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Iran’s Already Tense Political Landscape Intensifies

Critics say the U.S. withdrawal from nuclear pact will heighten factionalism in the Islamic Republic, putting pressure on Rouhani

Since President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal earlier this month, Iranian officials and America’s former negotiating partners from Europe have been scrambling to finds ways to preserve the pact.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has pledged continued support for the agreement, while China and Russia have expressed solidarity with the Iranians.
Meanwhile, Washington has indicated it would like to restart talks toward negotiating a new agreement that would permanently bar Iran from manufacturing enriched uranium or plutonium, effectively truncating its capability to ever produce a nuclear weapon. It would also call for tougher concessions on limiting Iran’s ballistic missiles program and hostile cyber activity, as well as on ending support for its terror proxies including Lebanon-based Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

In response, Iranian officials have been caught up in frantic meetings with world leaders in an attempt to save the deal.

While some European leaders—most notably British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson—have agreed with President Trump on the need to exact more significant concessions from Iran in a revised agreement, most have opposed the American president’s move altogether and are now discussing ways to forge ahead while reducing the effect of any possible U.S. sanctions on European businesses that have dealings in Iran.

Though much has been made of the U.S. pullout and the European response, observers are still speculating on what effect the development has on Iran’s internal political landscape.
Ahmad Khalid Majidyar is a fellow and the director of Iran Observed Project at Washington D.C.’s Middle East Institute. He told The Media Line that if the U.S. presses ahead with harsher sanctions, “European companies and banks would not be willing to invest in Iran and do business there.”

This would have dire ramifications for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Majidyar asserted. “At home, Rouhani would come under a great deal of pressure by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other hardliners who would ask him to take retaliatory actions against the United States and potentially drop out of the deal.

“They would be empowered because they opposed the deal in the first place, saying that ‘We should not trust the U.S. and the Europeans. We should focus on our own domestic capabilities.’”
Now that the U.S. has unilaterally withdrawn from the deal, Majidyar explained, the hardliners feel vindicated. “There is a growing factional fight in Iran between the Rouhani camp and the Revolutionary Guard and its conservative allies. The U.S. withdrawal from the deal intensifies this factional fighting, with one of them likely to emerge as the victor. And in this case, it will most likely be the Revolutionary Guard.”

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, an Iran expert at the Brookings Doha Center, told The Media Line that the Rouhani administration is trying to save the deal in collaboration with the Europeans because “it has been the core of its campaign pledge.”

Echoing Majidyar, he said that Trump’s decision “plays into the hands of Iran’s hardliners…who can basically say ‘This is what we have told you: You cannot trust the U.S. You are too naïve.’”
Fathollah-Nejad added that on the societal level, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement promises to be “devastating.”

“Again, it plays into the hands of those who repress any kind of political activism, which can more easily be labeled as supporting a U.S. regime-change agenda.

“Trump’s decision actually comes at a very sensitive time when the Islamic Republic has begun to reel after the protests against the regime at the turn of this year. So, this is quite a blow to political activism in Iran.”

How will Rouhani navigate the political stakes with the hardliners on one side and his reformist supporters and the Europeans on the other?

“This is very difficult to achieve,” Fathollah-Nejad responded. “It all depends on whether Iran and the Europeans will be successful. In other words, the Europeans must be able to provide Iran with economic dividends that Tehran views as sufficient to stay in the deal and remain committed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“All of this will depend on whether Europe can present an attractive offer to Tehran that might also be convincing to hardline elements.”