US President Donald Trump’s decision to pursue a more aggressive Iran policy underscores his administration’s misunderstanding of the Iranian regime. Shelving the 2015 nuclear deal would not only heighten regional tensions; it would also embolden the very hardliners that the US has been seeking to contain.
The United States and Iran have rarely agreed on how to proceed with nuclear talks or other elements of their bilateral relations. But synergies and similarities between two factions – Iranian hardliners and the hawks of the current US administration – are as counterintuitive as they are profound. Indeed, Donald Trump’s new Iran strategy has given radicals in Tehran reason to celebrate, as they have found in the US president an unwitting ally in their quest for political dominance.
For years, Iran’s “conservative radicals” – a concept that combines extreme conservatism in matters of faith and philosophy with radical views on violence – have argued that negotiation and rapprochement with the US are foolish and futile. The US, these hardliners believe, is interested only in regime change, and to fight Islam in the region.
This view has led Iran to align more closely with Russia and China. But as crippling nuclear-related sanctions in recent years brought the Iranian economy to the verge of collapse, Iran’s conservatives were forced to negotiate in good faith with the international community.
Even without sanctions, the Iranian economy would have been under severe strain. Corruption and mismanagement, along with structural and external challenges – such as falling oil prices, water shortages, and an aging unemployed population – had already weakened economic growth. The fact that China and Russia joined the most recent round of sanctions had made the radicals’ position less tenable.
But if Iran’s hardliners were frustrated by previous negotiations, their disappointment vanished yesterday. Trump’s move to challenge the 2015 nuclear deal – formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA – has given them an unanticipated victory. While the most effective sanctions had already been lifted, and are unlikely to be re-imposed, Iran’s conservatives have gained political points that they can use against their opponents at home.
Within Iran, a powerful coalition of moderate forces – ranging from reformists and dissidents to civil-society actors – has long advocated for a more engaged foreign policy. Wary of Russia’s influence and uncertain of China’s intentions, these forces have supported a continued Western orientation in economic and political ties. Moderates advocated for more responsible foreign policy and caution on the country’s nuclear program. And they sought to deepen ties to the Iranian diaspora, in the hope that closer relationships could help solve some of Iran’s most daunting economic challenges.
Iranian moderates understood that the nuclear deal reached with the international community was flawed. But they supported it nonetheless, hoping to leverage it for more freedom at home. President Hassan Rouhani famously promised a domestic version of the deal to heal Iran’s political wounds, and to further address its economic woes. That pledge reflected Rouhani’s broader effort to challenge and curtail the power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is rooted in the IRGC’s control of large swaths of the Iranian economy. Now, with Trump’s move, Rouhani’s agenda, and that of the entire moderate coalition, is in jeopardy.
Most of those in the US who supported the nuclear deal were also aware of its flaws. But they saw the deal as an opportunity to engage Iranians who oppose the conservative radicals. American supporters believed that the vibrancy of Iranian civil society and social media boded well for the country, and hoped an Iran that was open to global markets would become more liberal politically.
Critics of the deal object that Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles has continued unabated after the JCPOA was enacted. But it is folly to think that the US can curb Iran’s nuclear and regional activities by unilaterally walking away. In fact, the deal’s ultimate goal – to slow enrichment of uranium and halt nuclear testing – appears to have worked. Whatever problem Trump has with the agreement, it is worth remembering that no country can fix what it has rejected. And rejecting the JCPOA would only encourage the Iranian regime to resume the very activities that the deal was meant to contain or curtail.
Trump’s challenge to the JCPOA will most likely encourage other egregious behavior as well. One reason for the radicals’ regional shenanigans – such as supporting militias in Yemen, Palestine, and Lebanon – is the belief that confrontation with the US or Israel is inevitable. Proxy forces like Hezbollah are, from this perspective, a tool either for deterring aggression or for deployment when fighting begins.
It is true that Iran’s proxies have not holstered their guns as a result of the nuclear agreement. But tensions with the US did diminish. Now, following Trump’s about-face, the possibility of confrontation between Iran and the US has returned, which will only embolden the resolve of Iran’s proxy forces.
Unilateral US abrogation of the JCPOA is, in short, the worst of all policy options. No matter what Trump says, there are plenty of people in Iran, and the US, who share this view.