Rouhani 2.0 vs. the Hawks in Washington and Tehran

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran receives the presidential mandate from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during an endorsement ceremony in Tehran on Thursday. Reuters

The inauguration of Hassan Rouhani on Saturday as president of Iran for a second term may be a bittersweet moment for him.

He appears at once stronger and weaker: His 19-point margin of victory in May after a bruising campaign against hard-line opponents surely increased his confidence. Yet, perhaps for that very reason, the conservative establishment, led by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is trying to stymie his efforts to translate his electoral mandate into policies aimed at opening Iran economically and politically. This augurs trying times, made more difficult by the belligerent stance of President Trump toward Iran.

History suggests that Mr. Rouhani has reason for concern. All his predecessors over the past three decades suffered gradual obsolescence in their second terms. Without the option of a consecutive third term, they all followed the same script: an initial forceful push of their agenda, followed by a clash with the Iranian system’s custodians and the frustration of becoming premature lame ducks.

In some ways, though, 2017 seems different. This is no ordinary moment in Iran’s history. The men who led the revolution to victory in 1979 are dying off, and Ayatollah Khamenei, who is 78, has suggested that he may soon need a successor. Two competing visions are vying for the Islamic Republic’s future: that of the principlists, who seek to preserve its revolutionary nature, and that of the more pragmatic elements, who want the revolution to mellow.

The stakes are high and the competing sides know it. Ayatollah Khamenei has deployed unusually caustic language against the re-elected president, warning against his eagerness to woo foreign investment and his openness to Western-style education systems. Ayatollah Khamenei has also pointedly reminded Mr. Rouhani of the fate of the Islamic Republic’s first president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who was impeached and forced into exile. In turn, Mr. Rouhani has remained defiant, vowing not to fear detractors “who possess loud megaphones” and to prevent “a small minority to make decisions for a whole nation.” He also criticized the role of the powerful Revolutionary Guards in the economy.

The playing field, however, is hardly even: In July, Mr. Rouhani’s brother was arrested on corruption charges. He was later released on bail, but the prospect of his humiliating imprisonment could be used by the principlists to pressure Mr. Rouhani.

President Trump, surrounded by advisers seemingly determined to take a harder stance toward Iran, is reportedly seeking a pretext to eviscerate the 2015 nuclear accord. In lock step with Congress, the Trump administration has already moved to intensify sanctions and has vowed to aggressively counter Iran’s regional policies and ballistic missile activities.

Seen from Tehran, the signs are unmistakable: From its efforts to erect a Sunni arc to curb Iran’s purported Shiite crescent in the Levant to repeated hints about regime change, this administration is intent on confronting Iran, depriving it of the nuclear deal’s economic dividends and seeking to unseat its rulers.

There is no reason to believe that the Trump administration will succeed where its six predecessors faltered. And in that sense Iran’s rulers have little to worry about.

Of greater concern are the American policies’ unintended consequences. Escalation against Iran is bound to deepen the insecure country’s siege mentality; rising tensions will feed Iran’s militarism and militancy; and squeezing Iran will diminish Mr. Rouhani’s maneuvering space.

All of this will bolster the principlists — defeated time after time in local and national elections — and enable them to regain politically what they lost electorally. They could exploit the external threat as pretext to obstruct the government’s agenda, hinder economic reintegration to preserve their own interests, label critics as foreign agents, and fuel apathy and dissatisfaction to ensure their rivals’ defeat in the next elections. While the United States is incapable of empowering Iranian pragmatists, midwifing a principlist consolidation now would be a grave mistake.

The biggest losers in all of this, of course, will be the Iranian people. They pursued utopia in 1979 and know full well the cost of revolutionary change. Since then, they have grasped at the highly imperfect electoral straws of Iran’s constitutional theocracy, hoping for a gradual evolution toward a more open economy and pluralistic polity. Given a limited choice, they endorsed Mr. Rouhani’s platform of diplomatic engagement with the West and banked that it would produce at least some modest improvements.

Instead, they have been paid back with the Trump administration’s travel ban, its callous blaming of Iran after the Islamic State’s attack in Tehran in June and policies that will embolden the very forces they rebuked at the ballot box.

In 1953, the United States helped engineer a coup against an Iranian government that represented a nascent democratic movement — a decision that boomeranged, fueling anti-American rancor and contributing to the rupture between the two countries a quarter-century later when zealots stormed the American Embassy in Tehran.

There is a lesson in that for the Trump administration.

Mr. Rouhani is not an ideal partner for Washington, and Iran under his helm would not pursue policies to America’s liking. The United States can intelligently push back against aggressive Iranian behavior in the region, and it can legitimately insist on rigorous enforcement of the nuclear accord.

But to escalate regional tensions, deepen sectarian rifts, undermine the nuclear agreement, pursue regime change and eschew all diplomatic engagement would be a hazardous affair. The Trump administration risks tilting Iran’s internal dynamics in the wrong direction at a pivotal moment, once again bringing the country’s democratic struggle to grief and breeding another generation of enemies.

Ali Vaez is the senior Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group.

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