by Ray Takeyh | December 20, 2018 12:00 AM
The midterm congressional elections and the polarized politics of America are sparking their own debate within the Islamic Republic of Iran. Many of the regime’s hardliners have come to the conclusion that the Trump administration will be weaker in the next two years and thus it is time for a more confrontational policy. President Hassan Rouhani and his battered centrists are also looking at American politics, but instead of an immediate conflict they want to wait out the Trump storm and deal with a more accommodating Democratic president that may come to power in 2020. The ultimate arbiter of this debate is leader Ali Khamenei, who seems to be edging toward his hardline disciples.
By this time, Rouhani must appreciate that the Europeans are unlikely to shield Iran from the sanctions imposed by Trump after he abrogated the Iran deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Commerce and politics have parted ways, as businessmen are less responsive to the pleas of European diplomats for trade with Iran that could cost them access to the American market. Still, for Rouhani, talks with Europe and adherence to the JCPOA is about making an impression on a Democratic Party eager for an Iranian interlocutor should it recapture the White House in two years. Rouhani’s diplomatic gambit is less about Europe than America’s progressives.
For Rouhani’s hardline detractors, the time for hunkering down has past. They have no confidence in American politicians of any stripe. They see the Trump presidency as mired in domestic disputes and facing a hostile Congress. Such preoccupations preclude, in their telling, a robust American response to projections of their power in the region or even the resumption of the nuclear program.
The latest chorus of denunciation of Rouhani was led by his vanquished opponent in the last presidential election, Ibrahim Raisi, who insisted, “If we are restrained, our enemies will not retreat. We must be more of activists.” Revolutionary Guards Gen. Amir Ali Jadeh-Zahdi dismissed negotiations and insisted that “the strategies of Europe and America are the same and in between them they have crafted a division of labor.” He ended his speech by exclaiming, “If we don’t fight the Islamic State in the towns of Syria and Iraq, this virus will surely migrate to Iran and we have to fight it Hamadan and Kermanshah and Tabriz.” Said Jalili, the former lead nuclear negotiator, has similarly castigated Rouhani as a naive politician who believes that “preserving the JCPOA is good for Iran’s pocket book.”
For Jalili and many hardliners, it is time to dispense with the JCPOA and forge full speed ahead.
Ali Khamenei seldom takes on America unless he perceives that its vulnerabilities preclude an effective response. He did not assail President George W. Bush’s enterprise in Iraq until he was sure that America was too mired in a sectarian civil war to address his misdeeds. It was then that his Revolutionary Guards lacerated the American troops. He did not concede to an arms control agreement with President Barack Obama’s administration until he calculated that Washington was desperate for an accord and would make the necessary concessions.
At the beginning of the Trump administration, Khamenei seemed unsettled by the new president and his provocations. The leader insisted, “There will be no war; nor will we negotiate with the U.S.” Thus, Khamenei conceded to Rouhani’s strategy of trying to fracture the Western alliance and protect Iran from American retribution by cozying up to Europe.
Now, he sees another American president struggling to regain his footing, facing domestic headwinds, and the onset of a presidential campaign season that always produces policy paralysis in Washington. Khamenei recently assured his military officers that as a result of unity and “effective presence of the armed forces in the field — the shadow of intimation and threats will also go away from the Iranian nation.” Today, Khamenei’s instincts are drawing him closer to his hawkish disciples who see in America’s domestic troubles an opportunity to reclaim more of the region, a leader who views enmity toward America as essential to the vitality of the revolution is clearly being swayed by the arguments of those he most trusts.
During its first two years, the Trump administration had the luxury of engaging in a series of steps such as abrogating the Iran deal and re-imposing costly sanctions without a measurable Iranian response. That retaliation may soon be coming, as the Islamic Republic seeks to further entrench its presence in Syria, turn Lebanon into a front-line state against Israel, and press Iraq’s politics to its advantage. Indeed, Khamenei may even authorize resumption of aspects of the nuclear program.
The Iranian hardliners are betting that America will do nothing. How the Trump administration responds to this Iranian move will go far in determining the success of its Middle East policy.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.