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
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.
As Iran’s presidential campaigns kick off, some headlines in Tehran and abroad have increasingly zeroed in on a recurring theme: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has a preferred candidate. However, while Khamenei’s conservative political proclivities are well-known, they do not always mean him tipping the electoral scales in favor of hard-line contenders. In fact, a different trend is emerging during this election cycle, much like it did in 2013: Underdogs trying to use the idea of being Khamenei’s preferred candidate to their benefit while vying for victory at the ballot box.
In the run-up to Iran’s 2013 election, there was much talk in Western media regarding the supreme leader’s supposed preferred candidate, Saeed Jalili. Some pundits called him “the anointed one.” Numerous US government officials asked me about Jalili’s “frontrunner status” as a result of “Khamenei’s support.” This year, a similar dynamic is emerging around the candidacy of Ebrahim Raisi. This begs the question: How do relatively unknown bureaucrats with no national profile and no executive experience inside Iran manage to cultivate this reputation outside the country during the short campaign season?
Rather than Khamenei or the political establishment selecting a favorite among the 2013 contenders, it was Jalili who used Western media to portray himself as the supreme leader’s preferred candidate. Indeed, Jalili announced his candidacy during a CNN interview in Istanbul. Moreover, on the same day that he was approved to run, Jalili gave an interview to the Christian Science Monitor in which he was declared the frontrunner. Western media and pundits ran with Jalili’s self-serving depiction as Khamenei’s man, which was reported back into Iran via hard-line media as fact — citing Western news coverage as evidence.
But seeking to avoid a repeat of Iran’s 2009 presidential election and the ensuing instability, Khamenei seemingly stayed above the fray in 2013. Perhaps pushing back against Jalili’s efforts to appropriate his image and sell it to voters, Khamenei bluntly stated in a speech, “I do not favor anybody. From this moment onward, foreign media will say with ulterior motives that I favor a particular candidate. This is a lie. I do not favor anybody.”
Contrary to Jalili’s depiction, Khamenei emphasized the correlation between voter turnout and legitimacy of the political establishment by saying, “My first and foremost recommendation is participation through the ballot box. This is more important than everything else. It is possible that some people do not want to support the Islamic Republic for any reason, but in any way they would like to support their country. Therefore, these people should go to ballot boxes as well.” In the end, Jalili lost — receiving only 11.8% of the vote.
Fast-forward one week into the 2017 campaign, and Raisi is in the initial stages of utilizing Jalili’s 2013 playbook. The primary drivers of his campaign thus far are Western and hard-line media outlets, as well as Western pundits who call him “Khamenei’s pick to safeguard the Republic of Virtue.” All of this begs a second question: Why is Raisi following the same failed strategy that Jalili pursued four years ago?
Like Jalili before him, Raisi does not have an independent base of support. With Khamenei once again pushing for high turnout and claiming he doesn’t favor any candidate, this makes it even more challenging for Raisi to cobble together enough votes to win. Thus, portraying himself as Khamenei’s preferred candidate is his most probable path toward securing a viable support base from which to grow his candidacy. But will that alone be enough to win? If past is prologue, the answer is likely no.
It’s nearly impossible to predict whether voters will mobilize on election day, but 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 a 76.2% voter turnout, likely requiring this year’s winner at the polls to garner 17-19 million votes for a first round victory.
It is an uphill climb for conservative presidential candidates when turnout approaches 70% — and according to a recent poll, approximately 45% of Iranians don’t know who Raisi is. He is almost certainly aware of all this, which may explain what appears to be the second part of his strategy.
Knowing that Khamenei-centric voters alone are unlikely to secure victory, Raisi has started to build off that group by also utilizing former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s base: ultraconservative, economically disillusioned and anti-establishment voters. To that end, many similarities are emerging between Raisi’s campaign and Ahmadinejad’s presidency — from advisers and supporters, to populist policies and rhetoric.
It’s too early to know if this gamble will work, and it could produce a variety of outcomes — enlarge Raisi’s voting bloc, destroy his support among Khamenei-centric voters, mobilize voters to cast anti-Raisi ballots for Rouhani, or a combination of the latter two scenarios. If Raisi is the only hard-liner left in the race on election day, it is less likely that his association with Ahmadinejad’s cohort will damage his depiction as the supreme leader’s preferred candidate.
