. When the presidencies of Khatami, Ahmadinejad, and Rouhani are compared in this regard, it’s clear to see why Iranian presidential elections matter: not because they change the political system, but rather because they facilitate important changes in political coalitions and animosities – and thus critical changes in personnel and policy direction. Elections therefore reaffirm Lesson 1 in Iranian politics: Iran has politics.
2) State and Society, Evolution vs. Revolution
The core slogans of Iran’s 1979 revolution were independence, freedom, and social justice. Historically, no administration has managed to successfully implement all three. Thus, many voters continue to push the Islamic Republic to live up to its own promises via changes that reflect a more pragmatic and democratic political process. To that end, this election cycle suggests a significant segment of society is trying to force changes to its relationship with Iran’s government. Whereas some Iranian officials disregard elections, the 2017 campaign shows that most take them very seriously. Knowing the importance of the presidency, stakeholders across the political spectrum have shaped aspects of their campaign strategies around society’s core aspirations. Deliverance, of course, is another matter.
Neither the Iranian electorate nor the Iranian government is monolithic, and for that reason, there is a give-and-take – or perhaps more accurately, a push-and-pull – dynamic between the two. On the one hand, a diverse set of political elites seek to utilize elections as a means of re-socializing society into the Islamic Republic every few years, with campaigns and debates providing a unique airing of grievances that paradoxically helps breathe new life into the system – so long as they stop short of protests à la 2009. On the other hand, an equally diverse electorate – with different political, economic, social, and cultural backgrounds – demands that their interests be addressed in return for electoral participation that legitimizes the system.
Increasingly, the establishment goes all out during presidential elections less because they can shape society, and more because society requires it of them. With voter turnout above 60% in each Iranian presidential election since 1997 – a higher percentage than each of the past 13 U.S. presidential elections – this begs the question: why do Iranians continue to participate in elections that they know are imperfect? Perhaps the biggest reason is a deep-seated aversion to unrest. A diverse socioeconomic swath of Iranian society wants reform, but they equally want to avoid the instability and insecurity that they’ve experienced through revolution, its aftermath, an eight-year war with Iraq, Ahmadinejad’s presidency, and the most draconian sanctions regime in the history of the world.
One preference should now be clear for all to see: Iranians do not consider U.S. military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen to be attractive models for change. Instead, their common denominator when seeking change is doing so indigenously – without bloodshed. For that reason, the crisis resulting from Iran’s 2009 presidential election still festers, as evidenced by chants for former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi at Rouhani’s campaign rallies in 2013 and 2017. A growing number of voters and political elites continue pushing for reforms through gradual evolution within the existing system, while a powerful hardline minority condemns such changes – sometimes violently. No one, however, is calling for regime change or revolution. Iranians know they deserve better, but understandably fear the evident consequences of instability surrounding them across the Middle East.
3) Voter Turnout
The commonly understood trend in Iranian presidential elections is that higher voter turnout increases the most reform-minded candidate’s chances of winning. The numbers speak for themselves: Khatami won in 1997 and 2001 with 79.9% and 66.8% voter turnout, respectively. Rouhani won four years ago with 72.9% turnout. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, won in 2005 with 62.8% turnout – the lowest percentage since Hashemi Rafsanjani’s re-election in 1993. Low turnout seemingly benefits hardliners, who have a reliable base of “true believer” voters – often believed to be approximately 20% of the electorate. This is particularly true with no apparent divisions amongst reformists and pragmatists to capitalize on, and stealing the election outright remaining extremely costly (but not impossible).
This election cycle, both sides appear concerned by the prospect of voter apathy: Rouhani’s campaign because it knows high turnout is the best defense against electoral malfeasance, and Raisi’s campaign as evidenced by his use of populist rhetoric and policy proposals. With three presidential debates in the books and campaign rallies wrapping up, attention now turns to the unpredictable: How voters will respond on Election Day. If past is prologue, there are key trends worth noting. For starters, Raisi has taken a page from Ahmadinejad’s 2005 playbook, promising to increase cash handouts in an effort to attract voters to the polls. Several voters may simultaneously perceive a lie and an opportunity – maybe it won’t happen, but maybe it will, and given the poor economic conditions some face, they could see little to lose by voting accordingly.
