Whether on Twitter or his ‘thank you’ tour, Donald Trump has constantly threatened to cut diplomatic ties if Iran does not abide by strict US demands. Just last month, the Trump administration officially put Iran “on notice,” with White House press secretary Sean Spicer warning that Iran needs to realize “there’s a new president in town.” Somewhat ironically, this aggressive policy only empowers Iranian conservatives. The increase of anti-Iranian attitudes within the American government provides Iran’s hardliners with a way to further their agenda of limiting diplomatic ties with Washington while expanding their influence at home and abroad.
Historically, the Iranian regime has garnered significant public support by invoking anti-American sentiments, from chants of marg bar amrika (“death to America”) to the hostage crisis during the Carter administration. With the Iran nuclear deal and moderate policies supported by President Hassan Rouhani, however, such conservatism had begun to subside. Many Iranians were beginning to view improved relations with the West as good for Iran economically and culturally, though conservatives remained staunchly opposed to these efforts. But with President Trump’s inflammatory comments, Iranian conservatives now have all the ammunition they need to oppose relations with “the Great Satan.” In fact, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—a staunch conservative—went so far as to tweet, “We appreciate Trump! Because he largely did the job for us in revealing true face of America.” As a result, Trump’s alternation between patronizing and castigating Iran causes many Iranian people to cozy up to the policies of hardliners.
It is important to recognize, therefore, that Iranian conservatives have been quick to capitalize on the American president’s comments—in hopes of using him to broaden their political appeal among American liberals, domestic moderates, and the international community at large.
In an attempt to reach out to American liberals, state organizations handed out signs during a February parade with messages like, “Thanks to American people for supporting Muslims.” The New York Times reports that there were chants of “Down with American regime, long live US people!” As one of the main tenets of the Islamic Revolution is antipathy towards the injustices of the United States, it appears that Iranian state authorities are attempting to flatter the American people in the hopes that they will see the American government from the same perspective that Iran sees it: disgust. And if this is their strategy, then it seems to be working, as many American news sources published images of the signs along with articles depicting Trump as the villain.
With a more congenial American public than they have had in a long time, Iranian hardliners can achieve the result that they want without alienating Americans who are receptive to Iranian appeals. Though Iran’s conservatives show outward distaste towards Trump’s isolationist policies, they have actually been advocating for a diplomatic policy with the United States that is very similar to his: the two nations should have as little contact as possible. Khamenei is not shy about this policy, mentioning that he believes that his country should not and will not negotiate with the United States. As recent progress in US-Iranian relations is reversed, American liberals will see the fault in their own government rather than in Iranian conservatives. This fact is evidenced by some recent coverage of the new sanctions placed on Iranian businesses by the United States in retaliation for recent missile tests.
Importantly, this narrative of a faultless Iran will also play well among the broader international community. The possibility of increased Iranian relations with the European Union (EU) provides a strong example, as the EU is seeking to strengthen the nuclear deal. If Iran begins to look like the country advocating for tolerance and dialogue, and Trump continues to alienate America’s European allies, what would stop other European nations from pursuing economic and social ties with Iran? Since the signing of the nuclear deal, European businesses have been aggressively attempting to enter Iranian markets. Further, many Iranian officials praised Britain’s vote to exit the European Union in last summer’s “Brexit,” hoping that the country’s withdrawal will weaken the United States’ influence over Europe. General Massoud Jazayeri, the deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, called the vote a “rejection of America’s imposition of will against European states.” Iranian leaders are well aware of the “special relationship” between the US and UK, and Iran’s conservatives have distrusted Britain since its collaboration with the US in the 1953 coup. This shift in positive optics for Iran could potentially disrupt that US-UK special relationship, much to the benefit of Iran’s hardliners.
Additionally, Iran has already been in talks with French president François Hollande to cooperate on counterterrorism and has made deals with multiple French companies. Moreover, Italy’s industry minister has promised to increase trade ties with Iran, regardless of Trump’s distaste towards the nation. Coupled with Trump’s isolationist rhetoric, a lack of British influence on the European Union will only serve to increase already strengthened Tehran-Brussels relations, mirroring Europe’s push for increased ties with Iran after George W. Bush put the country on an “axis of evil.”
Granted, a full normalization of Iranian relations with Europe is unlikely in the near future because of Iran’s numerous human rights violations and refusal to recognize Israel’s existence. Though the nuclear deal can serve to increase economic ties between the two parties, current fundamental disagreements between Iran and the West mean that relations are extremely unlikely to be normalized in the near future.
Nevertheless, Trump’s rhetoric has broadened Iranian conservatives’ domestic political appeal. With Iranian presidential elections approaching in the summer, Iranian moderates will have a difficult time continuing to advocate for a West-friendly foreign policy. Rouhani’s campaign was built around negotiations with the West, culminating in the nuclear deal that might soon be nullified. Further, even many prominent Iranian moderates, such as former president Mohammad Khatami, have echoed the sentiments of the hardliners, expressing substantial distaste for the American president’s disrespectful statements. Presumably, many Iranian voters feel similarly. This allows the Iranian hardliners the political tool of concessions. As they now do not have to compromise in their anti-American rhetoric, conservatives can make concessions in other fields of domestic and foreign policy to align more closely with secular middle-class voters, who would traditionally vote for more liberal politicians. Meanwhile, moderates like Rouhani look foolish for having pursued warmer relations with the United States.
Though Iranian conservatives would seem to have an easy path to regaining the presidency, they do not currently have the political union to soundly defeat Rouhani. Trump seems to be playing directly into Ayatollah Khamenei’s hands by increasing support for anti-American sentiments. However, Khamenei and his conservative following do not yet have a candidate behind whom they can unite. Iranian “principlists” have attempted to come together behind a single banner, the “Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces,” yet they have not yet found a challenger to Rouhani. If principlists want to exploit this new anti-Americanism within Iran, they must find a reasonable candidate to unseat the incumbent.
Though President Trump’s hardline rhetoric may provide superficial comfort to those fearful of Iran’s conservatives, it is this rhetoric that the conservatives feed on. As evidenced by Europe’s new interactions with Iran, Trump’s words will not alienate Iran from the West, but will rather give Iran new opportunities to work with other Western nations. These economic advances, coupled with the rise in anti-American government sentiment in Iran, will increase Iranian hardliners’ appeal just months before the next Iranian presidential election.
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