Analysis

The Nuclear Deal's Tragic Hero: Iranian President Hassan Rohani

By killing nuclear deal, Trump turned Rohani into lame duck and empowered Iranian conservatives

In this photo released by official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rohani addresses the nation in a televised speech in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, May 8, 2018.
/AP

Iran’s initial reaction to Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States 18 months ago came from its own president, Hassan Rohani, who tried to calm the public in light of the new political threat from Washington. “Trump cannot cancel the nuclear deal,” he said. If there is one tragic figure in the story of the nuclear agreement, it is Rohani.

Exactly 15 years have passed since then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami sent his national security adviser, Hassan Rohani, to negotiate with three European powers – Germany, France and Britain – over what he called “the great deal.”

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Iran, Khatami proposed (with the approval of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), would restrict its number of centrifuges to 3,000; allow close monitoring of its nuclear facilities; and agree to negotiate with the three countries (which also represented the United States) over cooperation in other areas.

This proposal is included in a detailed letter sent by Khatami to then-President George W. Bush. Bush did not respond and pressured European countries not to agree to the Iranian proposal.

Rohani returned empty-handed and Khamenei ordered the nuclear program ramped up. Rohani was convinced the second opportunity he was given to negotiate with the six world powers, when he was elected president in 2013, would produce the agreement he desperately needed and toward which he had worked so hard against all his rivals.

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The Iranian president did manage to attain an unprecedented agreement in 2015 – only to see it crash in the hands of an American president whom the world considers a blight, a liar and a danger to world peace.

Trump’s decision to exit the nuclear agreement actually presents Iran as the responsible country, one upholding the agreement to the letter, while the United States is the one breaking the agreement it signed. The paradox is that Trump’s decision turns Iran into an underdog deserving of support not because it is an excellent country, but because of the abhorrence Trump stirs.

This is no great comfort to Iran, which will have to deal with a new series of sanctions when there’s no certainty Europe will continue to stand by the agreement. And it is even smaller comfort to the world, which cannot expect Iran to agree to conduct more negotiations with the world powers when the greatest and strongest power of them all does not respect its own agreement.

Since the nuclear accord was signed, the Iranian leadership has taken pains to frame it as a success: It is a deal that would generate dramatic change in the country’s economic situation, attract foreign investors who would establish industries and build infrastructure – and thus begin a process of economic rehabilitation that would reduce the particularly high unemployment rate among graduates.

Rohani and his supporters – among them the speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani – explained that not only would the agreement not hurt Iran’s military capabilities, it would give it new standing in the international community. It would eliminate the reasons for revolt and protest in Iran against the regime, and this would contribute to the country’s stability.

Opponents of the deal never stopped criticizing it. Their reasons ranged from submission to the dictates of colonialist countries, to a mortal blow against its deterrence and the threat of Western culture creeping in under the guise of foreign investments, and strengthening the standing of reformists seeking regime change.

Iran, the conservatives said, must rely only on itself – both in the military and economic spheres. Khamenei’s demand for people to stop publicly criticizing the nuclear agreement silenced the dissenting voices somewhat, because he believed such criticism was also aimed at him, the leader who had given the green light to negotiate and had signed the accord.

Khamenei coined the phrase “heroic flexibility,” which under certain circumstances requires negotiating with enemies when it serves Iranian interests. His responsibility for the agreement is therefore no less than Rohani’s, and probably even greater. Thus, the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement and the threat of the entire deal disintegrating could also put the supreme leader in an embarrassing position.

In this context, confusing and sometimes contradictory statements have been heard in recent days by senior Iranian officials. While Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran would go back to expedited enrichment of uranium and a renewal of its nuclear program, Rohani said Iran could continue to stick to the deal “depending on the rest of the signatories.” That is, if Europe, Russia and China side with Iran, these countries will be able to offset the impact of the new U.S. sanctions, allowing Iran to chalk up the creation of the deepest dispute between the United States and Europe since World War II.

Tehran’s realistic options are, therefore, not in the area of renewing its nuclear program as long as it considers itself obligated to the agreement, but rather in negotiating with the European countries to implement trade and investment deals that have already begun to flow into Iran. It will pledge that current and future investments will be fully guaranteed by the regime, and perhaps also signal a willingness to discuss the rest of the issues – such as the development of ballistic missiles – thus reducing even further the regional importance of the United States, which has abandoned Iraq and withdrawn from Syria.

The conservatives in Iran will, as they have done so far, ratchet up pressure to withdraw from the agreement. They will see the American withdrawal not only as a reason, but also proof of their claims that the West – especially the United States – cannot be trusted; that Europe and the United States are one and the same bloc and cannot be separated; and that Iran can once again prove it can develop and survive independently of others, as it did in past decades.

Domestically, the conservatives will turn Rohani into a lame duck president who not only could not translate the nuclear deal into tangible achievements that the public can enjoy, but as someone who misled his country.

Lacking a strong counterbalance to the tailwind that Trump has given the Iranian conservatives, and pushing the reformists into a shamed corner where they will be forced to join the anti-American atmosphere that will inflame the streets, the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the radical movements – whose economic monopoly the nuclear deal threatened – will grow stronger.

Under these circumstances, it is difficult to imagine that the Iranian leadership will want to open new negotiations over the nuclear program or the ballistic missiles unless Europe extends its support.

Now that Trump has renounced the agreement he despised from the outset, it is Europe’s responsibility to take the lead in international actions – and not just with regard to Iran.