Iran is becoming immune to US pressure

Foreign Policy | Sina Toosi: U.S. President Donald Trump said on June 5 that Iran should not wait until after the presidential election “to make the Big deal,” but can get a “better deal” with him now. Trump’s remarks came after a recent prisoner swap, which saw detained U.S. Navy veteran Michael White released from Iran in exchange for Iranian American doctor Majid Taheri. However, while Trump may want to negotiate with Iran and reinforce his self-avowed reputation as a deal-maker before the U.S. election, his “maximum pressure” policy has all but eliminated the chance for U.S.-Iranian diplomacy in the months to come.

Iran has proven resilient in the face of U.S. pressure. While many ordinary Iranians are suffering, the economy is not in total free fall, as many in Washington hoped for. Instead, the country has shown signs of economic recovery, with domestic production and employment increasing. According to Iran’s Central Bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati, Iran’s nonoil gross domestic product grew by 1.1 percent last year. Prominent Iranian economist Saeed Laylaz also contends that Iran’s economy can weather the coronavirus pandemic and may experience growth this year despite the virus.

Trump’s bellicose rhetoric and actions have not made Iran more inclined to do a deal, but they have undermined any Iranian officials who supported negotiations with the United States. Whether wittingly or not, Trump’s policy decisions have closed the potential for diplomacy. The political cost one faces in Tehran for arguing in favor of negotiations is now simply too high. This is evident in how Iranian officials have reacted to the recent prisoner exchange.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, one of the highest decision-making bodies in Iran, said in response to Trump’s offer for a deal, “The exchange of prisoners is not the result of negotiations & no talks will happen in the future.” Shamkhani’s remarks reflect a consistent line in Tehran: Negotiations with the United States are off the table. Even moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and spokesperson Ali Rabiee now maintain that prisoner swaps can occur without negotiations.

The situation was different just a few months ago. The only other time the United States and Iran exchanged prisoners under the Trump administration was in December 2019, when Iran released Princeton doctorate student Xiyue Wang for Iranian scientist Masoud Soleimani. Unlike the recent White-Taheri exchange, the December swap also saw high-level meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials, a rare instance of bilateral U.S.-Iranian talks under the Trump administration. The United States has called for such a meeting again, but Iranian officials now accuse it of sabotaging diplomatic efforts.

Rouhani’s rhetoric around the time of the December swap also suggested he was more open to a new round of negotiations with the United States. Rouhani explicitly declared in the lead-up to the swap that Tehran had not ruled out talks and that negotiations could be “revolutionary.”

Then, in late December, Rouhani traveled to Japan in a trip that Japanese media said was greenlighted by Washington. There was speculation that the trip could have led to a “small deal” between the United States and Iran, with Iranian media reporting that Japan could get a U.S. waiver for importing Iranian oil and release billions of dollars in frozen Iranian oil revenues. Such a deal could have built confidence and met Rouhani’s precondition of sanctions removal for negotiating with Trump.

However, any hope that the positive diplomatic momentum built in late 2019 would lead to diplomatic progress between the United States and Iran was crushed in early January, with the U.S. assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani. Many millions thronged Iran’s cities calling for revenge after the killing. Rouhani defiantly exclaimed in February: “They thought that with maximum pressure they can take us to the table of negotiation in a position of weakness … this will never happen.”

The political climate in Iran has since decisively turned hostile to any talk of negotiating with the United States, reestablishing a taboo that existed for years before the nuclear negotiations during the presidency of Barack Obama.

“Negotiations and compromise with America, the focal point of global arrogance, are useless and harmful,” said Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Iran’s new parliamentary speaker, in his first speech to the body, “Our strategy toward the terroristic America is to complete our vengeance for the blood of the martyr Suleimani.”

Ghalibaf, a former commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and an old friend of Suleimani, unsuccessfully ran against Rouhani in both Iran’s 2013 and 2017 presidential elections. He assumed his parliamentary post in May, after parliamentary elections in February that swept conservatives to power. Importantly, that conservative victory occurred amid record-low turnout in the election and the widespread disqualification of reformist and moderate candidates by the Guardian Council.

Nevertheless, the total capture of parliament by conservatives cements the marginalization of reformists such as Rouhani and his allies that began after Trump scuttled the 2015 nuclear deal. Rouhani had sunk all his political capital into negotiating the accord and promised it would give the Iranian people major economic dividends.

Ghalibaf has now replaced Rouhani’s ally Ali Larijani as parliamentary speaker. Meanwhile, the judiciary, considered one of the three branches of government in Iran alongside the presidency and legislature, is being run by Rouhani’s other former 2017 rival, conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi.

The changing political winds are significant for the future of Iranian foreign policy. Within the byzantine Islamic Republic system, Rouhani managed to forge necessary consensus on negotiations with the United States during the Obama administration, which included nods of approval from both the Supreme National Security Council and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Unlike his hard-line predecessor, the boisterous and belligerent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani formed a cabinet of many U.S.-educated technocrats and his ambitions laid squarely on securing Iran’s economic integration to the world. For a time, Rouhani was riding high in public opinion polls, but that has dramatically reversed.

Ghalibaf, while not as aggressively ideological as Ahmadinejad, has made it clear that he will do everything in his power to ensure Rouhani remains a lame duck for the rest of his presidency. In his first address as parliamentary speaker, he lambasted Rouhani’s administration for its “focus on the outside [world]” and not believing in “the principles of jihadi management.”

Ironically, Ghalibaf himself has been described as a technocrat, drawing from his 12-year run as mayor of Tehran. During his tenure, he oversaw the construction of major infrastructure projects, voiced support for the nuclear deal, and participated in international summits such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where in 2008 he called for international investment in Iran.

However, political expediency compels Ghalibaf to oppose Rouhani for the rest of his term, which ends next year. As parliamentary speaker, Ghalibaf presides over disparate conservative factions, ranging from the fundamentalist Front of Islamic Revolution Stability to the free-market-oriented Islamic Coalition Party. Targeting Rouhani and his agenda is an easy and effective way for Ghalibaf to unite conservatives behind him. Above all, the goal will be to obstruct Rouhani’s ability to negotiate with the United States and restore the political fortunes of his camp.

Trump is mistaken if he believes “maximum pressure” is getting him closer to a deal with Iran. The policy is not leading to Iran’s capitulation or collapse, but entrenching U.S.-Iran hostilities and keeping the United States perennially at the cusp of war in the Middle East. Trump, who ran in 2016 on getting the United States out of costly Middle Eastern wars, nearly went to war last June and again in January over his decision to escalate with Iran.

An alternative approach is possible but requires Trump to ditch maximum pressure and rebuild the trust necessary for successful negotiations. International relations and the real estate market are not similar. Bullying and bluster do not win deals; mutual respect and “win-win” compromise do. Trump has styled himself as a deal-maker, but ahead of the November election he has zero foreign-policy victories to his name. If he wants any semblance of a positive foreign-policy legacy, he needs to get off the path to war and on a path to negotiations with Iran.

Sina Toossi is a senior research analyst for the National Iranian American Council.