Trump vs Tehran: Sanctions threat boosts Tehran's anti-American hardliners

Trump vs Tehran: Sanctions threat boosts Tehran's anti-American hardliners
Analysis: How will Trump's recently imposed sanctions impact the nuclear deal, US relations with Iran, and domestic politics for Rouhani? asks Stasa Salacanin.
9 min read
06 February, 2017
Many Iranians remain skeptical about the promised economic benefits of the nuclear deal [AFP]

The US Congress vote in December to renew the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) for another decade predictably led to angry reactions in Iran. Leaders announced that Iran was preparing an "appropriate" response, and relations between the two further nosedived when new President Donald Trump imposed new sanctions on companies and individuals earlier this month.

Although the ISA does not directly address the nuclear pact, some see it as contrary to the spirit of the agreement, according to which Iran limited its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. Tehran is convinced the recent congressional decision to renew existing non-nuclear US sanctions represents a breach of the agreement. 

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that December's extension would be viewed in Tehran as a breach of the nuclear accord, and threatened retaliation. Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said that the Islamic Republic would halt the implementation of the landmark nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries if sanctions were re-imposed. 

Iran Sanctions Act renewal 

The sanctions were due to lapse on December 31, 2016, but the US Senate joined the House of Representatives in extending them for a further decade. Although the former White House administration argued that the extension was not necessary - as the president has the authority to sanction Iran without the assistance of the Congress - the Republican-dominated legislative body decided to extend the sanctions anyway, providing the United States with essential leverage for compelling Iran to comply with the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Nevertheless, the bill has kept intact the waivers that President Obama has used to relieve sanctions on Iran following last year's deal.

Republicans, who uniformly opposed the deal, have claimed Iran was an untrustworthy partner and had been granted too many concessions

The act itself, the officials say, does not change the situation and has no direct relation to last year's nuclear deal, as the sanction effect was neutralised by the former US president. 

Instead, they insist the ISA simply makes it easier for sanctions to be to be quickly re-imposed if Iran violates its side of the deal.

The ISA extension may, however, give President Trump a broad margin for manoeuvre, should he attempt to revisit or pull out of the nuclear deal - by opting not to exercise the presidential waiver written into the bill. This would undoubtedly enrage Tehran, leading to the deal being terminated - something Republicans had wanted from the outset. 

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Republicans, who uniformly opposed the nuclear deal, have claimed Iran was an untrustworthy partner and had been granted too many concessions. They consistently criticised Obama on this issue and amplified their anti-Iran deal sentiments throughout the presidential campaign.

Following up on promises to level additional restrictions on Iran, the Trump administration introduced new sanctions on 3 February, after Iran test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile - despite this not being a violation of the nuclear deal.

Is Iran's anger justified? 

Richard Nephew, adjunct professor and programme director at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, does not believe that the extension of the Iran Sanctions Act was a violation of the nuclear deal - known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

"The JCPOA provides for no new sanctions for nuclear reasons and no reintroduction of sanctions suspended under the JCPOA under other pretexts. This does neither. It continues the existing sanctions regime as existed when the JCPOA was put in place. Just like the renewal twice a year of the National Emergency provision of the US embargo against Iran, this extension perpetuates the status quo and permits continued waiver of the sanctions covered by the JCPOA," he told The New Arab.

Donald Trump's victory may well be a game changer for Iran

Nevertheless, Congress' move was a blow to President Hassan Rouhani and his moderate approach, which, after all, led to the successful conclusion of the nuclear deal two years ago.

While the Rouhani government has largely played down the extension, hardliners in Tehran have been trying to undermine his efforts, arguing that the recent events prove that America was insincere and that President Rouhani's nuclear deal was a big mistake.

Daniel Wagner, founder of Country Risk Solutions - a US-based cross-border risk advisory firm - believes Trump's rhetoric against the nuclear deal could have an impact on the domestic political environment in Tehran by strengthening Iran's "principalists", who have criticised President Hassan Rouhani for trusting the US enough to sign the JCPOA. 

Read more: Trump's anti-Iran stance exposes dangerously imperial ambitions

As such factions in the Islamic Republic have their own interests in reversing the partial thaw in Washington-Tehran relations, Wagner wonders how Trump's triumph will shape Rouhani's political future, as Iran's president must convince the people that JCPOA served Tehran's interests, to secure a second term next year.

"As many Iranians are deeply disappointed with the JCPOA, maintaining that it has failed to deliver the economic goods which Tehran's 'pragmatists' promised, moves on the part of the Trump administration to slow down its implementation could prove politically costly to Rouhani," said Wagner.
Trump's victory - the final nail in the coffin 

Donald Trump's victory may well be a game changer for Iran. Although there is a general belief that the US probably cannot singlehandedly rescind it, the Trump administration could go some way in sabotaging the agreement.

