Donald Trump and Iran's Changing Domestic Landscape

Mehmet Koç Coordinator of Domestic Politics

Iran is among the countries catching attention after Donald J. Trump’s election as the new president of the United States. Steps taken by Trump, known for his staunch opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to de facto or de jure invalidate the nuclear accord will have significant consequences. Trump's anticipated moves will inevitably affect Iran's Middle East policies. The signing of the Nuclear Agreement has unleashed harsh debates in Iran. The election of Trump as the US President has turned the game upside down for President Hassan Rouhani, who is planning to enter the May 2017 Presidential Election without any alternatives, depending on the advantage provided by the stabilization of the economy following the agreement.

Though Iran-US relations have been partially softened by the Nuclear Agreement, the opposition of the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, has hindered the initiation of direct negotiations for the normalization of relations between the two states. Since Iran's internal political balances have been intertwined with anti-American foreign policy for almost four decades, developments towards peaceful relations between the two countries have assumed a significant place in the debates within the country. Therefore, events in the US visibly affect Iranian domestic political landscape. In this context, the election of Trump as the US president has jeopardized Rouhani’s scheme to carry out his desired reforms on the basis of social support garnered by the Nuclear Agreement, as well as his plans to enter the presidential election. Some steps Rouhani took after signing the Nuclear Agreement prompted concerns of Khamenei and his disciples. To reach the 8% growth goal set as per the doctrine of resistance economy, Iran must attract direct foreign investment in the band of 30-50 billion dollars annually. Implementation of crucial legal reforms is a precondition for realizing this objective. Indeed, the Government has indicated that the authorities have begun to lay down the legal infrastructure work necessary to become a member of the World Trade Organization. The quest of the government to replace the old petroleum agreements with the new petroleum agreements, and to sign up for the FATF membership to efface Iran from the category of states sponsoring terrorism, after the signing of the nuclear agreement has stirred serious debates within Iran. These initiatives of Rouhani have been interpreted as a desire to uplift the Iranian economy.

First Reactions from Iran Following Trump's Election

The Revolutionary Leader Ali Khamenei, who has voiced mistrust of the USA at every found opportunity, has not hesitated from warning government authorities, primarily Rouhani, due to the dilatory actions of Washington in removing the sanctions imposed on Iran after the signing of the Nuclear Agreement. In response to Trump’s declaration of ripping the Nuclear Accord to shreds during the election, Khamenei has suggested that he would also burn the agreement if such action took place. After staying silent for a short while after the election of Trump, Khamenei cautiously articulated in his first statement that "Iran, neither regrets nor pleases Trump's election." Rouhani, on the other hand, said in the first statement that Trump's election was a result of a complicated and unstable situation within the United States, and that it would take time for internal disputes to conclude. He also stated that the results of the elections in America will not affect Iran's policies, and that the US will no longer be able to steer global public opinion against Iran using the Iran phobia, and that Iran has been vigilant to not sign the Nuclear Accords with a single country and that this agreement has been ratified by the UN Security Council.

Foreign Minister Zarif, in his statement, articulated that none should be involved in other’s domestic politics as a matter of principle, while asserting that the new president of the United States is obliged to implement the Nuclear Accord signed by multiple parties. Iran's Atomic Energy Spokesman, Behrouz Kamalvandi, stated that his country is prepared for every scenario and that atomic energy programs are proceeding as stipulated, and that they will act according to the instructions of the supreme authorities in the future. Secretary of the Iranian Supreme Council for National Security, Ali Shamkhani, suggested that Trump's election was a result of American internal problems and the dissatisfaction of the people with the existing political trajectory, and emphasized that Iran would not be affected due to independent domestic and foreign policy understanding as opposed to regional countries. According to the Chairman of Expediency Discernment Council, Hashimi Rafsanjani, Trump is not only dangerous, but also has a callous personality that can easily violate the rules of the game. Such an understanding of Trump by Rafsanjani, who is a stalwart supporter of Rouhani and the most pragmatist politics-statesman in the country, is hitherto the most realistic assessment emerging from Iran.

