As the US moves a step closer to imposing a panoply of harsher sanctions on Iran, the leadership in Tehran appears divided in its interpretation of the new challenge. The fact that “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not yet fully commented on the proposed sanctions has enabled factions within the regime to offer different, at times conflicting, narratives on the US move.
The faction identified with the late President Hashem Rafsanjani, and now symbolically headed by President Hassan Rouhani, is trying to minimize the impact of the proposed new sanctions. To that end, it develops three themes.
The first is to urge caution until the sanctions bill approved by the US House of Representatives and the Senate completes the legislative process and wait and see if President Donald Trump actually signs it.
“Although it is possible that Trump will sign the bill, we can’t be sure until he has done so,” comments the official news agency IRNA in an editorial Monday.
Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi echoes that by insisting that “the legislative process isn’t yet complete.”
It is clear that the Rouhani faction is reluctant to see the new sanction move as an end to a process of normalization launched by former US President Barack Obama almost eight years ago.
“Rouhani still believes that his promise of moderating Iran’s behavior has sympathizers in Washington,” says Nasser Zamani, an Iranian analyst. “He thinks that by publicly challenging the Islamic Revolutionary Guard he has shown his determination to curb their activities inside and outside Iran.”
Rouhani’s analysis is partially true at least as far as part of the US government, still full of Obama holdovers is concerned.
But the idea that Rouhani’s faction may be able to propel Iran into a new direction, especially in a period of transition that would see the end of Khamenei’s leadership, also has supporters within the new Trump administration.
“Rouhani is a man who has shown he favors Iran’s return to the international community,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo told a conference in Aspen Colorado last week.
“Iran isn’t a monolithic system and has different factions competing to impose their views.”
Pompeo also said that the so-called “nuclear deal” had helped Rouhani get re-elected last spring.
Former CIA Director John Brennan has expressed a similar sentiment.
“I think the nuclear deal helped Rouhani who is a moderate man,” Brenan says. “What he needs is time to strengthen his position.”
Interestingly, influential voices within the Israeli leadership share that analysis. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no longer beats the drums about the immediate abrogation of the “Iran nuclear deal”, insisting rather on the need for Iran to moderate its behavior.
The fact that Iran has taken no action against Israel since the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah is cited by some Israeli analysts as an indication that promoting the “moderates” in Tehran may have a realistic chance of success.
The second theme developed in Tehran in reaction to the new proposed sanctions is to minimize their impact.
“It is wrong to present the new sanctions as the Mother of All Sanctions,” says Islamic Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani. What the Americans have done is mainly for propaganda purposes. We should not fall into their trap.”
Foreign Minister Muhammad-Javad Zarif, expected to retain his post in Rouhani’s new Cabinet, has adopted a similar stance with the additional claim that the Islamic Republic would “adopt proportionate measures in response.”
Both Rouhani and Zarif believe that US lawmakers are trying to force Iran to denounce the “nuclear deal”, a move that would obviate the need for Trump to do so. However, such a move by Iran could mean losing the support it has won from most of the European Union members.
The third theme presented in Tehran in response to proposed new sanctions by Washington is to look to others to derail the American plan. The sanctions bill approved by the Congress also concerns Russia and North Korea. Tehran believes that Moscow will not take the blow lying down while the European Union, which has extensive business interests in Russia, will also oppose the American move.
The official media in Tehran have given prominence to a statement by EU President Jean-Claude Junkers promising to study the new US sanctions and “take appropriate measures.”
Official media claim that EU’s foreign policy spokesperson Federica Mogherini will lead a major international campaign to protect the Iran “nuclear deal” as part of a broad coalition consisting of the EU, Russia and Iran.
However, other voices in Tehran are calling on Rouhani to formally denounce the “nuclear deal”.
“The new American sanctions have annihilated the nuclear deal,” says Ayatollah Salimi who heads the Education Committee of the Islamic Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament. “If previous sanctions were against the spirit of the nuclear deal, the new ones violate both the letter and the spirit.”
Former Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed-Javad Larijani shares that view.
“The new bill approved by the US senate makes the nuclear deal meaningless,” he says. “It destroys whatever interest the Islamic Republic may have had in staying with the deal.”
The section of the official media controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard presents the new US move as targeting Iran’s para-military structures. Because the IRGC is involved in numerous business concerns, the new US sanctions could force even Iranian companies either to boycott the IRGC’s economic branches or risk losing business with European and other foreign firms who would not want to be put on a black list in the United States.
The official Islamic Radio and TV, controlled by the IRGC, claims that the new US legislation includes a “confidential addendum” that envisages the unrestricted inspection of Iran’s military sites and the freezing of the Iranian missile projects.
“The Americans are preparing a new sedition (fitnah), “says Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Assembly of Experts. “The aim of the new fitnah is the same as that of previous ones: regime change.”
That Tehran has not developed a coherent stance to new US sanctions may be partly due to difficulties that Rouhani faces in forming his new Cabinet. The president thought he would smooth his path by presenting the list of proposed ministers to Khamenei before handing it over to the Islamic Majlis. The move, in direct violation of the Islamic Republic Constitution, provoked a storm of protest. Some Majlis members argued that Rouhani’s move would make it impossible for the Majlis to reject any ministers because doing so could mean over-ruling the “Supreme Guide” who is supposed to have the final say on all religious, political, social and other matters.
The storm of protest apparently forced Khamenei to issue a brief statement yesterday saying he had not approved the list presented by Rouhani and that the Majlis was free to do its work.
Although the dust has not settled on the issue of new US sanctions two points are clear. The first is that with the end of the Obama era, Rouhani and his faction have lost the backbone of their plan to capture other segments of the Iranian power structure. Even Rouhani’s public attacks on the IRGC did not succeed in winning him from the Trump administration the kind of support he enjoyed Under Obama. The perception that the “normalization” scheme has hit a wall in Tehran has led to talk of the US probing other potential “partners” in Tehran, including, very surprisingly, from within the military establishment which is the principal target of the new sanctions.
The second point that is clear is that the Congressional move entrenches sanctions into US law which no president would be able to suspend let alone remove without further legislation. Obama was able to help the Islamic Republic by suspending some sanctions on Iran in the teeth of opposition from the Congress. With the new law, no future Obama would be able to do such a favor to the mullahs.
The tangled relationship between the Islamic Republic and the United States just got even more complicated.