Presidential candidates are not the only ones pushing for high turnout. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also repeatedly pleaded with the public to vote in large numbers. The calculus is straightforward. His top priority is to cement the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy through voter turnout. Thus, the systemic priority above all else is high turnout. A close second: ensuring that after high turnout, voters perceive the electoral process as legitimate, thereby facilitating a peaceful post-election atmosphere within (and between) state and society.
Demographic factors also traditionally play a role in voter turnout. Iran has a fairly large youth population – 29% of the electorate is between the age of 18 and 29 – that tends to be more enthusiastic about voting. Combined with 1.35 million new voters during this election cycle, mobilized young Iranians could help tip the scales on Election Day. To that end, some young Iranians (as well as older demographics) are compelled to vote due to concerns that not having their ID papers stamped showing participation in national elections could adversely affect their ability to secure jobs, loans, and other significant services controlled by the state.
With over 56 million Iranians eligible to vote on May 19, a quick bit of math shows the importance of voter turnout. While it’s impossible to predict the level of mobilization on Election Day, it’s reasonable to assume that turnout will reach 65-75% – beating the 62.8% in 2005, and remaining under the 79.9% in 1997. Rouhani’s 18.6 million votes in 2013 came with 76.2% voter turnout, likely requiring this year’s winner at the polls to garner 17-19 million votes for a first round victory. To put these numbers in perspective, Ahmadinejad won the 2005 election with 5.6 million votes in the first round, 17.2 million votes in the second round run-off, a divided reformist faction, and low voter turnout. With that in mind, unless the “true believers” come out in droves for Raisi and other voters stay home, it remains to be seen if hardliners can surpass 18.6 million votes – an electoral feat they’ve yet to accomplish.
4) The Economy
Perhaps the number one issue for voters of all ages is economic dignity. Iranian society is not happy with the state of the economy – but there are differences of opinion regarding where to place the blame. To hear hardliners tell it, Rouhani has failed to deliver on his economic promises, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll do so in a second term. Conversely, Rouhani and his supporters argue that some promises have been achieved, he’s been prevented from achieving others, and he’s still working to dig Iran out of the hole created by Ahmadinejad.
To that end, there’s a clear division in discourse. Rouhani’s team wants investment, job creation, and managerial development to boost the middle class and promote equality – all of which requires improved foreign relations. This was a popular economic platform in 2013, and it remains so today. It’s therefore not surprising that Rouhani said he’d work to lift all non-nuclear sanctions in a second term. Raisi, on the other hand, is offering wealth transfers via increased monthly cash handouts, and a heavy dose of populist rhetoric. Raisi has promised to triple the payments if elected.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is unabashed Ahmadinejad rehash. Thus, a make-or-break question is: Will voters double down on Rouhani’s four-year economic track record, or will Ahmadinejad’s 2005 campaign strategy succeed in 2017? A variety of outcomes are possible – enlarging the Raisi voting bloc; destroying his support among “true believer” voters; mobilizing voters to cast anti-Raisi ballots for Rouhani; or a combination of the latter two scenarios. Notably, prominent political elites have spoken out against the proposed cash handouts, saying it’s not possible because the government can’t afford it.
However, downplaying the appeal of Ahmadinejad’s populist platform would be a mistake: It worked once before, and parts of it retain allure during tough economic times. Like Raisi today, Ahmadinejad’s 2005 campaign criticized political elites for corruption that monopolized wealth and power; emphasized his modest background; promised greater economic opportunities for the average Iranian; and focused on economic justice to alleviate poverty. His message resonated with many who have long grappled with financial struggles – and hardliners are banking on a similar phenomenon when voters go the polls this year.
