Shaken by the surprise election of Donald J Trump as the next US President, the leadership in Tehran is trying to deal with the unknown with a mixture of threats and promises. A glimpse into the leadership’s thinking came yesterday in a speech by President Hassan Rouhani at Tehran University in which he tried to do three things.
First, he sought to reassure the Iranians that the so-called nuclear deal brokered with the Obama administration is unlikely to be “torn up” by Trump as the US president-elect had promised during the campaign. This is of huge importance for Rouhani who has built his presidency around the claim that the nuclear deal saved Iran from “the threat of war” and opened the way for massive foreign investment needed to revive the nation’s moribund economy.
To hammer in that message further the government media also run a story that the US secretary of State John Kerry has promised that Obama will talk to Trump to persuade him to maintain “at least some key elements” of the deal. Another story designed to pass on the same message was built on a claim that the US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has met Iran’s head of the Atomic Energy Agency Ali-Akbar Salehi in Vienna to reassure him about the deal.
The second message that Rouhani wanted to pass was that the violently anti-Trump tone of the state-controlled media in Iran during the US presidential campaign did not reflect the leadership’s deepest views. “We are neither happy nor unhappy about Trump’s election,” Rouhani said, hinting that if the new president continued Obama’s policy Iran would be prepared to go along with it.
The third thing that Rouhani tried to do was to develop a new narrative that could protect him in case the nuclear deal does fall apart. His critics are already attacking him for having entered the deal “all in haste” and in spite of warnings by Khamenei.
So, Rouhani tried to implicate Khamenei. In other words, if there is blame, it would have to be shared by the “Supreme Guide”.
“We did absolutely nothing without consulting the Supreme Guide,” he said.
All through the US presidential election the assumption in the Tehran establishment was that Hillary Clinton would succeed Barack Obama and continue the policy of appeasement towards the Islamic Republic. The daily Kayhan, reputed to reflect the views of the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei even noted that pro-government dailies had done “more to promote Clinton than the New York Times.”
On many occasions Rouhani and his aides had dismissed the possibility that the US Congress might renew some of the most effective sanctions against the Islamic Republic for a further 10 years on the grounds that President Obama will veto such legislation. Now, however, the extension bill has bene unanimously approved while Obama had made it clear he will not use his veto.
This is a double setback for Rouhani who had repeatedly claimed that “all sanctions will be lifted the very day that the nuclear deal starts to be implemented.” In yesterday’s speech Rouhani tried to moderate that claim. “All sanctions, except those concerning banking services, have been suspended”, he said.
Rouhani who is facing re-election next spring is desperate to salvage the “deal” at least in form, if not substance. The trouble is that the “deal” does not have any legal underpinning; it is neither a treaty nor an agreement nor even a memorandum of understanding. What we have is a 179-page press release, which comes in different versions in Persian and English, stating a number of desirable measures by Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations’ Security Council.
In what amounts to a diplomatic charade Iran has slowed down some of its nuclear activities while Obama has used the presidential prerogative to suspend some of the sanctions, something that his predecessors George W Bush and Bill Clinton had also done for brief periods to test Tehran’s goodwill.
So, a President Trump would have the option of simply not suspending the sanctions or to offer to do only if Iran meets a set of new conditions, for example, stopping its ballistics’ missiles program and its military intervention in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Such a move by Trump would leave Tehran with no legal basis to challenge the ending of Obama’s appeasement-plus policy. All Trump would be doing would be refraining from impeding the application of US law in favor of a foreign power.
This is why Rouhani and his team are now trying to find a legal pretext, just in case. They are toying with the idea of citing the latest resolution by the United Nations Security Council, the seventh in fact, that deals with the Iranian nuclear challenge.
The problem is that Iran has repeatedly rejected all the seven resolutions and might find it hard to suddenly cite them as evidence in its own defense. In contrast, if Tehran suddenly announces that it does accept the resolutions it would face several new problems.
The first problem is that the terms that the resolutions impose on Iran are far harsher than those that Obama dictated through the so-called Comprehensive Joint Action Plan (CJPOA).
The second problem is that Trump might cite those resolutions as the real legal basis of any deal, thus rejecting the CJPOA which, in legal terms has no existence outside Obama’s imagination.
Trump could demand that Iran accept the resolutions in writing, for example in a solemn text addressed to the Security Council. Rouhani, his administration weakened and shaken by corruption scandals and internecine feuds, would not find it easy to do that especially because the resolutions, in part at least, come under Chapter Seven of the UN Carter, authorizing military action against Iran.
“We are ready for all eventualities,” Rouhani said yesterday, a veiled threat that Tehran may end the slowdown in its nuclear project. Such a move, however, could provide Trump with a ready-made excuse to stop Obama’s sanctions-suspension policy and blame Iran for a new crisis.
Trump has also threatened to release some of the secret documents related to the CJPOA and kept out of the sight even of the US Congress. The documents could expose Rouhani as a man who colluded with Obama to deceive both the people of Iran and the United States. Such exposure would not augur well for Rouhani’s chances of re-election in four months’ time.
Tehran observers agree that regardless of what Trump does, the orphan “deal” wouldn’t survive its father, Barack Obama.