U.S.-Iran Tensions Escalate as New Sanctions Imposed: Reaction

U.S. President Donald Trump imposed new sanctions on Iran to punish the Islamic Republic for testing a ballistic missile. While the approach may satisfy hawks in Washington who were never comfortable with Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, it could unsettle domestic Iranian politics -- where President Hassan Rouhani is hoping for re-election in May.

Here, analysts comment on the worsening of tensions since Trump came to office and what they mean for U.S.-Iran relations, the outlook for the nuclear deal and for Iranian elections. The analysts spoke on Friday, before the U.S. Treasury Department specified which entities will be sanctioned.

Adnan Tabatabai, CEO of Germany-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient

On potential for dispute to escalate:

  • “What I do not see happening is a confrontation. Iran won’t attack U.S. vessels in the Gulf, or its base or troops in the region. There may be talks but I don’t see that happening”
  • “I don’t see the U.S. seeking direct confrontation, because it would be counterproductive including when it comes to anti-ISIS operations in Iraq”

On Iran’s reaction:

  • Iran’s reaction has been "measured and sober. It’s been a message of resilience that Iran won’t bow and is well within its rights." Iran understands that a measured response would likely “weaken Trump internationally,” and that would be to Tehran’s benefit

On Iranian Rouhani’s re-election bid:

  • “Rouhani may get re-elected, but the new Rouhani presidency would be less defined by the normalizing of ties with the U.S. If he gets re-elected, Rouhani’s foreign policy will be less West-leaning”

Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

Impact on the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action:

  • “I don’t expect Iran, on the basis of these proposed set of sanctions, to endanger or jeopardize the implementation of the JCPOA"

Impact on Iran elections:

  • “The more the U.S. puts pressure on Iran, and the less Iran is able to gain the economic benefits from having agreed to the JCPOA, the more the hardliners in Iran will be empowered”
  • “This set of Trump policies is certainly eroding the popularity of Rouhani, and the part of the Iranian leadership that has taken the political stance to back the JCPOA”

Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center

On potential for escalation:

  • “The problem is we don’t know how far this will escalate, given the fact this is a new U.S. administration -- and the likes of which had not been seen in Washington before. It’s breaking every diplomatic taboo and it’s an administration that has very little track record, so it’s very hard to tell which direction the wind will blow"

On reaction to Trump’s policies in Iran:

  • “The rhetoric that we’re hearing is only going to embolden the hardliners. The travel ban, for example, is feeding into the more extremist narrative in the region -- not just in Iran but elsewhere”
  • “Certainly, with the increase in sanctions, the perception that the U.S. might be rolling back on the Iran deal -- and the anti-Iran mood that is emerging in Washington -- will further empower hardliners in Iran, where the rhetoric will be, ’we told you so -- these people cannot be trusted”’
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