How Trump empowered Iran’s hardliners
By walking away from the EU-brokered nuclear deal, the former US president undercut moderates and reformers.
Sohail Jannessari is an adjunct professor of political science at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona.
When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, he was betting the future of his government, his country and himself as a political leader that the nuclear deal with the United States and Europe would work.
As Iran heads for a presidential election on June 18, Rouhani’s bet seems to have failed. Blame for that lies with U.S. President Donald Trump, who pulled his country out of the deal, but also with Europe’s leaders who stood by and did little when he sabotaged the agreement.
Neither Europe nor the U.S. is going to like what comes next.
Rouhani leaves office in two months, and with him probably the whole moderate/liberal faction — for a long time. As a consequence of his failed bet costing him leverage in the country, his Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, key minister Abbas Akhoundi and his trusted ally, former speaker of the parliament and nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, have all been disqualified from running.
Barring a miracle, Iran’s next President will be Ebrahim Raisi, the current head of the judiciary — a man with an atrocious human rights record, including a role in a 1988 campaign of summary executions. Raisi’s likely presidency also makes him the top candidate to replace 82-year old Ayatollah Khamenei as the next Supreme Leader of Iran, to the disappointment of many who thought it would be Rouhani. This will have huge repercussions for Iran’s foreign policy, and its domestic policy, including human rights.
To be sure, Rouhani never had much faith in the Europeans. In his first presidential campaign in 2013, he’d repeatedly referred to the U.S. as the Khadkoda — the “village head” — basically arguing that there’s no point in dealing with Europeans when it’s the U.S. who calls the shots. He’d learned that lesson as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator in the early 2000s, when the Tehran Declaration and Paris Agreement with the EU big three went nowhere — after U.S. refusal to sign up to them.
Others held out more hope. For thirty years — or at least since the Luxembourg politician Jacque Poos declared it — an “hour of Europe” had been said to be dawning, with little to show for it. But when Trump took the Oval Office, it seemed like Europe’s turn had finally come. In European newspapers, paeans were made to German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Emmanuel Macron, praising them as the new leaders of the free world.
So when Trump walked away from a functioning deal, ignoring Iranian compliance and openness to future negotiations, some expected the EU to defend the agreement they had signed up to. Instead, they stood aside and let things fall apart.
European companies, like the oil giant Total, started to leave Iran as soon as the threat of sanctions appeared. Special channels for European companies and governments to keep trading with Iran, like the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), came too late and were too little. Trump talked of leaving the deal in his 2016 campaign. The first INSTEX transaction didn’t come for until March of 2020.
At times, Macron took a more hard-line stance toward Iran than even the U.K., usually the fiercest U.S. ally among the European powers. Two years into the deal, with Trump ranting in preparation for leaving it, Macron appeared on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly repeating scaremongering talking points employed by Trump and hard-liners opposed to the deal, calling it “no longer enough to safeguard against the growing power of Tehran in the Middle East.”
Rouhani’s administration kept hoping for Europeans to make good on their promises of support against Trump, to save the deal — and to finally have something to show Iranians from the risky compromise with the West he’d campaigned on. Despite a flood of words, no practical help was to come.
Instead, what came was a barrage of sanctions imposed by Trump’s administration. Named “maximum pressure,” they were created to suffocate the Iranian economy, and suffocate they did. Speaking to Iranians on the BBC’s Persian service, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the sanctions were aimed at changing Tehran’s behavior: “The leadership has to make a decision that they want their people to eat.”
Meanwhile, European countries, though signatories to a deal with which Tehran was still complying, stood aside and watched as Iran’s currency plummeted and an economic downturn took a huge humanitarian toll on the population.
Rouhani, supported by the moderate and reformist factions and figures, had handily won two elections with the promise of a compromise to remove sanctions. But at the end of the day, he had no tangible achievements to show Iranians. Public opinion soured hard on Rouhani, and for good reason.
It’s too late for Rouhani, but it’s not too late for Europe to start making up for its mistakes. Iran, and many other non-Western countries have been hoping for a strong broker. Salvaging a way forward in the aftermath of the ruined deal and Rouhani’s departure could have been a good step.
If Europe is to play that role however, it will have to engage with Iran — no matter how distasteful they might find its future president and Leader. There’s precedent for this. In the 1990s, Europe held rounds of the Critical and later Constructive Dialogue with Iran, with Ayatollah Khamenei as the newly-appointed Leader and his close ally President Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Limiting engagement to moderates like Rouhani or reformists like former President Mohammad Khatami only makes life harder for them inside the country, by making them vulnerable to accusations of treason. And in any case, because of having been left empty-handed thanks to Trump and Europe, there are likely to be few moderates or reformists around for a good while.
If something is to be salvaged from the last round of ruined diplomacy, this time it will have to be Europe making the bet — and hopefully, backing it up with action.