Between now and May 19, Raisi will likely bank on his self-serving portrayal as Khamenei’s man, receiving a boost from American “hard-liners” by virtue of their disposition: Only the supreme leader’s ballot counts, and the other 55 million eligible voters in Iran do not matter. That’s why Iranian hard-liners intentionally target their American counterparts — their only bet is to have the “true believers” come out in droves for “Khamenei’s preferred candidate” — and for others to stay home. Short of that, it will be difficult for hard-liners to produce a candidate who can surpass Rouhani’s 18.6 million votes in 2013.
Trying to predict Iranian politics can be a humbling experience. Many presidential elections in the past produced surprises and upsets: 1997 (Mohammad Khatami), 2005 (Ahmadinejad), 2009 (pandemonium) and 2013 (Rouhani). Anything can happen, and Khamenei may very well prefer Raisi to be president — even though there is no definitive evidence so far to prove that assertion. Unless that changes, it is more instructive to focus on how and why Raisi is posturing to fit that description.
After three months in office, Donald Trump’s Iran policy is slowly taking shape and no U.S. ally is paying more attention than Europe. Since Inauguration Day, I have spent a total of one month across the pond meeting with political and military officials, corporate executives, and civil society. Assessments of what Trump might do were wide-ranging, but it was also clear that the current trajectory does not bode well for congruence between Europe’s well-known position and America’s emerging policy. Three such takeaways stood out during my travels.
First, Europe and America do not appear aligned on key details of what constitutes an Iran policy. In each of my conversations with EU stakeholders, they emphasized their desire for increased trade and investment with Tehran; more diplomacy with Iran to peacefully resolve conflicts; and preserving the JCPOA in its current form.
While it is still too early to definitively state the Trump administration’s position on these issues, the early returns do not look promising. It has no discernable plans to pursue American trade and investment with Iran, or make it easier for other countries to do so. Rather than attempt to resolve conflicts with Iran, it has put it “on notice,” called it the “greatest long term threat to stability” in the Middle East, and ramped up military intervention in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen with the expressed purpose of countering Iran. The JCPOA remains “the worst deal ever negotiated,” and one of Trump’s top counter-proliferation aides said America will adhere to it “until otherwise decided.” Perhaps tellingly, there is no apparent desire on the part of the White House to utilize bilateral U.S.-Iran communication channels establish by their predecessors.
Second, while U.S. policy congeals, most European stakeholders remain in wait-and-see mode before making policy decisions – rather than taking steps to shape American policy. To be fair, Europe has not been completely idle over the past three months. After her first trip to Trump’s White House, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she secured verbal assurances that Washington will fully implement the JCPOA. Top European officials and embassies have also conducted sustained outreach to key offices on Capitol Hill outlining their views on what constitutes both adherence to the JCPOA, and an Iran policy that maximizes opportunities for peaceful solutions to conflict.
But as we learned during the George W. Bush administration’s push for war with Iraq, strongly worded statements and pleading for restraint behind closed doors is not enough. Washington must see the costs of its potential divergence up front. I saw no discernible evidence that Europe is taking steps to craft an independent Iran policy if Trump shuns diplomacy – despite requiring little political will or space to do so. For example, the EU could easily queue up a new formal process on its blocking regulations that pushed back against U.S. extraterritorial sanctions in the 1990s. Europe could also take the lead in assembling a coalition of likeminded nations both within its continent and abroad who have a strategic interest in maintaining the JCPOA and boosting legal trade with Iran – with or without Washington’s blessing.
All of this leads to the third and final takeaway: As U.S. policy seemingly diverges, EU leverage remains on the shelf. It was clear to me that Europe sincerely does want to save the JCPOA, increase trade and investment with Tehran, and advance diplomatic processes that include Iran. What remains unclear to me is whether the EU foreign policy apparatus is bold enough to pull this off while maximizing leverage with regard to its competing interests, including but not limited to: Relations with America, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. For this reason, Europe has thus far kept its cards close to its chest regarding relations with Iran in the Trump era.
