Trump’s new Iran strategy is Rohani’s nightmare
Iranian President Hassan Rohani is trying hard to put on a brave face in his reactions to US President Donald Trump’s major speech on Iran but the new US strategy is Rohani’s worst nightmare realised. His popular mandate is built on a nuclear agreement that looks more fragile than ever.
By decertifying Iran’s adherence to the nuclear agreement, Trump empowers the US Congress’s role in shaping the Iran policy. This increases the probability of the United States terminating the agreement.
Still worse from Rohani’s perspective, the US Treasury’s terrorism designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is likely to provoke its leadership to demand Iran abrogate the nuclear agreement. After all, why should the IRGC support a nuclear agreement from which it cannot benefit financially?
Whether the nuclear agreement is terminated by Congress and Trump or abrogated by Iran, Rohani would be the biggest loser.
His televised address to the nation, however, was combative. Responding to Trump’s survey of Iran’s acts of terrorism since the revolution of 1979, Rohani presented viewers with a list of Iranian grievances against the United States dating to the 1950s.
Turning to the nuclear agreement, the Iranian president defended Tehran’s record of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and emphasised that “as long as we benefit from the nuclear agreement, we will respect it within the framework of national interests.”
Rohani also defended the IRGC, which bore the brunt of Trump’s verbal assault.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry also had a combative tone in its official response to Washington. Perhaps in a gesture towards the UN Security Council members and Germany, which is a party to the nuclear agreement, the Foreign Ministry assured “Iran will not exit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA),” the formal name of the nuclear agreement.
It warned, however: “Should the rights and interests of Iran under the agreement not be respected, [Iran] will terminate all its obligations and will continue its peaceful nuclear activities without any restrictions.”
Despite the combative tone and bravado, Rohani and the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s official responses show their fear of the collapse of the nuclear agreement, which also means the political death of Rohani and his cabinet.
In the months to come, we are likely to see Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif do their utmost to moderate Iran’s responses to the Trump administration’s Iran policy. They are likely to advocate continued Iranian adherence to the nuclear agreement regardless of the US position. In doing so, Rohani and Zarif hope to use Russia, China and the Europeans as a protective shield against the US threat.
The IRGC is likely to pursue a different strategy. Realising that the US Treasury’s terrorist designation makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for it to benefit financially from the nuclear agreement, it may push for Iran’s exit from the deal. In doing so, the IRGC hopes to become the custodian of Iran’s nuclear weapons, rather than support a nuclear deal from which it cannot benefit financially.
Caught in the middle of the struggle between Rohani and the IRGC, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may opt for compromise: He may authorise continued Iranian adherence to the JCPOA to keep the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese happy but tell the IRGC to intensify its campaign against the United States and unleash its proxies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria against US military personnel.
This will not only escalate the risk of serious military confrontation between Iran and the United States but also herald the political demise of Rohani, who is witnessing the unravelling of a nuclear agreement that constitutes the foundation of the popular mandate for his presidency.