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Will Trump turn Rouhani into hawk?

Caught between US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and calls for a harsher stance at home, Iran’s moderate president must sooner rather than later find a way to solve this dilemma.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani takes part in a press conference near the United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson  - RTSP0V5

Being Iran’s president while Tehran is “officially on notice” by Washington is not an easy task for a moderate such as Hassan Rouhani. From now on, whether he likes it or not, the harsh rhetoric his US counterpart Donald Trump is adopting is going to be reflected in whatever Rouhani is going to say in the coming months. It is not only Trump who is forcing this to happen. The upcoming May presidential elections in Iran and the level of pressure the Iranian president is facing and is expected to face makes it quite unsurprising to hear Rouhani warn Trump that “he’ll regret threatening Iran,” though these words weren’t enough for the Islamic Republic’s Principlist camp.

With Trump’s current rhetoric, the Iranian establishment is unlikely to accept a rejoinder of soft words or diplomatic approaches from its president. However, this does not mean that there is any interest in accepting Trump’s game and heightening tensions to a level beyond anyone’s control. In this vein, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has thanked the US president for showing America’s “true face.” Indeed, the Iranian leader seemed very content to see the “newcomer” proving what he has “been saying for more than 30 years,” as he told a group of military officers on the 38th anniversary of the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Trump’s time in office when it comes to Rouhani might be comparable to when George W. Bush’s presidency (2001-2009) overlapped that of his Iranian Reformist counterpart Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). Obviously, there are many differences that could be pointed out with respect to the region, the world and international relations then and now, yet the similarity comes from that both Bush and Trump are American hard-liners, while Khatami and Rouhani are both from a school that prefers diplomacy and have faith in dialogue rather than confrontation and threats. In this regard, an official close to Rouhani’s camp told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “President Rouhani’s moderate policy is not a tactic, it is a strategy. He does not have to change his approach just because someone such as Trump came to power. But moderation does not mean giving up our rights; whoever wants to threaten our nation is going to hear a clear and frank response, whether it is Trump or any other power in the world or the region.”

The official added, “If the [Iranian] president is to change his approach to win the [upcoming May presidential] elections then he’d better not enter the elections. He was elected four years ago because of his moderation and because they [voters] knew he is capable of delivering [on his promises] and he already has.”

Added to the mix is that Rouhani may have taken up a new goal last month after the Jan. 8 death of his mentor, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rouhani, 68, wants to prove that he is the best successor to Rafsanjani, who was the spiritual leader of the moderation camp. However, this is not an easy task. He is not the only candidate who wants to fill these shoes, and the moderation camp is going through a level of uncertainty with its opponents' using Trump’s words to discredit its policies. In this regard, Rouhani is expected to start acting as an umbrella for the camp he represents, and at the same time, stand stronger against Trump while not risking his main achievement, namely the nuclear deal. Rouhani is certainly not expected to transform into his hard-line predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rather, his real challenge is going to be to present a new version of Rouhani in the time before his expected bid for re-election in May.

“The Iranian public will not stand for being insulted and its government's keeping silent on this, or at least not responding with the same power,” a Principlist former member of parliament told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Unfortunately, our nation is paying the price for our government’s wrong bets, for the concessions we gave to the Americans during the nuclear deal. Mr. Rouhani and his team trusted the US government and thought that [former US President Barack] Obama’s smiles and [former US Secretary of State John] Kerry’s promises were strategic deals that we could give up our rights for [in exchange].”

The Principlist added, “If only he [Rouhani] and his team had adhered to the red lines set by the [supreme] leader, things would have been different today.” The former legislator concluded, “There are four years [ahead] to live with Trump. He is going to threaten Iran day after day. The nuclear deal is almost dead. Iran is not weak; our influence and power in the region is growing day after day. We need a president who can preserve our dignity and defend our integrity.”

However, there are different shades of meaning when it comes to dignity and integrity, particularly in terms of foreign policy. While one camp views confrontation with the United States as the best manifestation of Iranian independence and resistance — particularly when the United States has a hard-line administration — there is another camp that believes Iran should always seize opportunities to prove to the world that the Islamic Republic is not the party stoking the conflict. For Rouhani to solve his dilemma, he likely must find a balanced mix of these two understandings of dignity and integrity.

More from Ali Hashem (Iran Pulse)