U.S. President Donald Trump is welcomed as he speaks to commanders and coalition representatives during a visit to U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, February 2017. 
Carlos Barria / REUTERS

The Iranian government is not a monolith. Its regime is actually based on decentralization. To be sure, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei does sit atop the formal hierarchy, and he calls many of the shots. But the other centers of power have considerable influence in domestic matters and foreign affairs. As a result, infighting in Iran on certain issues can parallel, or at times even surpass, that in Western democracies. And it often picks up during key national and international events, such as throughout Iran’s nuclear talks with the P5+1 and leading up to presidential and parliamentary elections.

Iran is scheduled to hold its next presidential elections in May. The campaign doesn’t officially start until just weeks before the date of the vote, and the list of candidates isn’t finalized until shortly before then, too. But even though most of the candidates have yet to formally announce that they are running and the Guardian Council, a body composed of jurists and clerics, has to validate their candidacy, the politicking leading up to the elections has already begun. The moderate, pro-dialogue president, Hassan Rouhani, is up for reelection, and his chances largely hinge on Iranians’ assessment of the benefits of engagement with the West and the resulting nuclear deal.

But selling the deal is an increasingly difficult task for Rouhani and his team. And the rhetoric coming out of the Beltway isn’t helping. For months, Rouhani argued that his country was better off engaging America and having the nuclear deal in place. This, he claimed, allowed his country to reintegrate the international community, rebuild its economy, and avoid military confrontation. Today, hard-liners (several of whom are likely to seek the presidency) argue that none of this has materialized. But despite the perceived lack of progress on the economic front, Rouhani is still the most viable candidate. This is mainly because none of the individuals potentially running for president have his name recognition or social and political capital. This, however, could change if U.S.-Iranian relations keep escalating.

In this context, the rhetoric coming out of the Donald Trump administration in the United States is key for Rouhani’s future—and Iran’s.

THE FALL AND RISE OF ENGAGEMENT

In 1997–2005, under the reformist President Mohammad Khatami, Iran made several overtures to Washington. Tehran supported the early stages of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks. It also helped forge the path for a smooth transition of power in Kabul by playing a decisive role in the Bonn Agreement in 2001, pushing the Northern Alliance to make critical concessions and insisting on the new political system being based on democratic elections. But the George W. Bush administration’s “axis of evil” speech marked an end to all that. Soon, Iran toughened its stance on U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and adopted a less constructive tone in the channel. It also started to become a nuisance in some respects. In particular, it released the notorious Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who founded Hezb-i Islami, into Afghanistan. Prior to this move, Tehran and Washington were discussing the possibility of Hekmatyar being transferred to the new government in Kabul.

Meanwhile, during the nearly decade and half U.S. efforts in Iraq, tougher stances by the United States have often led to Iranian misbehavior there. To be sure, Tehran’s presence in Iraq isn’t related to that of the United States. Iran has national security interests there that are for the most part unrelated to Washington’s. And its actions can’t be blamed on the United States. But the Revolutionary Guards have been known to use their position to poke the U.S. military in the eye. And that’s often the case when the United States ups the ante vis-à-vis Tehran. The Islamic Republic sees rhetorical escalation, like policies it feels targeted by, as an overture to increase its support for various militias in the country, supplying them with the means to target U.S. troops. That was particularly the case before the rise of the Islamic State. The more Washington has escalated its anti-Iranian rhetoric, the more aggressive the Revolutionary Guards have become.

More recently, during the nuclear talks, the Iranian parliament mirrored the U.S. Congress both rhetorically and in placing obstacles on the way of the deal. For example, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and 47 of his Republican colleagues signed a controversial letter to Iranian leaders that warned the Islamic Republic that Congress or the next president could undo any deal signed with President Obama. That, combined with congressional leaders’ rhetoric and the Republican presidential candidates’ comments, including threats to dismantle the agreement or impose more sanctions, made it more difficult for Rouhani to sell the nuclear deal at home.

TRUMP’S TEHRAN ADVANTAGES

Since taking office, Trump and administration has started its mandate by adopting a more vocal and hard-line position on Iran. The president recently tweeted, “Iran is playing with fire - they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!” White House Communications Director Sean Spicer later said that the Iranians “are getting the message and they’re going to continue to get the message” that the administration will be tougher on them than President Obama was. Later, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn warned Iran that Washington will no longer be satisfied with the “ritual” of holding UN Security Council meetings: “The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.” None of the statements coming out of the White House gives us any indication of what the new administration’s precise policy direction will be. (The only policy so far has been to impose sanctions on entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program, which isn’t the major shift promised by Trump’s advisers.)

