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Michael Jansen: Rouhani in hot water
May 14, 2018
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the six-power nuclear deal with Iran has weakened that country’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani and cheered his hardline opponents. Although Rouhani has pledged to honour Iran’s signature on the agreement, he has warned Tehran could resume large-scale uranium enrichment if Europe, in particular, fails to prevent Washington from re-imposing the full range of sanctions that cut oil exports, plunged Iran’s economy into negative growth, fostered inflation and unemployment, and depreciated its oil and civil aviation sectors.

Trump’s action has put Rouhani in a difficult situation. He and his team are responsible for negotiating the deal which provided for the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of the punitive sanctions regime. To carry out its obligations, Iran exported enriched uranium, shut down hundreds of centrifuges which carry out this process, and submitted to regular intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which has reported Iran in full compliance with the terms of the deal since it took effect in January 2016.

Under both the Obama and Trump administrations, the US has not delivered. Instead, the Treasury Department has obstructed banking transactions, threatened to fine non-US firms and banks doing business with Iran, and prevented US companies from receiving licences for sales of key items.

Nevertheless, Iran has benefitted from the deal by doubling its oil exports and securing some investment and business contracts. Rouhani was able to end double digit inflation and propel Iran’s economy into positive growth at rates envied by Western industrial countries. However, few benefits trickled down to the people who had expected instant improvements in conditions. They have become disgruntled and critical of Rouhani, the deal, and the powers who reached it.

Following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the accord on May 8th, Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin warned that the full range of unilateral sanctions will be reimposed on oil sales, banking, and trade within 90-180 days.

Rouhani won a second term in office in 2013 by promising the country’s 80 million citizens that he would end sanctions and forge normal relations with the international community, provide jobs, halt inflation, and import essential goods, including medicine, prohibited under sanctions. Before European leaders had the time to appeal to Trump for exemptions from specific sanctions, Mnuchen warned US and EU aircraft industries they should cancel contracts with Iran, signalling that Washington intends to take the toughest possible line with Iran.

Due to Trump and his own entourage of hardliners, protests over unemployment, low salaries and corruption that erupted last December and early this year could resume. This is precisely what Trump and his team want to happen as they believe demonstrations could bring down Iran’s cleric-led government. This is a pipe dream: regime change will not take place due to the reimposition of sanctions.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who, reluctantly, supported the nuclear deal, has castigated Rouhani for negotiating with the untrustworthy US and decreed Iran would renounce the deal unless the European Union (EU) guarantees to defy US sanctions. Hardliners in Iran’s parliament, who are currently a minority, slammed Rouhani and called for reinstatement of the nuclear programme.

Tehran’s resumption of large-scale enrichment could result in a regional nuclear arms race between Iran and Saudi Arabia, deepening the rift between the Shia and Sunni rivals.

If supporters of the deal in Europe and Asia fail to preserve Iran’s gains from the deal and permit sanctions to undermine Iran’s faltering economic recovery, the Iranian public is likely to join Khamenei and the hardliners in opposition to the agreement.

Iran could retaliate politically in Iraq by preventing incumbent Prime Minister Haidar Al Abadi — a moderate prepared to work with the US – from forming a cabinet following Iraq’s May 12th parliamentary election. Iran could insist that Abadi’s predecessor Nuri al-Maliki or Shia militia commander Hadi Amiri, both pro-Iranian hardliners, get the top job. Maliki and Amiri, who are ardent Shia sectarians, are unacceptable to the US.

Iran can also respond militarily against the US by ordering Shia militias it controls to target US troops in Iraq and Syria, intervening covertly in Afghanistan where the US is losing the battle against the Taliban, and providing concrete aid to Houthi rebels fighting the US-backed Saudi-UAE coalition in Yemen.

However, Tehran is more likely to adopt the political option because military retaliation could expose Iranian assets in Iraq and Syria and even Iran itself to attacks from the US and Israel. It is obvious Israel has been given a free hand by Trump to strike at will Iranian military facilities in Syria.

Israel did so within hours of Trump’s announcement of his withdrawal from the nuclear deal by firing missiles at a village in the sector of the Golan province still held by Syria. Iran — or Syria — responded by lobbing 20 rockets at the Israeli-occupied Golan.

Four were shot down by Israel’s “Iron Dome” anti-missile system, the rest fell short. Nevetheless, Israel retaliated by mounting attacks on a range of Iranian and Syrian army facilities around Damascus. Syrian anti-missile defences apparently struck some of the missiles before they landed on their targets but considerable damage is reported to have been done.

The exchange, however, demonstrates just how dangerous Trump has made the situation in the Levant by negating the nuclear deal, recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, shifting the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city, and cutting US financial aid to the UN agency looking after Palestinians driven from their homes by Israel 70 years ago.

The war in Syria is likely to continue and become more deadly and destructive as Israel pursues its objective of trying to drive Iranian forces from that country. This will challenge Russia which continues to support the Syrian government against the array of largely fundamentalist insurgents who continue to secure support from regional and international powers. This could transform the struggle for Syria into a new east-west conflict and mark a return to the bad old days of the not-so-cold war.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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