As President Donald Trump puts his long-promised “new policy on Iran” in high gear by appointing a special task force, the leadership in Tehran is pondering its response to whatever Washington administration might throw at them.
Judging by public statements and reading between the lines of comments by officials and Iran lobbyists it is possible to piece together the outlines of the debate within the ruling establishment.
For weeks after Trump had denounced the so-called “nuke deal”, most Tehran leaders and analysts close to them argued that the US “betrayal” would have little effect on Iran because the European Union together with Russia and China would help the regime weather any storm ahead.
Now, however, it seems that many in the establishment are abandoning that assumption.
Hussein Mussavian, a Tehran lobbyist in the United States, says that though Iran has shown that it is ready to negotiate and be flexible, the Europeans have not given it any meaningful support.
A similar view is expressed by Hojat al-Islam Abutorabi Fard, a Deputy Speaker of the Islamic Majlis who insists that trusting the EU would prevent the Islamic Republic from developing a strategy of its own.
With the “European illusion” fading away, the establishment is being divided into two camps; the rejectionists and the what Mussavian sees as “the flexible”.
The rejectionist cause received a major boost last week when “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly banned any negotiations with the US. The same position, albeit in a more radical manner, was expressed by Gen. Muhammad-Ali Aziz-Jaafari, who commands the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
“We will not only not negotiate with Trump but will also refuse to talk to any future American president,” he said.
The IRGC theoretician, Dr. Hassan Abbasi, nicknamed “Kissinger of Islam” has gone even further by demanding that Iran “go on the offensive” against the “Great Satan” by activating “thousands of sleeping cells” he claims exist in the United States.
Against that background, President Hassan Rouhani faces a dilemma.
If he denounces the ” nuke deal” and shuts the door to any future negotiations he would be admitting the failure of what he has marketed as his chief achievement in the past five years.
He has tried to do two things.
One is to go along with some of the key demands of the more radical faction led by Khamenei.
On that score, Rouhani flew to Aqtau, in Kazakhstan, and signed the controversial Caspian Sea Convention that some analysts believe was dictated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In 2015 Khamenei had promised Putin that Iran would sign the convention but the move had been postponed because neither Tehran nor Moscow wanted to see the signature as a reward for Russia’s intervention in Syria in favor of the Iranian camp.
Rouhani himself has opted for creative ambiguity with regard to the controversial Convention. Figures close to his faction, however, have adopted a more or less critical position on the issue.
Rouhani’s creative ambiguity has angered his rivals within the establishment who have embarked on what looks like the beginning of a campaign to force him out. Placards raised at a demonstration by theological students in the “holy” city of Qom last week even threatened Rouhani with “the same fate as Rafsanjani”. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani was found dead in the swimming pool of the villa he had confiscated from Assadallah Alam, the late Shah’s Court Minister.
“Oh, negotiator! The swimming pool is waring for you!” the placards said.
Islamic Majlis member Alaeddin Borujerdi, close to the late Rafsanjani’s faction, has demanded a probe into what he terms “death threats” against the president.
A periodical published by Sadeq Kharrazi, a former diplomat, related to Khamenei through marriage, has run an editorial entitled “Rouhani Is Finished!”, inviting the president to step down.
Besides declaring a total and presumably permanent ban on any talks with the US, Khamenei has offered absolutely nothing by the way of policy option to deal with possible new sanctions imposed by Washington.
However, that “total ban” also prevents Rouhani and the formal segments of the Iranian government, including the Foreign Ministry, from devising any policy.
“Rouhani and his team are neutralized by Khamenei’s ban,“ says Iran analyst Nasser Zamani. “As a result if and when Trump unveils his supposedly crushing sanctions Iran would have absolutely no response apart from empty slogans.”
Initially, advised by former US Secretary of State John Kerry, Rouhani had decided to equivocate until the next mid-term elections in the US in November in the hope that Democrats would gain control of either or both of the Houses of Congress. The wait-and-see option might have worked as a delaying tactic had Rouhani not been threatened with losing his job in the meantime.
Finding himself in a position of checkmate both at home and abroad, Rouhani seems to have opted for falling into line behind the “Supreme Guide” in order to keep his on.
However, it is not at all certain that his falling into line might be the end of his troubles. Already, the Islamic Majlis has summoned whim for grilling on what one member, Kamal Dehqani, has described as “a dire economic situation”.
A petition signed by 80 members of the Islamic Majlis, out of 290, gives Rouhani 12 days to show up. Sources now say that the session might be expanded to include the Caspian Convention that Rouhani has signed while his entourage claim he did not approve of it.
All that may be bad news for the Islamic Republic and good news for Brian Hook, the man named by the Trump administration as head of the new “Iran Task Force”. Gripped by its contradictions within a bitter power struggle, the ruling establishment in Tehran may prove unable to either resist US sanctions or seek a dialogue with Washington.
This article was originally published by Asharq Al-Awsat.