Donald Trump, as a new president, could allow waivers of past Iran sanctions, signed by former President Barack Obama under executive order, to lapse. This would reinstitute penalties against non-Americans for dealing with Iran in banking, insurance, energy, shipping, and many other industries, causing heightened tensions between the US and other parties to the deal. 

But, according to Wagner, the US cannot just walk away from the deal, as it is not a bilateral arrangement, but rather one between the US and six other governments, none of which oppose the nuclear deal.

According to Wagner, the US cannot just walk away from the deal, as it is not a bilateral arrangement, but rather one between the US and six other governments

Trump will have to work with Russia and Washington's Asian and European allies, as well as experienced foreign policy professionals in Washington who favour the JCPOA as a means of diminishing the prospects of Tehran ever developing nuclear weapons. 

"Although Trump will likely delay the JCPOA's implementation, it does not appear that the New York mogul's presidency will sound the death knell of the nuclear deal. There are simply too many centrifugal forces in Washington and overseas working in favour of the JCPOA not against the watershed deal," Wagner noted. 

Nephew, meanwhile, believes the Trump administration will be somewhat more deft in its treatment of the JCPOA. "They won't walk away, but they will try to put pressure on Iran in such a way that I think the Iranians will feel compelled to walk away. How careful and how thoughtfully the Trump team does this, will matter considerably in international opinion.

"Already, most see Trump as the aggressor here. If he adopts new sanctions that compromise the JCPOA's benefits, then most states will see him to blame and respond accordingly. If he merely responds to Iranian aggression, then the situation will be different. I suspect that Congress and hardliners in his administration will force the issue and ultimately provoke Iran. This is not wise, but it is likely," he continued. 

Iran's response

President Hassan Rouhani stated in December that Washington's actions would elicit a "harsh reaction" and prove the United States was still an enemy.

But Rouhani's remarks were primarily aimed at his domestic audience, in an attempt to appease his hardliner critics.

Prior to its latest missile test, says Nephew, it seemed that Iran would be playing this very carefully for the sake of international public opinion, using the opportunity to split the international coalition that gave the sanctions their power.

"I suspect that the Iranians will adhere to the JCPOA and will see whether the Trump administration has the maturity and patience to let the JCPOA stand unmolested and unaffected by other policies. They want to see the Americans make a misstep here," he noted.

But ever since renewal of ISA in early December and the inauguration of Donald Trump in January, tensions have been rising fast.

One of the first casualties of this pre-existing spat could be the agreement between Iran's national carrier and Boeing to buy 80 aircraft valued at $16.6 billion

According to some reports, Iranian lawmakers prepared a bill to ban import of consumer goods from the United States. One of the first casualties of this pre-existing spat could be the agreement between Iran's national carrier and Boeing to buy 80 aircraft valued at $16.6 billion.

Although - according to Boeing - the agreement with Iran Air would support almost 100,000 jobs in the US aerospace industry, the US Congress is considering legislation that could stop Boeing's sales to Iran.

Wagner thinks that if the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) can capitalise on Trump's victory by persuading Iran's clerics to offer them greater support, foreign investment in Iran could suffer and undermine Rouhani's efforts to grow the economy.

"Does Trump wish to help usher in more hardliners, who have the most to gain from greater limitations on foreign competition in Iran's economy, into the Tehran regime?" he wonders. It seems that the latest course of events may lead us to such a scenario.

A dangerous demonstration of military muscle began last month in an incident near the Strait of Hormuz, when US destroyer USS Mahan fired warning shots towards approaching Iranian vessels. This served as a clear indicator that both sides are willing to engage in a risky game of testing each other's patience.   

Moreover, Iran's test launch of a ballistic missile on January 28, and again last Wednesday has amplified the tensions, leading the US Treasury Department to announce it was applying sanctions on 25 individuals and companies connected to Iran's ballistic missile programme - and those providing support to Iran's IRGC elite Quds Force. 

Further, Trump said last week that "nothing is off the table", when it came to a potential military response - as House and Senate Republicans backed a more hardline approach.

The Iranian foreign ministry responded that Tehran woud "impose legal restrictions on a number of American individuals and companies which have been involved in creating and supporting extremist terrorist groups or are helping in the killing and oppression of defenceless people in the region".

Wednesday's test came just days after a series of warnings from the Trump administration that Iran was "on notice" for previous ballistic missile tests, and that a military response to such actions was under consideration.

The missile used in Wednesday's launch was a short-range Mersad surface-to-air missile, and is not designed to carry nuclear warhead, and therefore did not contravene either a UN resolution or the 2015 historic US-Iran nuclear deal, according to Tehran.

But Iran's leaders will need to control the situation at home, and deal with the upcoming May elections. Nephew believes that if Rouhani's economic message does not get stronger, he may lose support over not managing to make the JCPOA work.

In the end, the most likely winner to result from the nuclear deal will be the one who manages to wait patiently for their opponent's mistake, while keeping a level head.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.