Yet Iran’s government has believed that it could work with Trump more than it would have been able to with his opponent, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Trump is viewed as a pragmatic business-oriented leader who’s willing to shake up the status quo in Washington. Trump ran on a platform of changing decades of U.S. foreign policy. Khamenei even praised Trump during the campaign, claiming that the candidate had captured the U.S. electorate’s desire for change. Clinton, meanwhile, has a consistent more aggressive stance toward Iran. During her first race for the White House, she famously threatened to “attack” and “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel using nuclear weapons in 2008. And while Secretary Clinton supported the nuclear deal, she also promised to be tougher on Tehran.

This positive, or at least neutral view, of Trump is beginning to change, primarily because of the administration’s travel ban, which targets Iran as one of seven nations whose citizens now face restricted entry into United States. And the recent comments made by National Security Adviser Michael Flynn that the United States is “officially putting Iran on notice” are likely to further fuel Iran’s discontent with Washington and the impression that it’s back to business as usual between the two countries. Following its tough talk, the administration imposed new sanctions on certain Iranian entities involved in the country’s ballistic missile program. Far from being a departure from Washington’s traditional Iran policy or a tougher stance on the country, the sanctions are in fact a continuation of the failed policy of the past. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized the opportunity and conducted military drills in response to President Trump’s escalatory rhetoric and sanctions.

Trump entered the White House at a time when U.S.-Iranian relations were the best they’d been in the nearly four decades since the 1979 revolution. For the first time, the two countries had a working relationship on at least one key strategic area, and open channels of communication on others, too. Trump could build on this progress while the Rouhani government is still around and make it as irreversible as possible. Tehran doesn’t have the intent or capabilities to pose an existential threat to U.S. security. Rather, the Islamic Republic is a nuisance to the United States whose misbehavior is better dealt with through engagement than escalatory rhetoric. This would allow Washington to keep the Iranian public on its side, rather than turn it away and help it galvanize around the country’s conservatives. It would also help the moderates and reformers who seek better relations with the West and the rest of the international community. Keeping open channels of communication and a moderate rhetoric allows Washington to get its way without jeopardizing its interests. For example, in 2016, the Revolutionary Guards captured ten U.S. sailors close to one of their bases in Farsi Island, in the Persian Gulf. The incident could have escalated quickly, leading to the sailors being kept hostage and possibly leading to military confrontation by the two sides. And a confrontation in the Gulf could lead to the Guards closing the Straight of Hormuz, with numerous consequences for the international economy, U.S. interests, and U.S. allies’ security. Instead, then Secretary of State John Kerry managed to de-escalate quickly and ensure the speedy release of the sailors, thanks to his diplomatic channel with Iran’s moderate foreign minister, Javad Zarif.

Trump entered the White House at a time when U.S.-Iranian relations were the best they’d been in the nearly four decades since the 1979 revolution.

But this can’t be achieved if Washington chooses to adopt an escalatory rhetoric. Such a narrative only emboldens the hard-liners, who are pressed to remind their constituents that the United States can’t be trusted. It also helps the Revolutionary Guards justify their efforts to push the envelope and test ballistic missiles, support adversarial groups such as the Houthis in Yemen, and conduct a more aggressive cyber program. At the same time, the rhetoric undermines Iran’s moderates and reformists, who have spent a lot of their political capital to engage the United States on key issues, often getting into trouble with Iran’s conservatives for it. And while the Islamic Republic has a history of four decades of anti-U.S. propaganda and rhetoric, it hasn’t managed to convince its constituents that the United States is all that bad. Many Iranians still hope to come to the United States, consume U.S. products and culture, and generally view the country favorably. But this can change rapidly if the United States plays into the hard-liners’ hands by continuing to escalate its rhetoric and pushing for regime change.

While specific hard-line candidates have yet to announce that they’ll run for president and be confirmed by the Guardian Council, it’s a safe bet that those who end up doing so will advocate chillier relations with the United States. Many hard-liners opposed the nuclear deal, and virtually all of them view the United States unfavorably. They are likely to push back on Rouhani’s attempts to engage Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors and Washington and support Tehran’s misbehavior in the greater Middle East.

Ultimately, the Trump administration’s escalatory rhetoric will produce precisely the opposite of what it hopes to achieve: it will embolden Iran’s most hard-line factions and provide the Revolutionary Guards with a justification for doubling down on its military drills, missile tests, cyber-activities, and propping of terrorist groups in the Middle East. It will also undermine Iran’s moderate factions, closing the window on any kind of engagement for years to come after only the first weeks of the Trump presidency. This administration must learn from the Bush administration’s mistake and adopt a more restrained tone. This does not mean that it must act weak and refuse to call out Tehran for its concerning activities, but, rather, that it should do so decisively, diplomatically, and in tandem with the European Union and other key partners. 

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  • ARIANE M. TABATABAI is Visiting Assistant Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in the Security Studies Program.
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