However, this balancing act has seemingly paralyzed Europe for the time being, leaving other countries to fill the policy formulation vacuum. The status quo is not sustainable. Washington, Moscow, and Riyadh will try to force the EU to choose between them – as well as Iran – which in turn requires fleshing out and utilizing its relative leverage. Successful policy execution is predicated on walking and chewing gum at the same time, and Europe must be firm in communicating to all parties what specific actions are against its interests – and the leverage it is willing to use to protect them.
Europe should be applauded for its verbal support for peace, diplomacy, and trade with Iran. However, this has yet to be matched by tangible action and firm policy conducive to those ends. Looking ahead, we may rapidly approach a point in which the EU will need to serve as a bridge-builder that can help defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran in order to protect its own interests. It cannot do so while sitting on the sidelines or reflexively choosing sides. Europe is wise to work with America in an effort to prevent diverging policies. Given the current trajectory, it would be wiser to simultaneously chart a course that utilizes the full range of European power to minimize the possibility of Iran-related confrontation.
All this Republican party fighting over the Iran nuclear deal, it’s almost enough to forget that it’s America’s greatest foreign policy achievement in years. At least that’s what the Trump administration has seemingly acknowledged. In a statement released late Tuesday evening, they certified that Tehran continues to comply with its end of the bargain. The statement also says Trump has directed a National Security Council-led interagency review of the Iran deal that will evaluate whether America’s sanctions relief obligations outlined in the JCPOA are vital to U.S. national security interests. Now that Trump publicly acknowledges “the worst deal ever negotiated” is actually working, does he no longer want to “tear it up”? Looking ahead, we see three key takeaways.
First, it is ostensibly standard practice for new administrations to review existing policies during their first few months in office. The Obama administration conducted an Iran policy review in early 2009. The key difference here is that Trump’s specific review of the Iran deal makes zero sense from a practical policy and security perspective. The vast majority of American officials who negotiated and constructed the JCPOA are career government officials who transcend political parties, not Obama administration political appointees. Every aspect of the deal has repeatedly gone through a rigorous interagency review conducted by those same career government officials before, during, and after its approval.
The only difference today: A group of political appointees with long track records of opposing the JCPOA – and diplomacy with Iran, more generally – now sit in the White House surrounding the president. Thus, despite yesterday’s good news, the Trump administration still runs a severe risk of politicizing and damaging the most rigorous nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated without a viable Plan B.
Second, yesterday’s certification of Iran’s JCPOA compliance might not prove the best indicator of where the Trump administration will land in its aforementioned review. In some respects, certification of Iran’s compliance was preordained. The reason has to do with the underlying legislation: Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the president is required to provide certification of Iran’s compliance to Congress every 90 days. Failure to do so triggers certain legislative procedures and the potential re-imposition of the sanctions lifted under the nuclear accord.
In other words, if the Trump administration failed to make the required certification, it would have triggered the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran and its review of the JCPOA would have been effectively preempted. While many are understandably interpreting Tuesday night’s move as evidence that the Trump administration will respect the JCPOA, that might be reading too much into it: the State Department was clear that the administration is in the process of reviewing the nuclear accord, including whether it lies within U.S. interests to continue the JCPOA’s lifting of sanctions. Undoubtedly, certification of Iran’s compliance complicates the picture for an administration keen on unsettling the deal – as it will frustrate efforts to build an international consensus in support of the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions – but JCPOA proponents would be wise not to over-interpret Tuesday night’s certification and assume that the Trump administration has come to its sense regarding the merits of the accord.
Third, Trump’s certification of Iran’s JCPOA compliance is not inconsistent with the approach being advocated by Iran hawks to kill the deal. Indeed, if the administration intends on successfully undermining the JCPOA, its most likely approach is to take action that aggravates Iran, nullifies Iran’s economic benefit, and causes Iran’s defection from the nuclear accord. In the weeks and months ahead, the Trump administration will have several opportunities to render the deal defunct.
For instance, Congress is likely to present a new sanctions bill for the president’s signature that will contradict U.S. commitments under the JCPOA – dissolving the modicum of trust that was built between the two countries – and provide the political cover necessary for the White House to aggressively ramp up sanctions against Iran. The Trump administration will regard these sanctions as consistent with the JCPOA, insofar as they will be imposed for reasons separate and apart from Iran’s nuclear program, and will thus seek to nullify the benefit to Iran of its nuclear bargain. In doing so, the Trump administration can kill the nuclear accord without launching a frontal attack on it: Iran’s compliance will be certified and the lifting of sanctions will continue, but the JCPOA will be undone regardless.
