While the details of the Trump Administration’s policy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran have yet to be unveiled, it is clear that the new administration has “put Iran on notice” and by doing so intends to increase pressure on Tehran for its aggressive regional policy. This policy shift signifies a return to the U.S.’ traditional approach of containment and moves away from President Obama’s eight-year effort of nuclear engagement and reintegration of Iran as a means of promoting domestic change in Tehran and altering America’s footprint in the Middle East. The timing of this shift coincides with Iran’s May 19th presidential election where incumbent President Hassan Rouhani is defending his political record against hardline clerical candidate Ebrahim Raisi among others. Although the election results will not definitively alter the political nature of the Islamic Republic, the outcome could affect the looming U.S.-Iranian confrontation set to play out throughout the region.
Since coming to office in January 2017, President Trump has criticized the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief as among the worst deals ever signed. As part of the deal, the countries known as the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, France, U.K. and Germany) lifted their imposed nuclear-related sanctions against Iran. Tehran hoped that the removal of sanctions would regenerate the economy and usher in billions of dollars in investment in diverse sectors of Iran’s economy. While marginal investment has taken place and Iran has successfully returned to the energy market, remaining U.S. human rights and non nuclear-related sanctions preventing American citizens and U.S. companies from engaging in Iranian commerce and investment along with uncertainty regarding American policies towards Iran have hindered the prospect of larger growth and recovery.
Despite American criticism and the aforementioned challenges of the nuclear agreement, the Trump Administration most recently confirmed Iran’s nuclear compliance with the deal. In the same breath though, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused Iran of violating the “spirit of the nuclear deal” – a reference to the Islamic Republic’s support for militia and terror groups throughout the region, its ballistic missile program and provocative behaviour in the Persian Gulf – all issues that are beyond the scope of the nuclear accord. Important to note here is that Iran’s enhanced regional presence in Iraq, support for Bashar al Assad in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen, along with its longstanding support for Hezbollah has proved threatening to Saudi Arabia, the GCC and Israel. The three have intensively lobbied the Trump Administration arguing that Iran poses an equal if not larger threat to regional stability than that of ISIS and Al Qaeda.
To balance against these challenges, Washington has indicated that they are conducting a review of the nuclear deal in order to better define their Iran policy. For the time being, the Trump Administration intends to maintain its commitments to the deal and as such will renew the executive agreements waiving nuclear related sanctions this week. However, with support of the Republican dominated U.S. Congress, they also intend to police Iranian compliance with the deal and also increase sanctions on Iran to contain Iranian activity in the aforementioned regional arenas.
This looming pressure in advance of the presidential elections has added to President Rouhani’s election woes. His principal conservative opponent Raisi, who is said to have the support of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the backing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has argued that Rouhani by focusing too much on the nuclear deal and foreign investment has not fulfilled his promises of reviving the Iranian economy. As such, Raisi has made populist pledges promising to provide increased subsidies for the poor and to create 1.5 million jobs annually through the construction of a self-sufficient resistance economy. In this vein, Raisi is seeking to capture the support of traditional, rural and conservative voters who want to preserve the regime’s revolutionary nature and Islamic values of social justice.
Countering this narrative, Rouhani is trying to attract the votes of the urban-based and the middle and upper classes, especially women, youth and minorities. Rouhani’s vision is predicated on a more liberalized political, economic and cultural atmosphere of an integrated and open Iran. He is playing on these themes and upon popular fears of isolation and repression to galvanize public support in his favor. In an effort to add to his appeal, Rouhani recently promised to negotiate an end to Iran’s non nuclear-related sanctions—a move that would require further discussion with the United States. Conversely, Raisi has less inclination to cooperate with the West and especially with the United States believing that American political and cultural influence will ultimately weaken and corrupt the Islamic Republic.
These opposing views and visions of Iran lie at the heart of Iran’s forthcoming election battle. Whichever candidate prevails, a myriad of economic, political and international challenges including increased American pressure will continue to test the Islamic Republic and its leadership.
Sanam Vakil, Associate Fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme and Adjunct Professor teaching Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe