Trump’s Iran Strategy Sharpens Power Struggle in Tehran

Although it had been expected for months, U.S. President Donald Trump’s unveiling of his new strategy on Iran seems to have taken the ruling elite in Tehran by surprise, intensifying the power struggle within it, Asharq Al-Awsat reports.

The radical faction close to “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had expected Trump to tear-up the so-called nuclear deal, depriving the rival faction known as Rafsanjani’s orphans led by President Hassan Rouhani, of their main propaganda plank.

Rouhani being anxious to pretend that the nuke deal remains intact is a sign of his faction’s failure to work out any alternative policy. If he denounces the deal, he would be validating Trump’s claim that Tehran never intended to abide by the rules, which in turn, could persuade the Europeans and perhaps even Russia and China to tone down their support for Tehran against Washington.

“We intend to remain committed to the nuclear deal,” Rouhani said Friday night, “for as long as others continue to respect it.”

That was a strange position since one of those “others”, the U.S., had already announced it would not abide by the deal as it stands now.

“We hope that others will not follow Trump’s lead,” says Hessameddin Ashna, Rouhani’s chief political adviser, which means that Rafsanjani’s Orphans are determined to stick to the “deal” even when and if the U.S. renders it meaningless.

However, Rouhani and his faction, which includes former President Muhammad Khatami, may not be totally unhappy with Trump’s move because the U.S. president singled out the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is controlled by Khamenei, as the main culprit. The Rouhani faction is now harping on the theme that had it not been for the IRGC, the nuclear deal would have borne real fruits for Iran.

However, Trump, according to the daily Kayhan, believed to be a mouthpiece for Khamenei, chose a “more devious method” by not formally denouncing the deal while making it clear the U.S. will intensify sanctions against Iran. This means that “Iran will continue to comply with the deal while the U.S. refuses to abide by its pledges,” the paper says.

While Khamenei has maintained silence, Rouhani’s rival in the recent presidential election, Ayatollah Ibrahim Raiisi, has called for a “full adoption of Resistance Economy” which means forgoing foreign trade and adopting a North Korean style system of self-sufficiency.

For the time being, the rival factions are jumping and gyrating much like angry cats meaning to spring at each other. Without knowing it, perhaps, under the surface, Trump may have sharpened the power struggle in Tehran.

According to New York Times, that runs an article under a similar title, Iran’s powerful hardliners are set to exploit the latest dispute with Washington to weaken domestic rivals who are open to the West.

If the accord signed by Iran and six major powers does start to fall apart, anyone who strongly promoted it, such as pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani, could face a career-damaging backlash. That could leave Iran’s security hardliners unchallenged at home, enabling greater Iranian assertiveness abroad that could worsen tensions in the Middle East, analysts say.

“The growing tension with America is a golden opportunity for hardliners to clip Rouhani’s wings,” said a Rouhani ally, who was involved in the 18-month nuclear talks.

For Rouhani the stakes are high: His rapprochement with the world won him enhanced popularity at home and prestige abroad, dealing a setback to Khamenei’s hardline allies, who oppose both detente with the West and domestic liberalization. Now the tables may be turning.

“Hardliners will use Trump’s threat as a Sword of Damocles over Rouhani’s head … While enjoying the economic benefits of the deal,” said Tehran-based political analyst Saeed Leylaz, referring to the lifting of tough oil and banking sanctions.

Under Iran’s unique dual system of clerical and republican rule, the elected president is subordinate to the unelected Khamenei, who has in the past reasserted control when infighting threatened the existence of the Islamic Republic.

Trump’s policy will play into the hands of hardliners eventually, said an ally of Khamenei. “What matters is the Islamic Republic and its interests.”

Several officials agreed that Trump’s hostility would not change Iran’s regional behavior, determined by Khamenei. But if Trump somehow made good on his threats, “then Iran will adopt a harsher and aggressive regional policy,” said one of the officials familiar with Iran’s decision-making policy.