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Nuclear deal a challenge for Rouhani as Iran hardliners close in

Friday 4 May 2018, by siawi3


May 4, 2018 / 4:16 PM / Updated 2 hours ago

Nuclear deal a challenge for Rouhani as Iran hardliners close in

Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) - Iran’s hardliners are preparing to bring President Hassan Rouhani to heel if U.S. President Donald Trump scraps Tehran’s nuclear deal with major powers, officials and analysts believe.

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends the National Army Day parade in Tehran, Iran, April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Trump has threatened to abrogate the 2015 agreement by not extending sanctions waivers when they expire on May 12, if Britain, France and Germany do not “fix†its “terrible flaws†.

This sets the stage for a resurgence of political infighting within Iran’s complex power structure, Iranian officials said.

Annulment of the accord could tip the balance of power in favor of hardliners looking to constrain the relatively moderate Rouhani’s ability to open up to the West.

While the spotlight is on Trump’s eventual decision there will be a display of unity in Tehran, a senior Iranian official told Reuters, on condition of anonymity.

“But when the crisis is over, hardliners will try to weaken and sideline the president,†the official said.

Nor can the president expect any weakening of Iran’s system of clerical rule as a result of the uncertainty surrounding the nuclear deal, meaning “Rouhani will be in a no-win situation†, said a relative of Khamenei.

For Rouhani the stakes are high. If the deal falls apart, he could become politically vulnerable for promoting the 2015 accord, under which non-nuclear sanctions were lifted in return for Tehran curbing its nuclear program.

“It will also lead to a backlash against the moderates and pro-reformers who backed Rouhani’s detente policy with the West ... and any hope for moderation at home in the near future will fizzle out,†said political analyst Hamid Farahvashian.

It is a delicate balance. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei knows that Iranians, many of whom took to the streets earlier this year to protest against high food prices, can only take so much economic pressure.

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran, August 21, 2010. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/File photo


But the establishment does not want too much of an opening to the West, despite the likely economic benefits. A weakened Rouhani, unable to push such policies, is likely to serve out his term, which ends in 2021, another senior official said.

“His removal would be a sign of weakness for the system. It would harm its legitimacy abroad,†the official said. “But he will be blamed and pressured for the economic malaise.â€

Khamenei gave guarded backing to Rouhani when he opened the door to nuclear diplomacy with world powers in order to end Iran’s economic and political isolation.

But the Supreme Leader’s aversion to the United States remains a formidable barrier to any diplomatic solution now, so a Trump withdrawal would make it hard for Rouhani to pursue better relations with the West.

“The internal politics will make it difficult, if not impossible, for Rouhani to pursue detente with the West and make concessions in return for economic gains,†said another Iranian government official.

The European signatories of the deal have tried to persuade Trump not abandon it because they want to keep trading with Iran.

Despite threats to walk away if Trump buries the deal, several Iranian officials said that “as long as Tehran was not excluded from the global financial and trading system†it could consider respecting the accord.


But many foreign firms are hesitant to invest in Iran, worried by unilateral U.S. sanctions imposed over human rights violations, terrorism, and the dominant role of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iran’s economy.

That is another area where Rouhani is exposed. He has sought without much success to curb the economic activities of the IRGC in order to attract foreign investment.

But under the command of Khamenei, the IRGC has ignored the government’s attempts to limit its involvement in the economy.
Slideshow (3 Images)

If the nuclear deal collapses, what power Rouhani has to limit that involvement will decline further, boosting hardliners who want to see the president’s powers reined in.

The IRGC has done well since the sanctions relating to the nuclear deal were lifted, using front companies with no obvious link to the Guard to serve as a conduit for investors returning to Iran.

If sanctions are reimposed as a result of the collapse of the nuclear deal, the Guard is well placed to evade them.

“Considering their vast business network and political and military influence, the IRGC will be back to the business of evading sanctions as they did for years in the past,†said a western diplomat in Tehran.

The IRGC stepped in when European oil companies abandoned energy projects after the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions in 2012.

“Sepah (the IRGC) is an asset for Iran. They protect Iran whenever needed ... They rescued the economy when the enemies wanted to crush us with sanctions,†said a hardline politician who declined to be identified.
End to nuclear deal leaves Iran with options

“If European investors yield to America’s pressure and leave Iran, then Sepah will take over,†he said.

Concerns over possible Israeli military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities have empowered the IRGC, which runs security at home and abroad.

But experts believe that even under the umbrella of an emboldened IRGC, hardliners might hesitate to apply harsh policies, fearing a revival of the anti-government protests in January that showed the establishment was vulnerable to popular anger fueled by economic hardship.

Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Giles Elgood



May 3, 2018 / 6:53 PM / Updated 10 hours ago

What could Iran do if Trump pulls out of nuclear deal?

Babak Dehghanpisheh

BEIRUT (Reuters) - President Donald Trump is expected to pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear agreement on May 12. Tehran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, with China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain, and the United States in 2015.

