Trump's Combative Approach To Iran Will Hurt Moderates

The majority of the criticisms levied against the Iran deal ultimately have nothing to do with the Iran deal itself. Instead, Iran’s role in the region, or rather the continued cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, form the basis of the complaints. Thus far, support for nixing the deal comes from neocons like John Bolton and paranoid xenophobes like Sebastian Gorka, and Steve Bannon. Now if international relations and diplomacy were as easy as playing tic-tac-toe, the aforementioned would be prime advisors to any president, but we are dealing with a president that sees the world as a reality TV show. By its very nature, international relations and diplomacy are complicated matters and have far-reaching implications beyond the negotiation at hand. That being said, treaties are never perfect. In fact, the best treaties are ones in which both sides are unhappy, or where they both feel like the other side got the better end of the deal.

The implications of Trump decertifying the deal, regardless of what Congress does, will set Iran backward in terms of re-engaging with the rest of the world. Prior to Trump’s current endeavor at captivating his base with a cliffhanger, there were two major factions inside Iran vying for control and relevancy in Iran's government. On the one hand, there are the ‘Moderates’ that want better ties with the outside world. On the other hand, there are the hardliners and the IRGC that want to go back to business as usual by expanding their sphere of influence in the region and expelling the US from the Middle East.

In February of last year, Iran’s Moderates won key victories that demonstrated Iran’s political spectrum shifted to a more moderate position. Rouhani’s paramilitary allies gained control over the entire 30-seat delegation representing Tehran and carved an influential minority bloc. Moreover, two of the most radical clerics were ousted from the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for choosing the next Supreme leader should the current one pass away.

At the time, Rouhani rode a wave of success from the Iran deal and the ensuing sanctions relief impact on Iran’s economy. Essentially, the election became a makeshift referendum on the Iran deal itself with every prominent critic on the losing side. Now, the election did not fundamentally change Iran’s domestic or foreign policy positions overnight, but it stands in stark contrast to the confrontational politics and presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The even larger implication of the Moderates wins on the Council of Experts mentioned earlier, is the fact that the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 76 and has health problems. Essentially, the Council of Experts could elect a moderate Ayatollah, which would have a lasting impact for decades to come on Iran's policies.

Moreover, in last April’s run-off parliamentary election, the Moderates pulled off an unexpected win. The vote was for 68 of the 290 seats in parliament. For the first time in 13 years, the Moderates and reformists held a majority in parliament. It could be argued this was a second referendum on the Iran deal, as many of the hardliners that promised to stop the deal or voted no were ousted. The new parliament gave Rouhani an unprecedented amount of support for his policies and reforms.

In a 2015 article written by Kenneth M. Pollack from the Brookings Institute argued the manner in which the US and Iran interact with each other over the next 15 years would make or break the Iran deal. This was prior to the 2016 election, and the Supreme Leader’s comments about the Iran deal seemed to indicate it was a transactional agreement between the US and its allies and Iran. Essentially, the US treatment of Iran over the course of the deal is what’s important to ensure Iran continues down a path away from nuclear weaponry and towards changing its behavior in the region. The Iranian middle-class and its youth are tired of being isolated from the rest of the world due to the hard-line stance against foreign cultural influence. 

Even in April of last year, there was a real fear the gains by Moderates could be lost if the US Congress derailed the deal or delayed the deal’s implementation any longer. This had the real possibility of rallying the hard-liners after their loss.

Flash forward to this week, Trump nearly decertified the Iran deal. On top of that, by the end of the month, Trump plans to list the IRGC as a terrorist organization. In retaliation, the IRGC’s commander, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari has pledged to name the US military a terrorist organization. This would severely curtail the ability of the US to coordinate and de-escalate with Iran in places like Syria and Afghanistan.  

Listing the IRGC as a terrorist organization could also hamper Iran’s economic integration with the rest of the world. Banks would be hard pressed to accept new business with Iran because they would have to prove under US law that they are not doing business with terrorist organizations. As it stands, the IRGC controls most of the Iranian economy. The economic dividends of the Iran deal would be slowed even if Europe, China, and Russia stand behind the deal, which they have indicated they would.

It is doubtful Mr. Pollack could have foreseen the rise of the Moderates in Iran nor a Trump occupying the White House. However, it would seem his advice is now a stark warning. Trump’s actions could reverse the Moderates’ gains in Iran and return the country to the hands of the Hardliners

The implications of a United States that continues to threaten the Iran deal are serious. The next Supreme Leader may not be a Moderate and will have a lasting influence for decades to come. If Americans cannot be trusted, it will prove the hardliners in Iran right.

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