Trump hostility set to deepen Iran power
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[October 16, 2017]
By Parisa Hafezi
ANKARA (Reuters) - Iranians quickly closed
ranks against a hawkish new U.S. approach to Tehran, but Iran's powerful
hardliners are set to exploit the latest dispute with Washington to
weaken domestic rivals who are open to the West, analysts and insiders
President Donald Trump's warning on Friday that he might ultimately
terminate a landmark 2015 nuclear deal sets the stage for an eventual
resurgence of political infighting within Iran's complex power
structures, officials said.
If the accord signed by Iran and six major powers does start to fall
apart, anyone who strongly promoted it, such as pragmatist President
Hassan Rouhani, could face a career-damaging backlash.
That could leave Iran's security hardliners unchallenged at home,
enabling greater Iranian assertiveness abroad that could worsen tensions
in the Middle East, analysts say.
For the moment, solidarity within the Islamic Republic's faction-ridden
political elite is the priority.
"What matters now is unity against the foreign enemy," a senior official
told Reuters on condition of anonymity, like other figures contacted
within Iran because of the sensitivity of the matter.
"Our national interest is a priority for all Iranian officials."
But Rouhani and pragmatists and reformist allies who promoted the deal,
which lifted sanctions in return for Tehran rolling back technologies
with nuclear bomb-making potential, may become increasingly politically
vulnerable at home.
"GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY" FOR ROUHANI'S CRITICS
Trump on Friday defied both U.S. allies and adversaries by refusing to
formally certify that Tehran is complying with the accord even though
international inspectors say it is.
"The growing tension with America is a golden opportunity for hardliners
to clip Rouhani's wings," said a Rouhani ally, who was involved in the
18-month nuclear talks.
Iran's top authority, hardline Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
guardedly backed Rouhani when he opened the door to nuclear diplomacy
with world powers, but has repeatedly expressed pessimism about
Washington remaining committed to it.
For Rouhani the stakes are high: His rapprochement with the world won
him enhanced popularity at home and prestige abroad, dealing a setback
to Khamenei's hardline allies, who oppose both detente with the West and
Now the tables may be turning.
"Hardliners will use Trump's threat as a Sword of Damocles over
Rouhani's head ... While enjoying the economic benefits of the deal,"
said Tehran-based political analyst Saeed Leylaz, referring to the
lifting of tough oil and banking sanctions.
"Rouhani and his detente policy with the world will be weakened if the
deal does not survive," another senior Iranian official said.
"And of course an aggressive regional policy is inevitable."
Under Iran's unique dual system of clerical and republican rule, the
elected president is subordinate to the unelected Khamenei, who has in
the past reasserted control when infighting threatened the existence of
the Islamic Republic.
Trump's policy will play into the hands of hardliners eventually, said
an ally of Khamenei. "What matters is the Islamic Republic and its
[to top of second column]
A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran
September 27, 2017. Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/TIMA/File Photo via
In reaction to Trump, Rouhani signaled Iran would withdraw from the
agreement if it failed to preserve Tehran's interests.
The survival of the deal now is up to the U.S. Congress, which might
try to modify it or reimpose U.S. sanctions on Iran. But even if the
Congress refuses to consider sanctions, the deal could still be in
jeopardy if Washington and Tehran resort to tit-for-tat retaliatory
"As long as both sides only exchange words, business will continue
as usual," said Leylaz.
Since the lifting of sanctions, Rouhani has started to repair an
economy ravaged by a decade of restrictions on its vital oil
industry and issued warm welcomes to global investors.
But major European investors could think twice about involvement in
Iran if tension mounts with the United States and uncertainty grows
over survival of the accord.
"If European companies don't have the comfort of a political
agreement endorsed by the Americans they will say stop," said a
senior French diplomat.
Among European firms that have announced big deals in Iran since the
deal took effect are planemaker Airbus AIR.PA, French energy group
Total TOTF.PA and Germany's Siemens SIEGn.DE.
Trump enraged Tehran by saying that the Revolutionary Guards, which
have fought Iran's regional proxy wars for decades, was Khamenei's
"corrupt personal terror force and militia". Rouhani said Iranians
would always stand by the Guards.
Several officials agreed that Trump's hostility would not change
Iran's regional behavior, determined by Khamenei. But if Trump
somehow made good on his threats, "then Iran will adopt a harsher
and aggressive regional policy," said one of the officials familiar
with Iran's decision-making policy.
Iran and its rival Saudi Arabia accuse each other of fuelling
regional tensions. The Sunni Muslim kingdom is at odds with Tehran's
revolutionary Shi'ite leaders in struggles across the Arab world,
including Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon.
On social policy, Rouhani's scope to loosen restrictions on
individual freedoms and rights would be crushed by hardliners if he
loses political prestige. Hardliners control the judiciary, security
forces and state media.
"Whenever pressured abroad, the regime increases pressure at home to
silence any opposition," said a former moderate official.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London and John Irish in
Paris; Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by William Maclean and
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