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Nuclear Deal Was Not A Magic Wand For Rouhani - Iran In New Crisis


Iranian President Hassan Rohani departs after speaking at the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit during the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 24, 2018

U.S. President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani both attended the U.N. General Assembly in New York, amid a new phase of tension between the two countries following the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA.

No bilateral meetings took place and if anything, mutual recriminations got louder and if things didn’t get worse, they did not get better.

For the Iranian president, Trump’s decision to walk away from the nuclear agreement not only destroyed several years of diplomatic hard efforts by Iran and other major players, but also shattered Rouhani’s own political credentials at home and abroad.

The success in nuclear diplomacy could hardly be conceivable without Rouhani’s spectacular endeavor to hyperbolize its immediate life-changing effects in people’s eyes, winning over Khamenei with assurances about the deal’s substantiality and giving the Supreme Leader false hope about the deal’s transformational impact on U.S. Middle East policy in favor of Iran.

At the same time, the deal could not have been closed without its portrayal to western counterparts as an unmatched solution for normalizing Iran and encouraging its leadership to abandon its expansionist, destabilizing foreign policy agenda. The West, Khamenei, and the Iranian people all misperceived the nuclear deal as being transformational in their own favor, but soon after it was signed, the ineffectiveness of the deal in delivering the promise of real rapid change became the common subject of complaint on all three sides.

Rouhani used a key as the symbol of his presidential campaign in 2013, implying that negotiation over the nuclear issue is a magic master-key that could unlock political and cultural doors, even granting citizens equal rights.

Obsessive focus on nuclear issues had at least two ramifications for him. First, from day one in office, he decided not to press hardliners on non-nuclear issues so as to gain their support or neutralize their sabotage efforts targeting his nuclear policy. Second, by taking for granted that a nuclear deal would be signed, Rouhani left all his eggs in one basket.

Hassan Rouhani defending his administration in the Iranian Parliament, August 28, 2018
Hassan Rouhani defending his administration in the Iranian Parliament, August 28, 2018

Rouhani’s government did not have any plan B for a scenario other than the success of the nuclear negotiations with magical consequences.

Ironically, Trump and Khamenei have both expressed their discontent about the deal soon after it was signed and long before Trump became president. However, they provide alternative explanations when evaluating the source of today’s crisis in Iran.

Trump takes credit for the effects of withdrawing from the deal, reimposing previous sanctions, and adopting new sanctions. On the other hand, Khamenei plays down the role of sanctions in the deterioration of people’s living conditions and blames the government’s mismanagement for the collapse of the Iranian currency and other shocking symptoms of the country’s economic malaise.

One cannot understand Iran without recognizing that none of the country’s crises are new. Historically, the Islamic Republic has proven inept at solving any crisis. In principle, each crisis could only lose its urgency by creating another crisis, resulting in mounting multi-dimensional crises with little hope of finding a way out. The establishment’s determination to block reform efforts and silence democratic demands on the one hand, and intensifying militarization of the entire government on the other hand, atomize the society and de-politicize its citizens.

Probing deeper into the layers of Iranian politics reveal strong resemblances between Iran and other states called post-totalitarian. At first glance one may find it quite ironic to hear about a strong similarity between Shiite fundamentalism and anti-religious authoritarian empires. However, the post-revolutionary Islamic government was conceived and consolidated by voluntarily following the examples of the neighboring tyrannies. Four decades later, there is a strong resemblance between Iran’s various faces and fundamental features of post-totalitarian systems in the former Communist bloc.

Rather than noticing and analyzing the crisis Iran faces, the leadership’s mindset is to deny, ignore, minimize or intentionally mis-formulate the nature of the crisis. As the crisis worsens, the regime’s vision becomes delusional, driving it to tackle problems by creating greater ones. Crisis can only be born, grown, and multiplied, with no real remedy or end.

Hampered and then sidelined by their own errors, the reformers’ initiatives fail, giving birth to a radical team which revives the government’s interests in revolutionary aggression. Ordinary people feel betrayed by both revolution and reform, fatigued by the utopian promises and traumatic realities.

As a result, the people endure more suffering and become more depoliticized as the best way for survival. The revolutionary military’s terror at home and asymmetric warfare abroad is ceaselessly expanding the boundaries of the crisis. Unable to understand the problematic aspects or fatal ramifications of its policies, the Islamic Republic refuses to realistically recognize any crisis as such, much less to set aside ideological ambitions by correcting failed policies while there is still time to act.

The greater the crisis becomes, the more people tend to ask, “When will the Islamic Republic collapse?”, But Iran’s consistent record in acting as an authoritarian , pan-Islamic entity rather than a state based on its national interests prompts an even harder question: “What kept Iranian revolutionary totalitarianism from falling so far?”

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Radio Farda
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    Mehdi Khalaji

    Mehdi Khalaji, a Qom-trained Shiite theologian, is the Libitzky Family Fellow at The Washington Institute.

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