A mural on the wall of the former US embassy, Tehran, 2015
If Donald Trump decertifies the nuclear deal this week, the political fallout within Iran will be no different from earlier instances of Washington’s punishing of Iran’s moderates. Voices against the deal in Iran will strengthen, and those who favor a more confrontational policy toward Washington will once again have the wind in their sails. This help to Iran’s hard-liners could not come at a more opportune time.
While many in Washington believed that conflict with America constituted a pillar of the Iranian Revolution and that Tehran would therefore never agree to direct talks with the United States on the nuclear issue, Iranian hard-liners were driven by a different concern: that the nuclear negotiations would become a stepping stone toward a broader US-Iran rapprochement that could enable the US to regain a foothold in the Iranian economy. Eventually, they feared, the US presence inside Iran would shift the domestic balance of power against the conservatives and in favor of the more moderate factions.
The US, and perhaps the West in general, may not appreciate how far Iran shifted ground in the course of negotiating the nuclear deal, and how much that agreement bolstered the moderates in Tehran. In 2011, a confidant of the Sultan of Oman conveyed to Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, a message from Senator John Kerry that the US was open to a secret bilateral dialogue with Iran. Salehi was confused: Why was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee so involved in this, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was not? Once he conveyed the message to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his confusion was replaced by skepticism. The Supreme Leader rejected the offer on the grounds that the Americans were not trustworthy and would not fulfil their obligations.
But Salehi countered that Iran would not end up in a worse situation if it tried diplomacy and the US betrayed its word. On the contrary, the clerical regime could demonstrate to the Iranian public that it had “taken all measures to solve things peacefully, and people will also know that the establishment was ready for negotiations and that it was the Americans who refused.” Eventually, Ayatollah Khamenei came around. “He said OK, but you have to be very vigilant because we do not trust the Americans,” Salehi told me in an interview.
The Ayatollah’s distrust of the Americans was not based on an irrational ideological obsession, but on experience. Outreach by the Iranians to the US had more often than not ended in misadventure or worse. In 1995, the then president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, offered the first post-revolution oil deal to the American oil company Conoco Inc. He judged that a political rapprochement between Washington and Tehran would be more successful if it was built on common economic interests. But President Bill Clinton responded by adopting two executive orders that effectively killed the Conoco deal and eliminated all US trade with Iran.
Only weeks after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, moderate forces in Iran serving the reformist President Mohammad Khatami offered the US their help in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Iranians had been arming and funding the anti-Taliban coalition in Afghanistan for more than a decade. If Tehran could show its strategic utility to Washington, the Iranian government reasoned, then the George W. Bush administration would reciprocate and make possible a thaw in relations. According to Ambassador Jim Dobbins, President Bush’s personal envoy to Afghanistan, Iran played a critical part in both defeating the Taliban and securing the post-Taliban peace.
But only weeks after the apex of US-Iran collaboration in Afghanistan—the 2001 Bonn conference, where a new leader was chosen for the Afghan Interim Authority—Bush identified Iran as part of the “axis of evil” that included Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Kim Jong-il’s North Korea. Tehran was shocked. Once again, its collaboration with the US had been punished, rather than rewarded, by Washington.
In March 2003, the Iranians submitted to Washington a comprehensive negotiation proposal through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran. (The Swiss government had been tasked by the US with serving as a channel of communication between Washington and Tehran in the absence of direct diplomatic relations.) Among other things, the Iranians offered to open their nuclear program up to full transparency, stabilize Iraq and ensure its government would not be sectarian (a goal the Iranians had helped achieve in Afghanistan), and collaborate against terrorist organizations—above all, al-Qaeda. In return, the Iranians wanted a strategic dialogue with Washington, the lifting of sanctions and a recognition of “Iran’s legitimate security interests.”
But the Bush administration never responded. Instead, it reprimanded the Swiss ambassador for having delivered the proposal in the first place. Within the administration, any debate on the matter was shut down by then Vice President Dick Cheney, who simply asserted, “We don’t talk to evil.” Tehran was befuddled. If Washington was uninterested in changes to Iranian policies that it had itself identified as problematic, then the US’s real problem with Iran was not the country’s policies but its power, the Iranians concluded. And while countries can give up or amend policies, they cannot give up power.
