President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran a year ago. Since then, tensions between the two countries have increased steadily, as the United States has dialed up pressure on Iran in the hopes of either bringing it back to the negotiating table or ushering in the regime’s collapse.
And inside Iran, a vigorous debate is taking place about U.S. intentions, the impact of the American "maximum pressure" campaign, and the best course of action for the Islamic Republic.
The tensions within the U.S. administration regarding U.S. foreign policy in general and Iran policy in particular are well documented.
President Trump campaigned on a platform of dialing down U.S. interventions abroad and has showed reluctance to implicate America in military confrontations. But members of his administration have a track record of advocating for a more interventionist American foreign policy.
Similar tensions over escalating military conflict or not animate the debate behind the scenes within Iran, and how to respond to U.S. efforts to isolate it.
The leader of the moderate camp, President Hassan Rohani, may well be interested in responding to President Trump's reiterated preference for negotiations rather than conflict. But Rohani, too, has to grapple with those preferring a more muscular, confrontational approach to U.S.-Iran relations.
Iranian foreign policy is often contentious at home. The most significant foreign policy decisions over the past decade - including the nuclear deal and Iran’s intervention in Syria - have been the source of tremendous domestic infighting - within the confines of what the regime permits and the framework set by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Today, Iran’s next steps vis-à-vis the United States and the nuclear deal are debated extensively and will determine not only the future of the nuclear deal - which Iran’s President Rohani and even some hardliners would like to sustain until the next U.S. presidential elections in November 2020 - but whether significant military conflict will break out between Iran and the U.S.
Ever since President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal on May 8, 2018, President Rohani had been under major pressure to retaliate. Rohani managed to stall for exactly a year. He announced on May 8, 2019 that his country would begin to take steps to scale back its compliance with some provisions of the deal.
That announcement was designed to put pressure on the remaining European, Russian and Chinese parties to the agreement to step up their efforts to sustain it. Rohani wanted to demonstrate both strength and restraint at once, affording his government the flexibility to dial up or down its cooperation with the nuclear deal’s remaining signatories - particularly the Europeans.
But he was also signaling to his domestic audience that, contrary to the claims made by his critics over long months, Tehran wasn’t just sitting on its hands while the United States engaged in a long and comprehensive economic war against it, as well as broader efforts to pressure the Islamic Republic into submission.
The Rohani government is trying to buy itself both the time and political capital to sustain the nuclear deal until November 2020, when both the fate of the U.S. administration and its Iran policy will be determined.
But at home, almost four years after its signing, the agreement remains as controversial as ever and Rohani has spent virtually the entirety of his second term in office selling and defending it - and now faces even more diminishing returns.
In defending the deal, Rohani has contended that the agreement has paid economic dividends - an argument that’s increasingly less viable as the U.S. sanctions on key sectors of the Iranian economy ramp back up.
And Rohani has long seen the nuclear deal as a stabilizing force and bulwark against American (or Israeli) military intervention in Iran.
He's argued, for example, that without the deal, the threat of war that had loomed ever larger in the years preceding the nuclear negotiations would likely have materialized. That would, he contends, have thrown Iranians into an armed conflict as devastating as the eight-year bloody war with Iraq (1980-88).
Just as Rohani has long stated that the deal removed the threat of a war with the world’s largest military, and proved the primacy of negotiations and compromise over confrontation, so have his hardline opponents argued the exact opposite.
Hardliners declare that Iran should rely on strength, not concessions - as Rouhani has done - to secure its territory and pursue its interests.
Those affiliated to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and conservatives in general, have argued that Iran should be working with regional partners, including non-state militant actors, instead of relying on and engaging with the West.
The West, they claim, has always failed Iranians - at best - or actively sought to hurt them, at worst, while Iran’s regional partners have been loyal friends.
And to drive home this point, the IRGC has a track record of testing missiles and unveiling new domestically-developed military equipment to project power both at home and abroad.
Abroad, the IRGC, recently designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the Trump administration, has the proven capacity to carry out these semi-autonomous military activities to further specific hardline strategies, both sending a message to the Americans and to further pressure Rohani.
Rouhani’s critics also deny the nuclear deal fundamentally changed U.S. hostility towards the Islamic Republic. They have long argued that what’s changed is not U.S. intentions but rather the means Washington employs. Rather than pursuing its policy of regime change through military means, the United States pivoted towards waging war through economic means and hostile psychological operations.
Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the Iranian regime’s hardliners, those who’ve long warned that Washington couldn’t be trusted and opposed engaging with U.S. administrations and with the nuclear deal, who now argue that, despite its rhetoric, the Trump administration isn’t inclined to go to war, and that its recent much-reported redirection of military resources to the Middle East aren’t unusual. This view seems to be broadly shared by Iran’s armed forces.
This is in stark contrast to the commentary and analysis of some reformist and moderate figures, whose view is that the U.S. threats should be taken seriously.
Behind this dichotomy are different understandings of the nature of U.S. government. Hardliners largely see all U.S. administrations as one and the same, while the moderates are more inclined to see shades of gray and ascribe different guiding philosophies to each of them.
Moderates see the current U.S. administration as more unpredictable and militarily-inclined than Obama’s. Thus staying in the nuclear deal and/or re-engaging with the U.S. are critical to de-escalate military tensions.
In turn, hardliners play down the threat of war to reassure Iranians and block any attempt to negotiate with America.
Indeed, Rohani critics have suggested that those moderates advocating for the American threats to be taken seriously - and pushing the critical need for negotiations with Washington - are themselves being duped by U.S. psy-ops directed against Tehran.
In any case, the hardline Ayatollah Khamenei and key IRGC commanders have effectively shut down the idea of returning to the negotiating table, forcing the Rohani government to fall in line. Just this week, Khamenei stated that Iran wouldn't return to negotiations and that it sees "resistance" to America’s pursuit of war by other means as the only way forward.
But he also emphasized, echoing Iranian military chiefs, that Iran wasn't looking for war and didn't believe that the United States was either. Clearly part of the reason for making that point was to reassure Iranians, as tensions continue to mount between the two countries.
From reformists to hardliners, all Iranian factions appear united in their view that there shouldn’t be a war with the United States. As the regime’s national security decision-making process is based on consensus-building, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Iran rushes into a conflict without broad support from such divergent key stakeholders, ranging from the Supreme Leader, to Rohani’s government, to the armed forces.
At the same time, the IRGC’s regional activities sometimes escape the vetting of the Iranian government; Rohani may not have a say in any escalatory actions they may undertake in various regional theaters.
Iran’s next presidential elections will take place in 2021. Rohani won’t be running: he’s already completed the two terms afforded by the constitution. But his moderate bloc and allies desperately need something to show for their time in office, and their portfolio of successes is currently pretty thin, providing Rohani’s opponents with ample content and room with which to criticize him.
Rohani is clearly keen to ensure the nuclear deal - his major personal and ideological achievement - remains in place, for now. In this pursuit, he still seems to enjoy popular support and enough backing within the regime, although pressure on his policies and their efficacy continues to mount.
Despite Rohani and his moderate bloc considering that engaging with the United States is an essential and immediate need - to stop the suffocation of increasing sanctions and to de-escalate the threat of war - the odds of them achieving it aren't in their favor.
Ariane M. Tabatabai is an associate political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Twitter: @ArianeTabatabai
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