Iran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions. But the withdrawal of the United States will probably sink the deal. If that happens, Iran could retaliate by undermining the interests of Washington and its allies in the Middle East.

Here are some possible scenarios:


When Islamic State seized much of Iraq in 2014, Iran was quick to support Baghdad. Iran has since helped arm and train thousands of Shi’ite fighters in Iraq. These Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) are also a significant political force.

If the deal falls through, Iran could encourage PMF factions who want the U.S. to leave Iraq to step up rhetorical, and maybe military, attacks against American forces.

These could be rocket, mortar and roadside bomb attacks not directly linked to a specific Shi’ite militia, which would allow Iran to deny it had changed its position of avoiding direct conflict with U.S. forces in Iraq.


Iran and paramilitary allies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah have been involved in Syria’s war since 2012. Iran has armed and trained thousands of Shi’ite paramilitary fighters to shore up the government. Israel says Iran has recruited at least 80,000 Shi’ite fighters.

Iran’s presence in Syria has brought Tehran into direct conflict with Israel for the first time, with a series of high-profile clashes in recent months. Israeli officials say they will never let Tehran or Hezbollah establish a permanent military presence in neighboring Syria.

If the nuclear deal falls through, Iran will have little incentive to stop its Shi’ite militia allies in Syria from carrying out attacks against Israel.

Iran and the forces it controls in Syria could also cause trouble for about 2,000 U.S. troops deployed in northern and eastern Syria to support Kurdish-led fighters.

A top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader said in April he hoped Syria and its allies would drive U.S. troops out of eastern Syria.


In 2006, Hezbollah fought Israel to a standstill in a 34-day border war. According to Israeli and U.S. officials, Iran is now helping Hezbollah build factories to manufacture precision-guided missiles or refit longer-range missiles with precision guidance systems.

Israeli forces have repeatedly attacked Hezbollah in Syria where the group is leading many of Iran’s Shi’ite militia allies. The rhetoric between Israel and Iran has ramped up in recent weeks. Though Hezbollah and Israel say they are not interested in conflict, the tensions could easily spill over into another Lebanon war.

Hezbollah said last year that any war waged by Israel against Syria and Lebanon could draw thousands of fighters from countries including Iran and Iraq, indicating that Shi’ite militias could come to Lebanon to help Hezbollah.

Hezbollah is also a major political force in Lebanon, and may strengthen its position at elections on May 6. For the moment, the group is working with its political opponents, notably Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who is backed by Western governments.

But if the nuclear deal falls through, Iran could pressure Hezbollah to isolate its opponents, a development experts believe could destabilize Lebanon.

“Hezbollah literally controls Lebanese politics,†said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut. “If they do that, it would be sheer harassment.â€


Iran has never acknowledged direct military involvement in Yemen. But U.S. and Saudi officials say it is supplying rebel Houthi fighters with missiles and other arms. The Houthis have fired missiles at Riyadh and Saudi oil facilities, saying they are retaliating against air raids on Yemen.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a regional power struggle. Supporters of the Iran nuclear deal say it has prevented the conflict from descending into open warfare. If the deal falls through, Iran could increase support for the Houthis, possibly provoking a military response from Saudi Arabia and Gulf allies such as the United Arab Emirates.

“I’m not ruling out Iranian support to the Houthis,†said Khashan


Iran also has options directly related to its nuclear program. Iranian officials have said that one option they are examining is to withdraw completely from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), an agreement designed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says the country is not interested in developing nuclear weapons. But if Iran withdraws from the NPT, it will set off alarm bells globally.

“This would of course be a disastrous course for the Islamic Republic, as it will find itself isolated,†said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Even if Iran does not withdraw from the NPT, it has indicated that it will probably ramp up enrichment of uranium, strictly limited under the deal to help allay fears it could be used to produce atomic bomb material. Under the current deal, Iran’s enrichment levels must remain around 3.6 percent. Iran stopped producing 20 percent enriched uranium and gave up the majority of its stockpile as part of the 2015 agreement.

Uranium refined to 20 percent fissile purity is beyond the 5 percent normally required to fuel civilian nuclear power plants, although short of highly enriched, or 80 to 90 percent, purity needed for a nuclear bomb.

This week, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Iran was able to enrich uranium to a higher level than it could before the deal.

Iran’s actions may be influenced by the extent to which the other signatories to the deal respond to U.S. withdrawal, according to analysts.

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a meeting with Muslim leaders and scholars in Hyderabad, India, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui/File Photo

That will depend on: the extent to which France, Germany and Britain insist that their companies can continue to do business with Iran under what is an international agreement ratified unanimously by the UN Security Council; the level of diplomatic support for Iran from Russia, its partner in Syria; and how much China wishes to bind Iran into its Belt and Road foreign trade and investment initiative.

There will be a test of wills if the Trump administration restores sanctions and threatens violators with being shut out of the U.S. banking system. Of the other signatories only China, the biggest buyer of Iranian oil, is able to brush this off.

Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Giles Elgood