While the US president seeks support to take down Iran's ruling establishment, the hardliners and reformists in the Shia majority country are setting aside their differences over Obama-brokered nuclear deal, from which Trump has recently withdrawn.
Soon after coming into office, US President Donald Trump spoke harshly against Iran, even expressing his desire to force a regime change. During the Iranian protests earlier this year, the Trump administration "encouraged" Iranians to topple their government and accused Tehran of exhibiting "malign" behaviour in the region.
Since the US government failed to resist Trump's wish to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, a completely different scenario is unfolding in Tehran’s power circles. Similar to the effect of decades long US-led Western sanctions against Tehran, the Trump administration’s return to the hawkish position against Iran and reversal of former US president Barack Obama's strategic gains has led Iran's ruling elite to work together in the face of Washington's aggressive posturing.
The 2015 Iran agreement was Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, which created a mechanism called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for easing economic sanctions against Tehran.
The co-signatories of the JCPOA were the UK, France, Russia, China and Germany – the permanent members of the UN – as well as the EU.
“Those pro-JCPOA [Iranians] and anti-JCPOA [Iranians] are united in Iran to defend our national interest and national security,” observed Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s former top diplomat to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which was instrumental in mediating talks between Iran and the US and other countries.
Disagreements over the nuclear deal were rife within the Iranian political establishment. The leaders who were close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei weren't happy with several constituents of the nuclear deal. Many in the country’s security apparatus including influential Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) raised concerns over the agreement, calling it an unnecessary appeasement of Iran’s archenemies, primarily the US.
Not long before the UN Security Council enacted the JCPOA on July 20, 2015, the IRGC commander Major-General Mohammad Ali Jaafari publicly expressed his opposition to the deal, echoing most of the country’s security establishment. The IRGC indirectly operates most of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Iran’s hardliners and reformist political wings have been competing for influence since the late 1990s. The reformists are believed to have gained an upper hand in the country’s complex power structure from 2013 onward, after Hassan Rouhani, a moderate politician, became the country's president.
Rouhani used the nuclear deal both as an election symbol in 2017 and a foreign policy tool for Iran’s global integration. According to most polls, much of the Iranian public has supported the deal.
Despite the rejection by hardliners, the moderate president was apparently able to persuade the top cleric Khamenei to go with the deal.
Before the nuclear agreement came into force, Iran's former IAEA diplomat Soltanieh said Khamenei had warned Rouhani to not trust the US.
“After US withdrawal and re-imposed illegal sanctions, all people have come to the same conclusion,” Soltanieh told TRT World.
Though the Trump administration took a standalone decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement, the deal’s other signatories from European powers to Russia and China are still demonstrating interest in pursuing it.
“Trump's withdrawal has vindicated the hardliners who were skeptical of the value of engaging the United States and has discredited the moderates who advocated it,” said Ali Vaez, the director of Iran Project at International Crisis Group.
“The hardliners benefit from Iran's isolation, as they are the ones who control smuggling networks that the country would rely on to survive sanctions,” Vaez told TRT World.
“Once faced with an external threat, both factions are likely to come together and rally the population around the flag.”
Osman Bostan, a Turkish expert on Iranian politics, urged caution, however. Since nothing seems to be certain in Washington due to Trump's erratic presidency, the global powers, including Iran are yet to take the US's withdrawal from the deal as a final decision.
Therefore, Bostan said, "it will be too early to make a statement about how the withdrawal will affect internal Iranian politics."
Trump’s Iran gamble
Ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which succeeded in toppling a pro-US and pro-Israeli monarchy, Washington chose a tough political course against Iran.
But the Trump administration's Iran policy seems to be inconsistent with the president's non-interventionist "Make America Great Again" worldview.
Aided by pro-Zionist lobbies and National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has earned a reputation of being a "notorious hawk" for holding destructive views against Iran and North Korea, President Trump finally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May.
In July, Trump went further by threatening Tehran with “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.”
Trump's language was laced with a military threat. And his rhetoric got shriller with time, accusing Iran of waging "proxy wars" in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.
Experts suggest Trump is preparing to push the US in a direct military confrontation with Iran.
“I rule out any aggression against Iran. Those threatening our great nation are either stupid or repeating miscalculations,” Soltanieh said.
“[After] reading the history of 8-year-long war imposed by [former Iraqi dictator] Saddam [Hussein's] regime [against Iran], and heroic holy defense by Iranian great nation, nobody can ever dare to think of any aggression.”
Ali Vaez from the International Crisis Group says though the Islamic Republic has gone through several "rough patches," the hardships triggered by US-imposed sanctions and civil disobedience do not pose any existential threat to the Shia-majority state.
“Regimes in this part of the world are stable until they are not," he said. "Yet the overthrow of the Islamic Republic appears unlikely for four main reasons: there is no serious polarization at the leadership level, the system has the will and a fearsome capability to repress, there is no viable alternative to the Islamic Republic, the population seems loath to pursue radical change.”
Bostan, Turkish expert on Iranian politics, perceives Iran as a flexible state, which has an ability to adapt to different situations and to "respond to new developments.”
Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Bostan said, will eventually play into the hands of Iranians.
“Trump is a lame duck. With people like Bolton, he cannot reach any coherent point against Iran at all,” he said.
“After this point, every anti-Iranian step [from Trump’s White House] will work in favor of Iranian positions [in the Middle East]."