The Trump Factor and Iran’s Internal Politics
From the early days of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the United States (US) has played a defining role in the ideology of the post-revolutionary order. Anti-Americanism has been an unwavering feature of Iranian foreign policy for four decades. Although various governments adopted different tones towards Washington, standing up to the US has been a principle championed by supreme leaders Khomeini and Khamenei since 1979. Given the US’s critical role in Iran’s prevailing political discourse, any change of government in Washington has significant internal implications for the regime in Tehran.
During President Barack Obama’s second term, the gap between the hardliners and moderates widened as the US showed some interest in reconciliation. From 2013, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani saw this as an opportunity to resolve the pressing nuclear issue, whereas the hardliners expressed their anxiety over betraying the revolutionary principles. Although Khamenei tacitly gave Rouhani the green light to reach a compromise with the US and other Western powers, the hardliners publicly accused him of diverging from the revolutionary objectives. The nuclear deal signed in July 2015 was a major political and economic triumph for Rouhani but served to intensify the tensions between Iran’s political factions. With Trump now in the White House, the situation in Iran is changing again.
Although he had limited experience of international affairs, Trump made Iran a feature of almost all his foreign policy debates during his presidential campaign. Following his election, he formed a foreign policy and national security team that shared an Iran-centric interpretation of the problems perceived to be undermining the region and threatening American interests. Early on, ‘containing’ Iran became a foreign policy priority for the administration. In recent months, the mounting antagonism from Washington has narrowed the gap between the competing factions in Iranian politics. Unlike during Obama’s second term, there is now broad consensus among Iran’s political elite and civil society about the US threat.
On 10 October 2017, several leading Iranian newspapers published the same photo on their front page: the moderate Foreign Minister Javad Zarif embracing hardliner Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in a symbolic demonstration of unity between the government and the army. Jafari told the papers, “We have a similar stance but different ways of saying it.” Only a year ago, this political proximity between Zarif and the IRGC would have been inconceivable. Although the government still has major issues with the IRGC’s economic influence, it seems to be unusually synchronized with the hardliners when it comes to foreign policy.
The same month, Trump hinted that he was considering designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization and imposing new sanctions on it. The corps has already pledged to designate the US military as a terrorist organization in return. It also warned that should US hostility continue, Iran would settle regional issues not at the negotiating table but by other means.
In May 2017, Rouhani was re-elected for a second term. Although he has the democratic mandate to push the boundaries of Iranian foreign policy, the ‘Trump factor’, which could lead to further securitization of the Iranian economy and society, are increasingly limiting his options.
This will only contribute to further disillusionment among Iranian voters who voted for Rouhani based on his promises of change, economic reform and prosperity. In other words, the ‘external threat’ from the US will further empower the IRGC, preventing the government from making its much-needed reforms.
Trump’s ‘travel ban’, which aims to prevent citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran, from entering the US, is also rapidly shifting collective attitudes towards the country. Furthermore, Trump’s refusal on 13 October 2017 to recertify the nuclear deal and his use of the term ‘Arabian Gulf’ to refer to the body of water known historically as the Persian Gulf was seen by many as a deliberate insult. America’s image among Iranian grassroots organizations is being tarnished as is public sentiment towards the US, which increasingly resembles the official stance towards Washington.
Indeed, the Trump factor is giving hardliners an ideal platform to enforce the anti-American views they have championed for four decades. Even if the current tensions between the two countries do not result in military confrontation, the shifting political dynamics and social attitudes brought about by Trump are likely to have consequences for years to come.