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Rouhani’s Last-Minute Dash to Save the Nuclear Deal

10 Jul 2018
By Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh
Iran President Hassan Rouhani

The Iranian President’s meeting with European leaders last week is a desperate attempt to save the nuclear deal. Popular dissatisfaction and the growing assertiveness of the hard-line faction has left Rouhani friendless.

President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Vienna last week to meet with European leaders represents a desperate attempt at saving the nuclear deal. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed by China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, is unique in its scope. The JCPOA subjects Iran to an intrusive inspection regime and ensures that Iran may not divert its nuclear know-how towards weaponisation. In return, the deal promises to bring Iran out of economic isolation.

But more than two years after its signature and repeated verifications by the International Atomic Energy Agency (as well as the US State Department) regarding Iran’s obligations under the agreement, the deal is at serious risk of collapse. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal and penalise any international company that contravenes the US sanctions regime has proven to be major deterrent for business in Iran. Airbus and Boeing have already expressed serious reservations about their deals with Iran. Total, the French oil company, is also considering cutting its losses and withdrawing from the South Pars natural gas field.

Despite Rouhani’s efforts to mobilise the support of European leaders, the prospects of saving JCPOA are bleak. The political will of European leaders does not seem to be a match for Trump’s dogged determination to kill the deal. This is a significant blow to Rouhani’s presidency, and heralds a return to a more combative Iran in its international affairs.

Rouhani won office on the promise of fixing the economy and bringing Iran out of isolation. The slow pace of sanctions removal in the last two years and the very real prospects of sanctions renewal have put the Iranian economy in a free-fall with inflation rising on a daily basis. The economic pressure has already led to public protests. The December 2017–January 2018 riots across the country were extremely alarming for the regime. A series of sporadic protests have continued to flare up in subsequent months, signalling the widespread extent of desperation.

Rouhani’s failure to deliver has opened the way to his critics who accuse him of being too weak and capitulating to Western powers. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders have been persistent critics of Rouhani, and in fact welcomed Trump’s decision to withdraw from JCPOA. In a revealing statement, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, Commander of the IRGC, argued that the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal should serve as a lesson for Rouhani and his team that the United States is not ‘trustworthy’. Furthermore, the 12-point demands presented by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo provided evidence that the US was not interested in a deal, but for Iran to change. Pompeo’s demands have been widely seen as a call for regime change, vindicating Rouhani’s critics that nuclear negotiations have made Iran look weak.

The increasingly vocal popular dissatisfaction with falling living standards and the growing assertiveness of the hard-line faction in Iran has left Rouhani friendless. Calls for the resignation of his government are raised in the parliament, in the merchants’ bazaar and sporadic public protests. If Rouhani fails to save the nuclear deal and bring back the Iranian economy from the brink, there is very little to keep him in office. So far, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the ultimate political authority, has refrained from adding his voice to Rouhani’s critics for fear of aggravating instability. But a swing to the hard-line faction in Iranian politics is already visible.

Against the background of an assertive hard-line faction, Rouhani’s room to manoeuvre is seriously restricted. He is forced to borrow from the hardliners’ script book to challenge the accusation that he is weak under US pressure. His hint about blocking oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz if the US attempted to block Iranian oil exports evokes a long-standing Iranian threat to hurt its neighbours. It points to bleak prospects in Rouhani’s mindset: that he is fast running out of options.

Shahram Akbarzadeh is professor of Middle East and Central Asian Politics and co-author of Middle East Politics and International Relations: Crisis Zone (Routledge, 2018). He tweets from @S_Akbarzadeh.

This article is based on his presentation titled “Diplomatic success or defective deal? Untangling the Iran Nuclear Plan” at AIIA VIC on 19 June.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.