Trumpism has discombobulated Iran. Revulsion against President Donald J. Trump’s rhetoric and policies has achieved the rare feat of unifying the disgruntled Iranian public and the fractious ruling elite. This nationalist backlash barely conceals the internal crises facing Iran at every level—social, political, environmental and economic. In January 2018, these frictions exploded in widespread protests across the country. Predictably, the Trump administration’s hypocritical declaration of solidarity with Iranian protesters exacerbated the situation, especially for the protesters. Iran’s security apparatus reacted with the usual repression and mass arrests, pointing to Trump’s rhetoric as proof the protests were a foreign conspiracy. Military generals, Friday prayer leaders and Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lined up to blame the United States, Saudi Arabia and even Saddam Hussein’s family as the forces behind the domestic traitors who had taken to the streets.

President Hassan Rouhani and his fellow establishment reformists and pragmatists paid lip service to the protesters’ legitimate grievances against the poor economy, systemic corruption and political repression, but they warned that the “Enemy”—the United States—was taking advantage of the situation. There is no evidence that ordinary people or protesters have been hoodwinked by the Trump administration’s empty declarations of solidarity. Trump’s discriminatory anti-Muslim travel ban remains in place, affecting the sizeable Iranian immigrant population in the United States, their families, students and other travelers. The ever-expanding sanctions, eagerly backed by both parties in Congress, further consolidate domestic, politically connected mafias who control the economy, while increasing the impoverishment of working people, professionals and legitimate independent entrepreneurs. Trump’s continuous attempts to scuttle the Iran nuclear accord, his sabre rattling anti-Iran alliance with Saudi Arabia and Israel, and his odious travel ban have marked a serious setback for the Rouhani administration.

Rouhani had staked his cards on diplomacy to undermine his domestic hardline rivals. The 2015 international accord to scale back Iran’s nuclear program was supposed to smooth the way for the lifting of sanctions and attracting foreign investments to help the ailing economy. Ordinary people anticipated a political Glasnost would follow, easing the chokehold of the military and various security apparatuses on the economy and everyday life. Instead, the United States has continued to impose further unilateral sanctions, citing Iran’s missile program and its “disruptive role” in the region. The fact that the United States, European Union, Russia and virtually all major states in the Middle East are eager contributors to the ongoing strife across the region is conveniently overlooked. In imposing sanctions, both parties in Congress eagerly compete to take the lead. The main difference is that President Barack Obama embraced the nuclear accord, while Trump has been trying to revoke it. As a result, little foreign investment materialized after the accord was signed, aside from some cautious commitments from French oil and automotive companies. Iran managed to purchase some passenger airplanes but access to international capital markets remains blocked as banks fear a backlash from the United States. The collapse of oil prices further restricted revenues at a time when Iran had committed itself to costly interventions in the region.

The behavior of the United States has allowed Iranian hardliners—generals and commentators led by Ayatollah Khamenei himself—to ridicule Rouhani for his belief that reaching a nuclear agreement or moderating foreign policy would reduce international pressures. A scathing editorial in the hardline official newspaper Kayhan titled “Overcoming the Regionwide Conspiracy,” accused Rouhani of being duped: “you were the one to opt for diplomacy, the US was never committed to it.”1 Yet, Rouhani has won two elections, the second a landslide in summer 2017. The majority of Iranians felt at the time that Rouhani was the most realistic option for what his campaign was promising: normalizing relations with the rest of the world from what he called a “dignified position,” jumpstarting the economy after a decade of crippling sanctions, addressing corruption, unemployment and systemic inequality for women and ethnic and religious minorities, and dealing with critical environmental crises caused by poor development policies. Rouhani, a hard-nosed apparatchik who has been close to the center of Iran’s decision making and security apparatus for the past four decades, has been snapping back: “The greatest plague of our policy making system is the existence of rival centers of power, which has inflicted irreparable damage to our regime.” [2]

Rouhani labels himself a “moderate,” not a reformist. Yet even his timid attempts at putting the house in order after the devastating eight years of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–2013) continue to be frustrated by vested interests that point to the longstanding threat of “the Enemy” to justify repression and their monopoly chokehold over vast swaths of the economy. By the end of autumn 2017, Rouhani’s post-election grace period was over. His predecessor Ahmadinejad had gutted the administrative capacities of the public sector and left a legacy of widespread corruption. Ahmadinejad’s populism had been a combination of rhetorical postures against the United States and Israel and illusory promises of helping the poor—not by improving the real economy, but by privatizing public assets and loosening financial restrictions. Privatized public assets mainly went to cronies with close ties to the establishment. A series of shoddy and ill-conceived public development schemes were launched in housing, transportation, irrigation and finance that haunt his successor. At the same time, Ahmadinejad managed to slash a range of subsidies for basic goods and replace them with cash handouts to all citizens. [3]

