Thursday, May 10, 2018

Overestimating Europe's support - Oded Granot

by Oded Granot

President Hassan Rouhani sought to beat President Trump to the punch by saying that with Europe's support, the nuclear deal may still be in play. But that may not be the case.

A few hours before U.S. President Donald Trump's dramatic announcement that he was withdrawing from the nuclear deal, Iran also flip-flopped, but in the other direction. Tehran's pivot entailed immediately taking off the table the threat of responding to the American gambit at the same time as it withdrew from the agreement. Instead of leaving the deal, Iran issued a placatory message: For now, they are sticking with it, and not rushing to throw it all away.

Not coincidentally, it was Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who led the Iranian about-face and announced that Iran would not necessarily turn its back on the deal, even if the U.S. pulled out – on the condition that the Europeans could guarantee that his country would continue to reap the benefits of it.

It comes as no surprise that the reformist Rouhani is sending this message. This is the man who bet the house when he persuaded Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to support the nuclear deal in the first place, despite the stance of many in Iran's conservative camp. This is the man who promised that the Iranian economy would flourish once economic sanctions were removed and that every household would feel relief.

Now Iran is panicking. When Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said Tuesday that Iran had "prepared for any scenario" and the governor of the central bank in Tehran promised on state-run television that "the Iranian economy will not be harmed by the U.S. withdrawal," no one believed them. Iran is in a deep economic crisis. The Iranian rial was trading at 66,000 to one U.S. dollar on Tuesday. Unemployment is at a record high, and the protests that broke out at the end of last year persist, despite attempts to quash them.

Rouhani knows that renewed sanctions could light up the Iranian street and understands that his political survival is tied to the survival of the nuclear agreement. It is likely that he will do everything in his power to uphold the deal, even without the U.S., in hope that the Europeans won't be deterred from continued economic cooperation.

But the decision isn't really in his hands. The conservative wing could start pushing for Iran to withdraw from the deal and resume its nuclear production, even if that means a direct conflict with the U.S. or even harsher economic sanctions. The supreme religious leader is the one who will decide.

Trump's decision puts Iran at a crossroads. The dilemma facing  Tehran about how to respond to the U.S. pulling out of the deal also creates a problem about how it should respond to the actions to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria that are attributed to Israel. The moderate camp in Iran thinks that any Iranian response could pull Iran into a needless war with Israel, but the commander of the country's Al-Quds Force and architect of Iran's intervention in Syria Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani is convinced that Iran must respond. Senior officials in the Revolutionary Guards agree.

In any case, it is clear that Trump's announcement Tuesday is the start of a move to block Iran's nuclear activity and – we should hope – its attempts at regional subversion. Israel has every reason to welcome it.

Oded Granot


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