The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
Now is a time of soul-sickening worry for many Iranians, but perhaps not for the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The leader’s insouciance may seem perplexing, with Iran reeling from the novel coronavirus, U.S. sanctions, the assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani, and the specter of war with the world’s leading superpower. But Khamenei and his worldview are on the ascent in both domestic and foreign policy.
The coronavirus crisis has had tragic consequences in Iran, with the number of registered infections skyrocketing to 73,303 as of April 13 and the number of deaths hitting 4,585. And it has simultaneously brought to the fore divergent approaches to governance in the Islamic Republic.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has seized the moment of crisis to call for greater inclusivity in the Iranian political system. In an address marking Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, Zarif said Iran needed “mental housekeeping” to “confront sanctions and the coronavirus” and should “reconstruct its style of governance.” At a time when the country’s survival depends more than ever on nonideological technocrats, the foreign minister stressed the need to elicit support from Iranians abroad. “Today, borders are not between those in our camp and not in our camp,” he proclaimed. “Everyone who is for the lives of their countrymen and simultaneously confronts the death-causing sanctions and coronavirus is Iranian and in our camp.”
By contrast, days later, Khamenei delivered his first major speech of the Iranian New Year. The address is traditionally given before a crowd at the Imam Reza Shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad, but for obvious reasons, Khamenei spoke in front of a state television camera this year. His far-reaching remarks defended Iran’s model of religious governance, rejected U.S. assistance, and even suggested that the United States could be behind the COVID-19 outbreak. Khamenei emphasized that an ideal government official should live in accordance with Islamic sharia law. He declared that in all areas of governance, “youth who are motivated and religious should be used,” because the greater their compliance with religious law, the lower “the chance that they will betray.”
The two speeches present worldviews separated by a political fault line that stretches back decades. One school of thought in Iran seeks a more open political system and a foreign policy aimed at resolving disputes through diplomacy, whereas the other seeks to consolidate insular rule internally and hard power abroad. The second view, associated with Khamenei and the conservative camp in Tehran, has been greatly validated and empowered by the approach to Iran and to the world at large of U.S. President Donald Trump.
In the fall of 2015, months after Iran and six world powers, including the United States, reached the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, Khamenei warned of “economic and security breaches” and “political and cultural intrusion” by hostile foreign forces. Many in Iran’s paranoid ruling elite had long worried about foreign agents breaching the country’s institutions to foster political upheaval. Now, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) intelligence organization used the excuse of “infiltration” to crack down on dual nationals and others, strangling the opening negotiated by moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Rouhani was elected in 2013 on a platform centered on improving foreign relations and resolving the nuclear crisis through diplomacy. He overcame significant opposition from domestic hard-liners, who dubbed themselves the delvapasan (or “the worried”), to reach the accord and used it to pursue broader engagement. In his September 2015 address to the UN General Assembly, Rouhani proclaimed, “The agreed-upon deal is not the final objective but a development which can and should be the basis of further achievements to come.” He added, “I say to all nations and governments: We will not forget the past, but we do not wish to live in the past. We will not forget war and sanctions, but we look to peace and development.”
With the nuclear deal in place, Rouhani oversaw a speedy economic recovery, with growth increasing from negative 5.8 percent in 2013 to roughly 7.0 percent in 2016. Within a year after the removal of sanctions, the inflation rate dropped to the single digits for the first time in decades. Foreign firms including Boeing, Renault, Siemens, Total, and many others began inking agreements valued in the tens of billions of dollars. Foreign direct investment was set to soar, and Tehran’s hotels were packed with investors and tourists from abroad.
Hard-liners within the IRGC and other institutions were dead set on reversing this opening and undermining Rouhani’s agenda. A wave of arrests, particularly of Iranian and American dual nationals, began during the negotiations. Although most of those detainees were released as part of an exchange that coincided with the implementation of the nuclear deal in January 2016, later that year, the Islamic Republic handed down ten-year prison sentences to seven other dual nationals charged with infiltration, among them Baquer and Siamak Namazi, Iranian Americans who had long campaigned for a nuclear deal and the removal of sanctions on Iran. Conservative-dominated state television even aired documentaries presenting the JCPOA as an elaborate infiltration scheme to foment regime change, with Iranian diplomats like Zarif portrayed as unwitting accomplices.
Rouhani nevertheless stood his ground and made political gains in the immediate post-JCPOA period. His intelligence minister even pushed back against the infiltration arrests, albeit unsuccessfully, stating at one point, “To use the leader’s [Khamenei’s] warning about infiltration to further political aims goes against the intent of the leader’s warning and makes it more difficult to confront infiltration.” Reformist and moderate politicians went on to sweep the 2016 parliamentary election. In 2017, Rouhani won reelection against conservative die-hard Ebrahim Raisi after a series of fiery debates in which Rouhani rebuked the IRGC for testing ballistic missiles emblazoned with provocative anti-Israeli slogans.
The coup de grâce against Rouhani’s school of thought came not from partisan opponents in Iran but from the United States.