A painting that reads, “Honesty and friendship of America,” on the pavement near the former US embassy, Tehran, 2015
Every time Iran’s outreach was rejected, voices for moderation and collaboration within Iran’s elite were weakened and silenced, while conservative factions favoring a more confrontational approach rose in influence. The rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his combative policies in 2005 was directly related to the US’s rejection of the 2003 proposal. If Washington refused dialogue with Tehran when Iran adopted a collaborative approach, the Iranians reasoned, then the clerical regime had no choice but to make that American policy as costly as possible by undermining US interests in the region. The result was that the moderates within Iran’s foreign policy elite were deeply marginalized for eight years.
Today, more than two years after the nuclear agreement was signed, the conservatives in Tehran can live with the deal and even contemplate security collaboration with Washington in the region. But their fear is that they simply cannot survive the political consequences of American penetration of the Iranian economy. This is why, immediately before and after the nuclear deal, there was a severe clampdown in Iran on dual nationals who either had planned, or were suspected of planning, to use the opening of the nuclear accord to lay the groundwork for an attempted expansion of economic relations with the West. The signal was clear: the nuclear deal notwithstanding, Iran was not open for American businesses.
Even in the absence of American involvement in the Iranian economy, the nuclear deal has clearly shifted the domestic balance of power in the direction of the moderates. President Hassan Rouhani and his coalition have won three major elections since the deal: the parliament fell into the hands of his coalition; the Assembly of Experts elections saw some of the most hard-line clergy lose their seats; and Rouhani won a crushing victory in the presidential election earlier this year. In addition, reformists swept the board in most of Iran’s major city council elections, leaving their conservative rivals with no seats at all.
This series of political defeats had spread panic in the conservative ranks. But now Trump is coming to their aid. Rather than Rouhani and the moderates’ benefiting politically from the nuclear deal, Trump’s decertification, together with American moves to escalate tensions with Iran in the region, will vindicate Ayatollah Khamenei’s narrative of American untrustworthiness—especially among groups in Iran that have long resisted the Supreme Leader’s antipathy for the US. When Iran is solidly adhering to the nuclear accord, as the International Atomic Energy Agency has verified eight times since January 2016, yet Trump still wants to kill the deal, then the problem doesn’t lie in Tehran. It lies in Washington.
By having so naively entrusted Iran’s future to the untrustworthy Americans, Iranian conservatives will argue, President Rouhani and his moderates have put the country at risk. The more aggressive Trump’s posture in the Middle East becomes, the stronger the hard-liners’ argument against Rouhani’s administration will be. Besides this, Rouhani’s plans to reinvigorate the Iranian economy will certainly suffer from the collapse of the nuclear deal. If America’s European partners cave to US pressure and either reimpose European Union sanctions on Iran or advise their companies to withdraw from the Iranian market, the economic hit to Iran will be significant. Even if the EU continues trading with Iran, the uncertainty around the durability of the nuclear agreement will be enough to scare off many foreign investors. In that case, Rouhani’s economic program, on which the political future of Iran’s moderates hinges, will be severely hampered.
This will put Iran’s conservatives in a good position to win back the parliament in the 2020 elections, in what is, arguably, a do-or-die moment for the conservatives. It will also strengthen their hand ahead of the ultimate factional showdown: the selection of the next Supreme Leader when Ayatollah Khamenei, who is nearing eighty and suffers from prostate cancer, passes away.
This is not just about what the Iranian conservatives will win if Trump kills the nuclear deal, but what America will lose. The blow to Iran’s moderate forces will be far more consequential than Bush’s “axis of evil” declaration and the rejection of the 2003 grand bargain proposal. It will take years, perhaps decades, before anyone in the Iranian political elite will dare to suggest any accommodation with Washington. Just as important, it will be a tragedy for an entire generation of young Iranians who strongly favor the deal because they want to be on better terms with the US and who have blamed Tehran more than Washington for the US-Iran enmity. For President Trump to renege on the nuclear agreement will push them to accept the hard-liners’ anti-American narrative and silence the voices of those in Iran who want to meet America halfway.
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