Trump might help Rohani win elections, make it harder to govern
Ankara - US President Donald Trump’s bellicose rhetoric towards Iran appears likely to help keep Iranian President Hassan Rohani in office for another term but will make it harder for the Iranian leader’s team of moderates to govern.
With an election due in three months and a hostile new administration in the White House, Iran’s hardliners seem to have backed off from trying to reclaim the presidency.
No single candidate has emerged as a potential hard-line champion to challenge the relatively moderate Rohani in the vote. Instead, officials speak of ideological rivals uniting behind him as best suited to deal with a Trump presidency.
“To protect the Islamic Republic against foreign threats we need to put aside our disputes and unite against our enemy,” said a senior official speaking on condition of anonymity as did other figures within Iran contacted for this story.
“Under the current circumstances, Rohani seems the best option for the establishment.”
Still, Rohani’s supporters worry that even though hardliners no longer seem intent on removing him, they will take advantage of confrontation with the Trump administration to weaken the president at every turn.
“To cement their grip in power, hardliners will do whatever they can to provoke Trump. From missile tests to fiery speeches,” said a former senior official close to Rohani. “By making Rohani a lame-duck president, they will try to prevent any change in the balance of power in Iran.”
Rohani, elected in a landslide in 2013 on a pledge to reduce Iran’s isolation, is the face of Tehran’s deal with the Obama administration to curb Iran’s nuclear programme in return for the lifting of US and European sanctions.
Trump and other US Republicans have frequently disparaged that deal, as have hardliners in Iran.
For now, the Iranian hardliners appear to have concluded that they still need Rohani in office, if only so Washington rather than Tehran will be blamed if the deal collapses, said Iran analyst Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group.
“With the deal in jeopardy, the system will be in vital need of Rohani’s team of smiling diplomats and economic technocrats to shift the blame to the US and keep Iran’s economy afloat,” said Vaez.
Ultimately, however, said analyst Meir Javedanfar, any atmosphere of heightened tension with Washington benefits the hardliners and weakens the moderates in Iran.
“Now with Trump in charge, Iran’s hardliners can sleep easy as they thrive on threats and intimidation from the US. It feeds their narrative,” said Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli lecturer on Iran at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya.
Under Iran’s theocratic governing system, the elected president is subordinate to the unelected supreme leader, 77-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a hardliner in power since succeeding revolutionary founder Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989.
A hard-line watchdog body can control the elected government by vetting candidates before they stand and by vetoing policies.
Khamenei uses anti-American sentiment as the glue to hold together the faction-ridden leadership but he will not risk a total collapse in relations with Washington that might destabilise Iran, Iranian officials said.
“The leader’s top priority has always been preserving the Islamic Republic… A hard-line president might intensify tension between Tehran and America,” said an official close to Khamenei’s camp.
Rohani’s efforts to open Iran to less hostile relations with the West have to be couched in the rhetoric of anti-Americanism that has been a pillar of Iranian rule since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
On February 10th, hundreds of thousands marked the anniversary of the revolution, taking to the streets chanting slogans that included “Death to America”. At such events, Rohani can strike a note that sounds as hard-line as anyone.
“We all are followers of our leader Khamenei,” Rohani said in a speech that cast his own re-election bid as an opportunity for Iranians to demonstrate their defiance of Washington. “Our nation will give a proper answer to all those threats and pressures in the upcoming election.”
Khamenei earlier said in a speech that Trump had shown “the real face of America”, echoing the hard-line Iranian criticism of the Obama administration’s comparatively accommodating stance as insincere or devious.
Khamenei dismissed a Trump administration threat to put Iran “on notice” for carrying out missile tests but he also avoided signalling a break with the nuclear accord and the speech was interpreted as a sign that he will stick by Rohani for now.
“The leader’s speech showed that the leadership has agreed on a less confrontational line. They prefer to wait and see Trump’s actions and not to act based on his rhetoric,” said Tehran-based political analyst Saeed Leylaz.
Iranian voters also seem inclined to keep Rohani in power. Many complain that they have seen few economic benefits from the lifting of sanctions and those who hoped Rohani would reform restrictive social policies say they are disappointed by the lack of meaningful change.
Nevertheless, there seems to be little appetite to reverse course at the election and restore power to a confrontational hardliner such as Rohani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“I did not want to vote. Nothing has changed under Rohani but now I have to choose between bad and worse in Iran. We cannot afford a hard-line president when Trump is in power,” said high school teacher Ghamze Rastgou in Tehran.