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Will Trump play into the hands of Iranian hardliners?

If pressure from the US increases in the first few months of 2017, hardliners in Iran could discredit Hassan Rouhani.

Donald Trump

by Dr. Massoumeh Torfeh

The ultra-right-wing team selected by the US President-elect Donald Trump will probably match the aspirations of the hardline leadership in Iran. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his loyal array of hardline advisers, officials in the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), his allies in the judiciary and in the security apparatus have all been waiting for this moment to arrive.

The year 2017, in which Iran would be holding presidential and provincial elections, would be dominated by a heated debate between the hardliners and the centrists on how to handle the new US presidency and the nuclear deal signed with the so-called P5+1 endorsed by the United Nations Security Council.

Trump's announcement that the United States will quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal on his first day in the White House will be viewed with concern by President Hassan Rouhani who, in the event of any change to the Iran deal, would be sidelined by hardliners.

Scrapping the nuclear deal?

Iranian hardliners share their dislike of the deal with the Republicans who, together with the president-elect, think of it as the "worst deal ever negotiated". The 10-year re-authorisation of the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) on November 15 by the House of Representatives has given them the excuse they were looking for.

In his first reaction, Ayatollah Khamenei said that if the extension of sanctions is implemented and comes into force "it will be definitely a violation of the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] JCPOA". "They [the Americans] should know that the Islamic Republic of Iran will certainly show reaction to it," he added. The renewal must still be passed by the Senate and signed by President Barack Obama in order to become law.

A few days earlier the Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani had made very similar comments, saying: "We will in return carry out a prepared technical package immediately." Read that as return to nuclear enrichment.

The Supreme Leader has previously threatened that if the US tears up the JCPOA, Iran will set fire to it.

In March, Trump declared that his "No 1 priority" would be to dismantle "the disastrous deal with Iran". His nominations for key posts of secretary of defence, national security adviser and secretary of state all seem to reassert his aim "to stand up to Iran".

If pressure from the new US administration increases in the first few months of 2017, hardliners in Iran could discredit President Rouhani and opt for a new candidate for June presidential elections.
General Michael Flynn, the new US national security adviser, confirms that he is "at war with Islam" and is sure that Iran "is intent on having a nuclear weapon". In an interview with Al Jazeera's Head to Head programme, he said Iran "has illustrated bad behaviour consistently in the past few decades".

Mitt Romney, the most likely candidate for the secretary of state, has advocated "even more punitive and crippling sanctions", and stressed in 2015 not to remove them until "Iran agrees to dismantle its nuclear enrichment capability and to submit to unrestricted inspections".

The possible contender for secretary of defence, General James Mattis, is also an outspoken critic of Tehran. Despite extensive military experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and NATO he had to retire in 2013 amid concerns that he was too eager for military confrontation with Iran.

Playing into the hands of hardliners

If pressure from the new US administration increases in the first few months of 2017, hardliners in Iran could discredit President Rouhani and opt for a new candidate for June presidential elections.

This would be difficult. Their choice would have to be someone equally popular, such as Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of IRGC's al-Quds Force, with proven track records in Syria and Iraq.

There have been a few hints. A leading hardliner, the former speaker of the parliament Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, for example, said recently that the Principalists "have not yet chosen a candidate for the elections" indicating that it may not be Rouhani. Principalists are hardline conservatives close to the Supreme Leader and their choice of candidate is normally an indication of his preferences.

Ironically our only hope of sanity lies in the confusing messages coming from the new US team: President-elect Trump, described by his close associates as a pragmatic businessman, may choose to "renegotiate".

He cannot change JCPOA because that is an international deal, but he may find other solutions. His decision on TPP shows that he prefers unilateral deals to multilateral ones. Lately several Republicans and national security experts have asked Trump to reverse his hostility to the nuclear deal with Iran.

Moreover, in relation to Syria, Trump has said that the US should stop backing rebels and focus on fighting ISIL - effectively shifting his support to Iran's position.

General Flynn, seen mainly as anti-Iran, also recognises the importance of Iran as a regional player and "a well-educated society", saying military action should be the last option.

He may advise Trump that Iran should not be sidelined while the fight against the Islamic Stae of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group remains top priority. The same advice may come from Trump's newfound friend, Vladimir Putin.

Romney too, has expressed his views more as a criticism of the Obama method in handling Iran: "What he should have done is speak out when dissidents took to the streets and say America is with you and work on a covert basis to encourage the dissidents," proposed Romney, referring to the 2009 Green Movement. Both Romney and General Mattis have acknowledged the lack of public appetite for going war with Iran.

In an election year, Iran's Supreme Leader may also prefer not to rock the boat too much. He still has echoes of the 2009 contested presidential elections. In his speech on November 23 he took the side of caution opining about the US President-elect Trump. "It is still early for making a judgment about the next US administration," he said.

So, with contradiction and unpredictability reigning supreme in both Iran and the US, chances of drastic change are as high or as little as no change at all.

Massoumeh Torfeh is the former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science specialising in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.


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