Parliament Speaker Second Deputy Ali Mutahhari, contradicted Rafsanjani by portraying Trump as an opportunity for Iran. According to him, the Democrats are furtive types who act in a much organized and planned manner. Mutahhari believes that Trump's negative attitude towards Saudi Arabia and his favorable statements about Syria are advantageous for Iran. The responses of the Revolutionary Guards Army (RGA), which acts as a parallel government in the economy as well as Iran's internal and external policies, to the election of Trump are also of utmost significance. Iranian membership of the Mali Action Task Group to prevent terrorism, and absolution of money laundering known as FATF, after the penning the Nuclear Agreement has severely affected the RGA. Consequently, the RGA will face serious hurdles both inside and outside the country as a result of these two agreements. It would not be far-fetched to suggest that the RGA is somewhat satisfied with the election of Trump, as they believe that the new US President will create the appropriate conditions for termination of the nuclear deal – and may abrogate it afterwards. They believe FATF membership will be null and void in the event of breach or termination of the accord. An editorial of the weekly Sobh-i Sadik magazine from Revolutionary Guards' publications has indicated that though the current situation has no affect Iran's policies at the macro level, the election of Trump does affect the future of the Nuclear Agreement at a lower level and indirectly affects the outcome of the 2017 presidential elections.

Cautious statements by senior Iranian officials reflect that they have perceived the possibility of the US president adopting different policies than stance in the election process after taking charge in January 2017. However, if we consider the choices Trump has finalized for his cabinet, the likelihood of such expectations is gradually diminishing. Many names confirmed to the Cabinet hold an extremely negative opinion on Iran. For instance, Defense Secretary Candidate, James Mattis, has portrayed Iran as more dangerous than ISIS, and Vice-President Candidate, Mike Pence, has indicated that he would tear off the nuclear deal signed with Iran. In addition, the Republicans have also seized majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Therefore, the US policies towards Iran certainly appear to have become tough. Trump and his team's approach on Iran will have a serious impact on the developments in both the political and economic spheres in Iran. Even if the US does not tear the Nuclear Accord in the new era, such an approach will not only deprive Iran of the gains it intends to achieve, but also make Rouhani’s government a target of heavy criticisms.

Considering the Nuclear Agreement as the first step towards transforming the domestic landscape, the Revolutionary Guards, the Conservative Press (Keyhan, Risalet, Farsnews, etc.), the Friday imams appointed by the Supreme Leader throughout the country, and the conservative political parties and groups (Hizb-i Mu'telif-i İslami, Hizb-i No Endişan-i Iran- Cephe-i Payidari-yi Revolt of Islam, Eittilaf-i Abadgeran-i Iran-i Islami ...) have entered a standoff with the intellectuals and the reformist parties and groups (Hizb-i Kargozaran-i Sazendegi, Hizb-i İtidal ve Tosiʿe, Hizb-i İtimad-i Milli, Cephe-i Moşareket-i İran-i İslami …) who argue that the agreement will provide new initiatives and opportunities in Iran's internal and external politics over the approaching presidential election. The risks associated with the future of the nuclear agreement are undermining the pro-agreement wing. Though the conservative wing has not yet announced their candidate to face Rouhani in the presidential elections, but with the wind is turning in favor of them, some names that have not thought of being candidates due to a lower chance of winning the election may appear on stage as a surprise.

Worried about the polarization of the political structure within the country and to not repeat the events of 2009, the Supreme Leader Khamenei has refrained from backing Ahmadinejad, who had started early preparations for the elections as a candidate.  Khamenei is trying to prevent polarization in domestic politics to prevent the present chaotic situation in the Middle East from affecting Iran. It is apparent from the emerging new scenario that Rouhani is forced either to challenge Trump and his hawkish cabinet, or leave his position for a hawkish candidate and cabinet. Otherwise, it seems improbable for Iran to resist the diplomatic and political assaults of the United States and its economic sanctions. The suggestion of Iranian authorities led by Rouhani that the election of Trump does not affect Iran, does not reflect the reality. The decision to extend the Iranian Sanctions Plan (ISA), which has expired, for 10 more years by the US Senate has been a harbinger of the crisis awaiting Iran.