September 7, 2017

This Bombast From Trumpland Was A Gift To The Iranian Government

In the latest installment of “Trump Tells the World He’s Going to Kill the Iran Nuclear Deal,” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley was dispatched this week to Washington’s neoconservative beehive – the American Enterprise Institute – to wag the dog.

It was hard to keep up with all the little fibs and deceptions that she weaved into her remarks with such speed and tenacity. They were ridiculed across the world in real time on social media and, subsequently, by the commentariat.

Equally important but less understood, however, is the gift that Haley served to Iran’s government on a silver platter. Two key points illustrate why her speech left Iranian officials smiling.

Reinforcing unity

First, Haley’s bluster has reinforced the strategic decision made by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani four years ago: maintain unity on policy towards America, regardless of whether there is a nuclear deal or not. The foundation of this decision was predicated on avoiding the diplomatic and financial isolation that plagued Iran from 2005-13 – which in turn eroded government legitimacy in the eyes of many Iranians, thereby widening the gulf between Iran’s state and society, and destabilising the former.

Like any politicians, the two men have their political differences, but this does not change the baseline: Khamenei needs Rouhani to continue digging Iran out of the political and economic hole shoveled by Ahmadinejad. And Rouhani needs Khamenei to protect him from hardline political sniping as he tries to put Humpty Dumpty – the government’s legitimacy – back together again.

For this reason, Rouhani has maintained one of the most diverse political coalitions in the history of the Islamic Republic – over the duration of two election campaigns and four years in office. Now the hostile deceit from Haley and her fellow Trump administration foreign policy hawks is incentivising Iran’s disparate political factions to further strengthen ties around the shared goal of resisting and surviving American aggression.

By contrast, the aftermath of the nuclear negotiations forced the same Iranian stakeholders to grapple with countless internal divisions – from economic policy, to press freedoms, to ending the house arrest of Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – that returned to the forefront when hostility from Washington was not a potent unifying force. 

Shifting blame

Second, Haley’s screed is yet another example of bombast from Trumpland that Iranian officials can use to deflect domestic political pressure by shifting the onus of US-Iran conflict onto Washington. To that end, the growing unity amongst political elites on the issue of American aggression is also matched by increasing cohesion between state and society.

Today, Rouhani and Khamenei continue to utilise the domestic narrative they constructed when negotiations with Washington began in 2013, based on three interconnected premises: 1) We are exhausting all options in pursuing peaceful solutions that protect your rights, interests and dignity; 2) Thus, it is America that bears responsibility for any remaining conflict, so do not blame us for sanctions; 3) And since America is killing the nuclear deal despite our compromises and compliance, the onus is on them to cease hostility, resume constructive dialogue, and resolve this unnecessary standoff.

Each sentence uttered by Haley at the podium helped deflect responsibility onto America in the eyes of Iranian society. If Washington kills the deal, Iranians will not blame their leaders because they can correctly accuse the Trump administration for reigniting a nuclear conflict that was resolved two years ago.

Political unity intact, state-society relations improved, blame shifted to the United States, rally-around-the-flag nationalism on the rise – and the Iranian government did not have to lift a finger to produce this favourable outcome. Decision-makers in Tehran may not be strategic masters, but they are masterful at taking advantage of America’s self-inflicted wounds.

I served at the US Department of State during the George W Bush administration, and one of the marching orders we received from the White House was to promote fissures within the Iranian government to weaken it, isolate it, and – over time – help it crumble. Republicans demonstrably failed then, and they will fail now.

Haley’s speech was only the latest in a long line of own goals that empower the very government this administration is trying to pick a fight with. Iran would prefer to keep the nuclear deal alive and reduce tensions with the United States.

America killing the deal will likely reduce nuclear, financial and geopolitical constraints on Iran at little cost to its political elite. If Trump’s team wants to allow Tehran to have its cake and eat it too, Iranian officials will gladly oblige.

This piece originally appeared in the Middle East Eye.

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