Given Iran’s long-standing economic underperformance, it’s not unreasonable that a growing number of voters might prioritize subsidies, jobs, affordable housing, and financial stability over other policy issues, both foreign and domestic. As renowned economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani notes: “Voters are maturing and are likely to pay more attention to economic programs of the presidential candidates than how they would deal with social freedoms.” Rouhani knows this, and that’s why he has pushed back against Raisi’s populist onslaught by being direct about his own economic achievements – as well as the scope and source of remaining challenges.
Looking ahead, fleshing out Raisi’s use of Ahmadinejad’s economic playbook requires noting two distinct differences between 12 years ago and today. First, in addition to hardline and economically disillusioned voters, Ahmadinejad also benefited from anti-Rafsanjani votes. Before his spirited defense of Green Movement protesters in 2009, reformists spent years attacking Rafsanjani as the source of their ills – and thus could not justify in a single week between rounds one and two of the 2005 election why their supporters should suddenly support him. This time around, there’s no Rafsanjani scapegoat (or division among reformists and pragmatists) for hardliners to capitalize on.
No less important is the fact that Raisi is running the same Ahmadinejad-style anti-corruption, anti-establishment campaign that rails against the political elite – despite being widely known as a bonded practitioner of the corrupt establishment. Ahmadinejad’s only prominent government post before the presidency was a two-year stint as mayor of Tehran. By contrast, Raisi is the chairman of Astan Qods Razavi and an Assembly of Experts member. He was also Attorney General of Iran, Deputy Chief Justice, and Tehran prosecutor. Raisi may sound like a populist, but it’s not clear if he can overcome this basic contradiction in the eyes of most voters.
5) Is the Alternative to Rouhani Viable?
As Raisi tries to unseat Rouhani, there is a potential downside to plagiarizing Ahmadinejad: being seen as too closely associated with him. The former president and his cohort – some of whom are now advising Raisi’s campaigns – have made a lot of enemies inside and outside government. A sizable portion of state and society share Rouhani’s view that it was impossible to fix in four years the economic and foreign policy damage caused by Ahmadinejad – and a relapse could dig the hole deeper. While the erstwhile president still has supporters among lower income voters for all the aforementioned reasons, most middle and upper class voters abhor his extremist political, economic, and social policies.
With that in mind, Rouhani has repeatedly reminded Iranians of how bad things got during the Ahmadinejad years, and it has turned into one of his most cogent campaign tactics. To that end, he rarely misses an opportunity to send a clear message to voters: If you don’t like me, go vote for the other guys. We’ve seen how far that gets you. It’s a compelling message, and it highlights the hardliners unsophisticated formula: 1) Blunder into quagmires; 2) Lose the presidency; 3) Blame quagmires on your successor; 4) Try to regain presidency; 5) Repeat.
If I can spot out this formula from Washington DC, it’s safe to say tens of millions of Iranian voters inside Iran have also caught on since they live through it. Hardliners had four years to develop a strategy for taking the presidency from Rouhani’s coalition, and what they’ve come up with is more of the same: Cash handouts and “Death to America.” Time will tell if the former is enough to make voters ignore the well-known foreign (and domestic) policy consequences of the latter.
The resiliency and dignity of Iranian society cannot be denied. Voters have been under tough conditions for so long that they’ve learned to improvise, adapt, and move forward as best they can. Past elections have proven that anything can happen when ballots are casted, which makes focusing on trends that affect voter behavior – such as how elections impact policy; the relationship between state, society, evolution and revolution; voter turnout; the economy; and whether there’s a viable alternative to Rouhani – more effective than predicting winners. One thing is certain: Iranian elections absolutely matter. At this point, even Iran’s hardliners admit that reformists and pragmatists influence policy – thereby demonstrating the importance of elections.
