Now that US President Donald Trump has decertified Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — despite all evidence to the contrary — much attention has been focused on the reverberations in Washington and within the Transatlantic alliance. No less important, however, are the emerging policy ramifications in Tehran. Contrary to assertions at home and conjecture abroad, Trump’s Iran policy may in the long run strengthen rather than weaken President Hassan Rouhani’s administration in several key ways.
First, Iranian stakeholders are now more united as a result of US threats, thereby solidifying the executive branch within Iran’s political system. Trump’s choice to decertify has reinforced the strategic vision offered by Rouhani and agreed to by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after the 2013 presidential election: to maintain unity on policy toward the United States, (nuclear) deal or no deal. This vision was predicated on eliminating the diplomatic and financial isolation that plagued Iran from 2005 to 2013. Whatever their differences, Khamenei needs Rouhani and his technocrats to repair the damage wrought by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Rouhani needs Khamenei to provide political protection while he does so.
Since entering office four years ago, Rouhani has maintained arguably the most diverse and inclusive political coalition in the 38-year history of the Islamic Republic. The infighting will not subside anytime soon, but the survival instinct of most elites has kicked in, helping them recognize the need to deepen the middle ground that Rouhani has been cultivating. In nine months, the Trump administration has managed to spur a level of political unity and rally-around-the-flag nationalism not seen in Iran since the immediate aftermath of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s subsequent invasion.
Rouhani may also be strengthened because such unity has been a linchpin in the approach he has been advocating for the past 15 years and outlined in his 2011 memoir, “National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy.” In the book, he defends using that approach during his stewardship of Iran’s 2003-2005 nuclear negotiations with Europe because all decisions were made by consensus, with Khamenei’s endorsement. He criticizes subsequent negotiating teams for repeatedly miscalculating and abandoning his strategy of internal consensus-building and blames them for the polarization in Iran’s foreign and domestic politics that threaten to destabilize the country. Each of Rouhani’s criticisms have proven true — and Khamenei approved each of those mistakes, reinforcing Rouhani’s political standing.
Second, Trump’s hostile approach may help shore up Rouhani’s domestic standing because it vindicates the strategy employed to achieve Iran’s national interests both from 2003 to 2005 and 2013 to the present. In his memoir, Rouhani says his approach toward handling the nuclear dispute had three facets: cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to address the violations noted in Iran’s nuclear file, engaging with Europe to improve relations and neutralize American aggression and pursuing both of those objectives to allow for Iranian nuclear scientists to continue different aspects of their work.
Rouhani’s strategy worked in the early 2000s. It helped thwart the threat of war after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and his team successfully prevented the referral of Iran’s nuclear file to the UN Security Council. An updated version of the same strategy has proven successful since Rouhani’s election in 2013. The JCPOA removed Iran’s nuclear file from Chapter VII in the UN Security Council without the country being bombed — a first — and it appears to be serving as a bulwark against Trump’s aggression given that Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, the UN, the European Union and the IAEA all currently oppose US policy.
Rouhani sold his nuclear strategy to Khamenei by arguing that Tehran’s openness to negotiations and compromise would put the onus on Washington to accept the Islamic Republic accordingly. In turn, Khamenei sold the nuclear talks inside and outside the government by arguing that such engagement means the onus will be on the United States to compromise.
Thus, Rouhani — and by extension, Khamenei — is vindicated regardless of whether the JCPOA remains intact. If it dies, neither Khamenei nor the Iranian people will blame Rouhani, because he can accurately pin the blame on Washington. Conversely, neither Rouhani nor the Iranian people will blame Khamenei for the same reason.
Finally, while the long-term impact may be to strengthen Rouhani, it should be noted that Trump’s bombast might complicate the Iranian president’s agenda in the short run. US escalation of tensions will likely securitize the atmosphere in Iran, thereby slowing down political and economic development — similarly to 2005-2013, when tensions with the United States spiked. At that time, key stakeholders justified empowering the military-security apparatus as a necessary instrument to counter threats to the Islamic Republic’s survival. As senior Iranian officials told Al-Monitor back then, Tehran invested more money into security and intelligence operations, with such budget allocations ballooning and new projects proliferating. Such a thing would likely not have happened under normal circumstances, as demonstrated by how Rouhani successfully shifted the Iranian state’s priority to domestic economic stabilization during his first term. However, in the long run, it would be an exaggeration to associate securitization with Rouhani being a lame duck. His domestic agenda may be curtailed, but that’s in large part because it’s now more difficult for him to argue internally that additional funding for security purposes is unnecessary.
Thus, the biggest loser right now is not Rouhani, but rather the Iranian people. Trump shifting the onus back to the United States could allow Iranian officials to successfully blame foreign bogeymen for the Islamic Republic’s economic shortcomings — and divert the public’s attention from the government’s role in causing them. While disillusionment among ordinary Iranians will grow, Trump’s bluster has ensured that most vitriol will be directed at decision-makers in Washington rather than Tehran — precisely because Rouhani’s strategy has succeeded.
For nearly four decades, the United States has tried to isolate Iran. But after nine months of Trump in office, it is the United States that seems isolated. Decertifying Iranian compliance with the JCPOA is only the latest instance of Tehran capitalizing on Washington’s self-inflicted wounds. Rouhani has been proven right that Iran and his own political standing are more secure thanks to less bombast, deeper unity, better negotiators, more diplomacy and a realistic assessment of the Islamic Republic’s policy strengths and weakness both at home and abroad. If Trump forges ahead with his confrontational posturing, he will likely empower rather than weaken the very politicians he’s trying to undermine.