Trump's Deal Threats Hang Over Iran’s Election

  • Nuclear accord has so far failed to deliver hoped-for benefits
  • Trump picks for CIA, Defense are hawks on U.S.-Iran policy

He hasn’t even taken office, but Donald Trump is already looming large in Iran’s presidential election.

As the Islamic Republic prepares to vote in May, Trump’s threats to dismantle the 2015 nuclear accord, along with Congressional action against Iran, are providing a rallying cry for Tehran’s conservatives. Under pressure, President Hassan Rouhani, the moderate leader who clinched the deal, and his officials have adopted a harsher tone against Washington: If Trump tears up the deal, “we will burn it here,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said Sunday. State TV compared U.S. lawmakers to gangsters in a Martin Scorsese movie.

Abbas Araghchi

Photographer: Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“This election will be shaped by Donald Trump coming into office,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of Middle Eastern politics who focuses on Iran at Qatar University in Doha. “There will be interest in having a hardliner, or Hassan Rouhani himself will be acting more as a hardliner.”

Trump’s pick for CIA director, Representative Mike Pompeo, is an outspoken critic of the Iran agreement, as is his nominee for defense secretary, General James Mattis.

A clash between the Trump White House and Iran risks a return to the military threats and angry rhetoric that dominated U.S.-Iranian ties under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It would also pose a challenge for other deal signatories -- three European powers, Russia and China. European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini used Monday’s one-year anniversary of the lifting of sanctions to hail the accord as “proof that diplomacy works,” hours after newspapers quoted Trump describing it as “one of the worst deals ever made.”

Testing Winds

Rouhani delivered on his 2013 election promise to end Iran’s isolation. But with his diplomatic success yet to bring better living standards, he could be vulnerable to a challenge from within the ranks of conservatives who opposed the deal, especially if tensions with Iran’s old foe escalate.

That would pose a dilemma for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who’s expected to signal his tacit backing for a candidate in the run-up to voting.

“Bolstering a hardline Iranian president to stand up to his American counterpart was tried in 2005,” said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at International Crisis Group, referring to Ahmadinejad. “Ultimately, it proved costlier to Iran than the U.S.,” he said. But a final decision on who to back “is unlikely to be taken any time soon as the leadership in Tehran carefully watches the transition of power in Washington and holds a finger in the wind.”

Iranian Nuclear Deal Faces New Twist With Trump Win: QuickTake

Since Trump’s victory, Rouhani, 68, has insisted the U.S. alone can’t wreck the accord, pointing to what he said are firmer alliances elsewhere.

Bill ‘The Butcher’

“Our opposing party is six countries, some of them are our friends,” he said in a speech last month. The U.S., the president said, “is our enemy and we don’t have a doubt about this.”

Concerns among investors deepened late last year as the House voted to block financing for sales of Boeing Co. aircraft, and the Senate backed extending the Iran Sanctions Act, which authorizes the president to force further curbs. Sanctions imposed over Tehran’s missile program and its links to U.S.-designated terrorist groups -- which weren’t rolled back under the 2015 deal -- were already deterring some companies, including international banks.

Iranian state TV used clips of Scorsese’s 2002 Gangs of New York to spice up its analysis of the spat, equating characters such as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, a violent gang leader played by Daniel Day Lewis, to American politicians’ approach to the nuclear agreement.

Rouhani will enter 2017 broadly popular, but the gloss has worn off.

‘Double-Edged Sword’

“The way people see it, the deal aside, he hasn’t really delivered that much,” said Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at London’s King’s College. But, she said, it’s not clear if there’s any alternative candidate who appeals to Iranian conservatives and reformers and “still works well with Khamenei?”

Saeed Laylaz, an economist and former presidential adviser, sees economic realities key in determining who the establishment swings behind.

“We have low oil prices and we’re still facing barriers to foreign investment,” he said “There are too many external economic factors which mean that” Iran’s top leaders are likely to judge now isn’t the time for major political change, Laylaz said.

There’s “no strong competition so far for Rouhani,” said Adnan Tabatabai, CEO of the Germany-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient. Convincing Iranians that the fruits of the deal will ripen “could pretty much secure his re-election,” he said. If not, “he will have a difficult time and may face a second round.”

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