Rouhani thus faced enormous deficits and empty coffers. His inability to dislodge the grip of his rivals or to jolt the game by opening the economy to foreign investors, led his administration to adopt austerity measures. At the same time, Khamenei and his military allies diverted enormous resources to their military and strategic engagements in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. While people gave Rouhani credit for the welcomed defeat of ISIS, ordinary people resented that their material lives were deteriorating by the day as the state imposed further austerity measures. Political repression continues unabated, while the rise of Trumpism has meant that peace and security are as distant as ever.

For the past four decades, the Islamic Republic’s unique and highly fractious political system has been a key to its survival. Limited electoral politics have acted as a safety valve for a discontented but politically engaged population, while the judiciary and military centers of power remain the monopoly of an increasingly isolated and corrupt elite. This system seems stretched to its limit under the external threats of Trumpism and regional rivals and the internal crises of legitimacy and structural dysfunction. Earlier in 2017, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s key lieutenants and the center of gravity for reformists and pragmatists, died suddenly (under suspicious circumstances). Khamenei, whose health is now in decline, became leader in 1989 when his rival Rafsanjani forced a consensus through the Assembly of Experts, the elected clerical body that appoints the leader and is supposed to exercise oversight. Against widespread objections that Khamenei did not have the religious qualifications for the job, the wily Rafsanjani argued that Khamenei’s qualifications were political (Khamenei was president at the time) rather than clerical, and hinted that this would be a wise and practical temporary solution during a dangerous transition. Once Khamenei is gone, few believe that Velayat-e Faqih, the pillar of the system, will be sustainable in its present form.

Meanwhile, Khamenei retains his chokehold over the leadership, as well as the Assembly of Experts, the military, the judiciary and official television and radio. The question of transition is again high on the agenda, although this time rival factions are jockeying not to stir the waters and risk being eliminated. But contrary to 1988–89, there are no authoritative consensus figures like Rafsanjani able to impose a compromise. Already there is talk of abolishing the presidential system and returning to the more pliable parliamentary system of the 1980s, with a prime minister leading the cabinet. After decades of fractional tensions and experimentations, however, and the spectacular recent explosion of protests in nearly 80 cities and towns across the country, mere administrative tinkering will not likely resolve the country’s numerous structural problems. A new social contract, based on more open political participation, accountability and social and economic justice, is the only realistic solution to prevent further upheavals—but there is little evidence that is in the cards.

Ironically, on the foreign policy front the regime appears to have come out the relative winner in the regional bloodbath of the past few years. At various stages during the Syrian civil war, the Iranian regime signaled that it was open to a negotiated solution, including the possible removal of President Bashar al-Asad. However, the regime realized that Obama, like his predecessors, had no intention of negotiating. This realization reinforced the hardliners’ conviction that, regardless of the administration in charge, the United States is intent on changing regimes hostile to it. In reaction, the Islamic Republic dedicated itself fully to creating strategic depth in neighboring countries in order to engage the United States and its allies away from its own borders. In the short term, this containment policy seems to have borne fruit. Iran has struck unlikely alliances with Russia, Turkey and Qatar. It committed itself to the bloodbath in Syria and Iraq, as did the United States, European Union, Russia and all rival regional powers. Iran’s actions, controversial at home and abroad, have proved more nimble and successful than others. It claims to have led the vanquishing of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It succeeded in neutralizing, with Turkey, the short-lived Kurdish independence drive in Iraq, and it has bogged down Saudi Arabia in the murderous war in Yemen. Yet, these military and strategic victories may prove short lived as the appalling human and material costs of these conflicts will have further regional and global repercussions.

The combination of internal crises of legitimacy, the existential threat posed by Trumpism and a region in apparent meltdown may well create the conditions for a perfect storm.


Endnotes

[1] “Overcoming the Regionwide Conspiracy,” Kayhan, December 19, 2017.
[2] “Rouhani’s Speech Highlighted the Law, Transparency, and Rival Centers of Decision Making,” Raahe Rooz, December 20, 2017, http://raaherooz.com/fa/news/18634/.
[3] Kaveh Ehsani, “Survival Through Dispossession: Privatization of Public Goods in the Islamic Republic,” Middle East Report 250 (Spring 2009).

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Kaveh Ehsani "Iran Dispatch," Middle East Report 283 ( ).
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