Former government officials don’t often produce reports that call for revolutionizing failed foreign policies. But that’s exactly what’s happened in Britain. The Lords International Relations Select Committee – consisting of former cabinet ministers, senior foreign policy advisers, and diplomats – concluded that the UK government should not rely too heavily on the “mercurial and unpredictable” Trump administration, and should completely redraw its approach to the Middle East. They were most explicit on Iran: “It is in the UK’s interests to pursue a better relationship with Iran, and we recommend that this should be a key priority.” This is striking for three reasons.
First, the report hints at a disconnect between rhetoric and reality regarding Britain’s approach to the Iran nuclear deal. It states in no uncertain terms: “The interests of the UK Government are clear. The UK should continue to support the Iran nuclear deal, whether or not it is supported by the U.S. It will have to work closely with its European partners, and Russia and China, to ensure the sustainability of the deal. The UK must also be more transparent and vocal in its support, especially within the UNSC.”
While Theresa May has paid lip service to preserving the JCPOA, her government’s actions are chipping away at the durability of the deal. For example, Iran utilized mechanisms in the JCPOA to request approval for purchasing 950 tonnes of uranium ore. All parties to the nuclear deal approved the request – except Britain. According to Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization: “Five of the members of the committee overseeing the (nuclear deal) have given their written approval, but Britain changed its mind at the last moment,” likely to curry favor with the Trump administration and Persian Gulf nations.
The Lords committee report says America under Trump “has taken positions [on Iran] that are unconstructive and could even escalate the conflict,” and “there is a dangerous escalatory logic to the U.S. approach.” As it stands, the same can be said about tangible actions being taken by the British government. To that end, there are other aspects of UK government policy that put the durability of the nuclear deal in danger. On the issue of banking sanctions, this is clear cut.
The committee suggests that Britain and Europe ease banking regulations to open up new sources of finance for Iran, even if America will not follow suit. The report notes this “would make it more attractive for Iran to persevere with the JCPOA, however unhelpful U.S. actions may be,” and highlights why such measures are critical: “[The U.S.] is also unlikely to take any steps to facilitate more effective sanctions relief to Iran. This will be a grave impediment to the sustainability of the [JCPOA] and it will mean that Iran’s ongoing frustration with opening Western markets will continue.”
To hear senior Iranian officials tell it, Britain is doing the opposite, refusing to process Iran-related payments through its central bank – despite Germany already setting a precedent for doing so. It’s no secret why big banks continue to refuse processing of Iran-related transactions: The ban on dollar U-turn transactions; Relations with American banks having a chilling effect on the willingness of British banks to handle Iranian payments; and the prospect of new sanctions legislation from Congress. Thus, verbal support for trade with Iran is not matched by firm action and solid policy that is pushed through by the UK government.
Precisely because Trump is “mercurial and unpredictable,” the committee is not unreasonable to note that he has the potential to further destabilize the Middle East. For that reason, its report calls for “a new mindset in policy circles” that questions long-standing UK policy of external, rather than internal, actors dominating the region. To that end, it asserts that while addressing policy differences between London and Tehran, Britain “will also have to recognize that Iran has legitimate security interests and needs to be recognized as having a role as a regional power.”
In practice, however, British policy in the region has largely strayed in the opposite direction. In an effort to beef up its “security reassurances” to Persian Gulf countries, there has been no discernible push by the UK government for Saudi-Iran dialogue to reduce regional tensions, never mind incorporate Iran into the region’s security framework. Instead, Britain is mostly silent – except for Yemen, where it unequivocally backs an indiscriminate Saudi bombardment of Yemen that has produced famine and strengthened Al-Qaeda, while highlighting Iran’s support for the Houthis that is neither at the same level nor game-changing in nature.
Since the JCPOA’s inception, Congress has repeatedly tried to kill it through a series of provocations with Iran. Today, there does not appear to be a President in the White House willing to exert the political will and capital necessary to protect it. Thus far, the Trump administration has repeatedly threatened to abandon it. Britain must make it clear to America that it cannot get away with abandoning the JCPOA and blaming Iran for its collapse. To that end, a group of respected British voices have charted a sound path forward. Her Majesty’s Government would be wise to take heed.