To his credit, Trump has now officially acknowledged that the Iran deal is working and Tehran is fully living up to its end of the bargain. Thus, following through on promises to tear up the accord or renegotiate it make no sense from the perspective of American national interests or global security. Looking ahead, the current crisis with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program is a sobering reality that shows Trump what will likely happen if Washington doesn’t uphold its JCPOA commitments. He’s now learning that it’s easy to snipe at the deal from the sidelines, but the burden of governing reveals what some of us have long argued: Diplomacy or war – choose one. Yesterday’s affirmation has not fully quelled concerns that he may still stumble into the latter.
Twenty-four hours after launching missiles at Syria, Donald Trump’s decision to increase America’s bombing campaign in the Middle East has received much fanfare and little public debate. Regardless of whether these strikes are a one-off, the beginning of a more robust regime change effort, or something in between, over 25 years of uninterrupted U.S. bombing in the region highlights an inconvenient truth: For every action, there is a reaction. One key area where the reverberations will likely be felt is Trump’s emerging Iran policy. Three specific issues stand out.
First, Trump’s repeatedly stated goal of defeating the Islamic State and al-Qaeda is not possible without some form of sustained U.S.-Iran cooperation. Durable solutions to conflict require the buy-in of each country with the capacity to wreck the solution, and Iran is one of few Middle Eastern countries to display a stable commitment to defeating these terrorist organizations. U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan should be illustrative for Syria. The more aggressive and uncoordinated U.S. military efforts become, the less likely Iran is willing to cooperate and de-conflict—and the more damage American interests absorb. Trump and Iran need each other, but none of his actions to date reflects this reality.
Second, U.S. escalation in Syria increases the risks of a direct military confrontation with Iran. Most egregiously, former CIA head James Woolsey appeared on CNN to argue that the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons has “give[n] [the U.S.] an opportunity…to use force against the Iranian nuclear program.” For some Iran hawks, every outrage in the Middle East is an excuse to carpet-bomb Tehran. But even if Trump does not intend direct confrontation with Iran, America’s targeting of Syrian government forces risks Iranian casualties as a result of their proximity on the battlefield. Although some in Washington would welcome such a development, it needs to be weighed against its likely consequence: Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces through its allies in Syria and Iraq, setting off a chain reaction with the highly probable outcome of a growing conflict that expands the humanitarian tragedy and leads to a broader regional war.
Third, the civil war’s prolongation and intensification also poses substantial risks for the sustainability of the Iran nuclear accord. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is the strongest nuclear accord ever negotiated, but it is unlikely to survive a direct military conflict between the U.S. and Iran.
There are also less obvious ways in which Syria’s war can negatively impact the durability of the deal. Congress is currently considering a broad sanctions bill targeting the Syrian government, which would mandate the imposition of sanctions on parties providing it support. As demonstrated by the White House talking points released following its strike on Syria, in which Iran and its “allied Shia militant foot soldiers were held responsible for “the killing of hundreds of thousands of Syrians,” Iran would be an obvious target for such sanctions. If the president re-imposed sanctions on Iranian parties removed from U.S. sanctions lists under the JCPOA or otherwise negatively affected Iran’s re-integration into the global economy, Trump would risk violating America’s treaty obligations and undermining the deal altogether.
A Middle East without an Iran nuclear deal would throw us back to 2013, when the United States was on the precipice of a major war with Iran, a country four times the size of Iraq.
Trump’s team could be telling the truth when it says that the bombing of Syria was a single strike and it has no current plans for escalation. But Barack Obama (Libya), George W. Bush (Iraq, Afghanistan), Bill Clinton (Iraq), George H.W. Bush (Iraq), and Ronald Reagan (Lebanon) might tell Trump that war in the Middle East doesn’t always go as planned. The White House may not be looking to start another war, but yesterday’s bombing of the Syrian government certainly risks opening a broader conflict than Trump intends.