Rouhani, Trump, and Theresa May: Is rapprochement dead?

Rouhani, Trump, and Theresa May: Is rapprochement dead?

On 19 May, 41 million Iranians took part in a presidential election that doubled as a referendum on Hassan Rouhani’s engagement with the West and especially Iran’s nuclear accord with world powers.

In the weeks before the polls opened, news coverage both inside and outside Iran speculated wildly on Rouhani’s chances. Hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi seemed to have the backing of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iran’s powerful security state, and many (including Rouhani) thought the scales were tipped in Raisi’s favour.

Whether or not that was true, Iran voters believed it — and turned out in droves to make sure the hardliners lost. With 57% of the vote compared to just 38.5% for his conservative adversary, Rouhani and his reformist allies rode their platform of social moderation and international engagement to crushing victories at both the national and council levels.

With this clear mandate, could Rouhani’s Iran finally normalize ties with the US and the UK, the two key powers that continue to spar with Tehran? Unfortunately for the majority of Iranian voters, the answer is most likely no.

As president of the Islamic Republic, Rouhani was able to steer negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 and sign the 2015 nuclear deal, but only because he had Khamenei’s steady backing. In both Tehran and Washington, the deal’s most fervent detractors have begrudgingly accepted it: even Donald Trump, who railed against the accord and called it the “worst deal ever”, has extended sanctions relief in order to respect its terms. One would think that Rouhani’s re-election would encourage the continued easing of sanctions and improve diplomatic ties, but the reality is far thornier for Iran’s top elected officials.

Unfortunately for Rouhani, many of the factors that keep him from fully normalizing ties with the US and the UK are out of his hands. Policies like Iran’s support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, its ballistic missile program, and its funding for US-designated terrorist groups like Hezbollah are all prerogatives of the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards. Their iron grip on foreign policy continues to act as a barrier to diplomatic initiatives, and Rouhani’s power vis-à-vis the Guards does not go beyond the rhetorical. As Iran’s economic emergence threatens their outsized role in the economy, they have not shied away from using missile tests to throw a wrench into rapprochement.

In the Trump administration, Iran’s “deep state” has found an equally antagonistic partner. In February, soon after Washington imposed new sanctions in response to Iran’s ballistic missile testing, Defense Secretary James Mattis called Tehran the “world’s biggest sponsor of terrorism”. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson voiced similar sentiments last month, when he announced the Trump administration was conducting a multiagency review of its Iran policy to address “Iran’s alarming and on-going provocations that export terror and violence”.

In choosing Saudi Arabia and Israel as destinations for his first foreign visits as president, Donald Trump delivered a clear geopolitical message to Iran. In his speech to assembled Sunni Muslim leaders in Riyadh, Trump put that message into words: “Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.” To bolster America’s primary regional ally, Trump signed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia along with other investment agreements that, according to Rex Tillerson, could total $350 billion.

Developments in Syria also show a growing American willingness to confront Iran’s regional machinations. Under the Obama administration, US forces studiously avoided crossing paths with Iran’s allies. Trump has shown far less compunction. On 6 April, he ordered an attack on a Syrian government air base in relation to the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack. Most recently, and in a sharp departure from previous policy against direct attacks on government forces, US aircraft intentionally struck a convoy of regime troops on 18 May. That strike came just one day after the State Department announced the US would continue to waive sanctions as part of the JCPOA nuclear agreement, a clear demonstration of the limits of US-Iran relations.

In comparison to the Trump administration, the UK under Theresa May has stood firm in its commitment to the nuclear agreement. London has also been pursuing potential business in Iran much more aggressively than Washington: UK exports to Iran from January to October 2016 have already risen 42% from the same period in 2015, and Iran sent its first natural gas and oil shipments to Britain last October.  

At the same time, May’s government has been just as sanguine with regards to the dangers posed by Iran to the security of the Middle East. In her own speech to Gulf leaders in December, she insisted she was “clear-eyed about the threat that Iran poses to the Gulf and the wider Middle East; and the UK is fully committed to our strategic partnership with the Gulf and working with you to counter that threat.”

Underscoring those regional priorities, May has been pursuing far more economic diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and its neighbours than with Iran. In that same appearance at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, May said Britain wanted to strengthen defence cooperation with the Gulf states but also sign an “ambitious trade agreement” with them. In a second visit to the region in April, May brought the head of the London Stock Exchange to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to convince Saudi Aramco to list its first stake at the LSE. In this, the prime minister is acting in stark contrast to the European Union; where Brussels and the European capitals see Iran as a critical new market, London is recommitting to its main trading partners on the other side of the Persian Gulf. Jeremy Corbyn has been sharply critical of this approach to the Middle East, but with the Labour Party trailing in the general election, those criticisms aren’t likely to impact policy.

For Rouhani and his middle-class supporters, this is the unfortunate price of Iran’s foreign policy. The electorate clearly favours an open Iran and positive relationships with the international community, as evidenced by the jubilant scenes on the streets of Tehran. The regime’s hard-line geopolitics, however, mean that warm ties with either America or Britain remain a pipe dream.

About Author

Leon Aslanov

Leon Aslanov holds an MSc in International Public Policy from University College London. He is a researcher and political analyst with an in-depth knowledge on the languages, societies and politics of the South Caucasus, Turkey, Iran and the surrounding region. His specific research interests lie in conflict resolution, divided societies and history of the aforementioned regions.