Rohani makes empty threats while committed to nuclear deal

August 20, 2017
Braggadocio. Iranian President Hassan Rohani walks after addressing the parliament in Tehran, on August 15. (AFP)

As Iranian President Hassan Rohani presented his cabi­net ministers to parliament, he is­sued a direct threat to Washington, warning that if the United States continued its “threats and sanctions” against Iran, Tehran could restart its nu­clear programme within hours.

It is difficult to view Rohani’s statements as anything but empty threats. Rohani, who was elected president by promising to peacefully resolve the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme, would be the greatest loser if the Islamic Republic walks away from the nuclear agreement, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), between it and world powers.

Rohani, however, cannot afford to remain silent in the face of US President Donald Trump’s statements calling the agreement “the worst deal ever” and accusing Iran of not complying with it.

A careful reading of Rohani’s August 15 address clearly shows his preference for keeping the nuclear agreement alive while simultaneously answering Trump.

“Those who in recent months have talked of shredding the JCPOA, based upon counsel from advisers who believe such an act will isolate the United States in the international community are now accusing Iran of violating the spirit of the JCPOA,” Rohani said.

Such accusations, Rohani emphasised, are in stark contrast to “seven reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), con­firming Iran’s complete compli­ance with the JCPOA.”

Directly addressing the US government, Rohani said: “They should know that the failed experience of threats and sanctions in the end led previous [US] administrations to come to the negotiation table. Should they be inclined to repeat past experiences, Iran certainly will, in a short time, not in weeks and months but within hours and days, reach a state much more [technologi­cally] advanced than the time Iran began the negotiations.”

Rohani stressed that Iran’s preference is to keep the JCPOA in place, adding “this was and is not the sole option of this country.”

The nuclear deal, however, is Rohani’s sole option. He and his able foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are the least likely to walk away from the nuclear agreement as their legitimacy is rooted in having reached it. Both can be expected to fight a bitter legal battle against real or alleged US breaches of the JCPOA, in particular instituting addi­tional US sanctions against Iran.

However, the question remains: Do Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have the patience for Rohani’s legalist approach?

While Rohani and his cabinet ministers must attend to the day-to-day affairs of govern­ment, Khamenei perceives himself as the custodian of the revolution. How are continued US sanctions against Iran likely to affect his prestige as a revolutionary leader and his self-proclaimed role as the “vali-ye amr-e Moslemin,” the leader of all Muslims?

The IRGC is likely to be just as sensitive. The IRGC did not really oppose the nuclear agreement because it expected to benefit financially from it. The United States’ release of frozen Iranian assets abroad has, indeed, helped the IRGC but additional US sanctions have since systematically targeted its economic empire.

The Guards are finding it increasingly difficult to benefit from the JCPOA. On top of it all, the IRGC is also engaged in a ruthless political struggle against Rohani and his techno­cratic government. What interest do they have in pre­serving a nuclear agreement that is a source of legitimacy for their chief political adversary?

Despite Rohani’s August 15 threats, his government is the least likely agent to declare the nuclear agreement null and void. What we need to watch for are statements by Khame­nei and the IRGC.