Iran’s hard-liners remained skeptical and encouraged the public to do the same. Throughout the nuclear negotiations and after they ended, Khamenei warned against trusting the United States to live up to its commitments. On the eve of the deal being struck, he conceded that it could “be an experience showing it’s possible to negotiate with them [the West] on other issues,” but for the rest of U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term, Khamenei stepped up his anti-American rhetoric, pointing to U.S. sanctions that continued to obstruct trade to demonstrate Washington’s unabated ill will.
The coup de grâce against Rouhani’s school of thought came not from partisan opponents in Iran but from the United States. In May 2018, the Trump administration abrogated the nuclear deal negotiated by its predecessor and approved by the United Nations Security Council. The U.S. withdrawal politically eviscerated Rouhani and his allies by powerfully undermining their call for diplomatic engagement. Rouhani has since become a lame duck in the truest sense, with conservatives winning the recent parliamentary election (after the conservative-dominated Guardian Council disqualified many incumbent moderates and reformists). In March 2019, Khamenei appointed the president’s erstwhile rival, Raisi, judiciary chief.
Rouhani is now largely a sideshow as Raisi spearheads an anticorruption drive that has consolidated power behind conservatives and cemented their position to decisively influence the 80-year-old Khamenei’s succession. According to a poll conducted by the University of Maryland, Raisi is now more popular than Rouhani, by a wide margin. The atmosphere in Iran has become more repressive, but hard-liners no longer seem to fear that diplomacy will change the system from within.
The Trump administration’s policies have not only eased the concerns that the Islamic Republic’s conservatives had about their longevity but also played into their hands on foreign policy. Far from throwing Iran back on its heels in the region as some in Washington imagine, the “maximum pressure” campaign has fueled the belief among many in Iran that the country can better maximize its regional interests through a tit for tat with the United States.
Trump’s winner-take-all approach to foreign policy has generated opposition not only from Iran but from around globe as the administration presses other countries to act against their own interests as they see them. Iranian hard-liners have taken advantage of the discord such pressure has sown.
Many Iranian strategists have no doubt watched with delight as Trump has forsaken international law and multilateralism, from the JCPOA to the International Criminal Court. They have looked on as Trump has degraded trans-Atlantic relations and emboldened Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to deepen his quagmire in Yemen and tear apart the Gulf Cooperation Council with his ineffectual siege against Qatar. For Iranian hard-liners, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving, because he has discredited trust in the United States not only inside Iran but also among the Kurds and other constituencies in the region.
Indeed, Tehran’s chief aim during the maximum pressure campaign has been to underscore the lack of U.S. commitment to its alliances as those relationships decay. The Trump White House has waxed bellicose in rhetoric and action, and in response, Iran has carefully alternated between calculated counterescalation and what some have dubbed “strategic patience.”
The first year of maximum pressure saw Iran remain fully in the JCPOA and win political support from much of the international community. The Trump administration lacked a fixed objective, and its proposed secondary sanctions threatened to punish allied countries for otherwise permissible trade with Iran. Few found common cause with Washington. In 2019, the United States gathered low-level European officials in Warsaw, where it tried, but failed, to build a consensus against Iran. Instead, the EU devised a special financial mechanism to escape the enforcement of U.S. sanctions, and countries from China to Turkey looked to their own interests in relation to Iran.
The first year of maximum pressure saw Iran remain fully in the JCPOA and win political support from much of the international community.
In May 2019, the situation entered a dangerous spiral of escalation. The Trump administration rescinded sanction waivers for the last countries still importing Iranian oil and designated the IRGC, a state-run military force, as a terrorist organization. Iran began counter escalating. A string of attacks followed—on Persian Gulf oil tankers last summer and on Saudi oil refineries in September. Iran also gradually reduced its adherence to the nuclear accord and increased proxy attacks in the region.
The Persian Gulf attacks—and later, a direct Iranian missile barrage on the Al Asad military base, which hosts U.S. troops in Iraq—demonstrated that Iran could land missiles with extreme precision, circumventing U.S.-manufactured air defense systems. They showed that U.S. bases and expensive carrier battle fleets were vulnerable and that the United States’ regional partners could no longer defer to Washington as the guarantor of their security.
Ever since the attacks, the Persian Gulf Arab states have been hedging against overreliance on the United States by making overtures toward Iran. States such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have found the Trump administration’s conduct in the Middle East erratic and concluded that they cannot rely on U.S. support in the event of a conflict. The Israeli security establishment is not immune from such a feeling.
Khamenei can only be pleased that Trump has accelerated the trend toward a multipolar global order in which the United States is no longer the dominant power. The Iranian leader has not missed an opportunity to catalyze this shift. “In many cases, we have taken America to the corner of the [boxing] ring,” Khamenei declared in November 2019. “It could not defend itself. This is clear and the whole world sees it.”
The coronavirus crisis has hit the Islamic Republic hard, but there is no indication that the pandemic, any more than the maximum pressure campaign, will lead the government to collapse. Instead, Rouhani and Zarif are hobbled and might never get another chance to pursue bold engagement. Hard-liners are ascendant, and Iran is increasingly turning toward China—not the West—for assistance. Unless bold steps are taken to arrest these trends, the United States risks waging a disastrous full-blown war or being forced to tolerate low-level conflicts in perpetuity while having little, if any, leverage with Iran.