Iran is no stranger to Western threats and sanctions; Iran's almost categorical response is to dismiss such measures as insignificant and having no impact. In this respect, the Iranian response to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s May 21 speech, in which he threatened the “severest sanctions in history” against Iran unless it capitulates to demands related to its foreign policy as well as nuclear and missile programs, is no different. Pompeo’s words, like those of other American radicals, can be expected to have one definitive impact on Iran’s political stage: the strengthening of hard-liners.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were the first to respond to Pompeo’s speech. Rouhani said the United States was moving 15 years back in time, to the era of President George W. Bush, and repeating the same statements as in 2003 — adding that "the world today does not accept that the United States decides for the world. Countries have their independence.” Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement May 21 in which it described Pompeo’s remarks as blatant interference in Iran’s internal affairs. On the same day, Zarif tweeted, “US diplomacy sham is merely a regression to old habits: imprisoned by delusions & failed policies — dictated by corrupt Special Interest — it repeats the same wrong choices and will thus reap the same ill rewards.” Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani on May 22 said Pompeo’s remarks were not worthy of a response, adding that Zarif had provided enough of an answer.
But what were the past “ill rewards” of US policy that both Rouhani and Zarif referred to? The collapse of the nuclear negotiations between Iran and European powers in 2003-05 due to US pressure had important repercussions for Iranian politics and policy.
On the domestic front then, the downfall of diplomacy led to the weakening of the Reform movement while empowering Iranian hard-liners. This became especially evident in the 2005 presidential elections, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the most hard-line among the candidates, scored a surprise win. In terms of Iran’s nuclear program, the plans drawn up by the George W. Bush administration not only failed to stop it, but in effect accelerated it: Iran went from having just 200 centrifuges to some 20,000 — all while being under sanctions. The Islamic Republic additionally increased its level of uranium enrichment to 19.75%. In 2013, after Rouhani came to office and as he was facing the Barack Obama administration, Iran and the West entered a new round of negotiations, which resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
As such, history has proven that the current US strategy will only embolden Iran’s hard-liners and radicalize Iranian foreign policy. In this vein, hard-line media outlets and figures are already increasing their pressure on Rouhani, his administration and the Reformists — criticizing the government for its failure to give the United States a powerful response.
On May 13, prominent hard-line cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the body tasked with choosing the next supreme leader, penned a letter to Rouhani in which he demanded that the president formally apologize to the Iranian people for the damages caused by the nuclear deal. Jannati further accused Rouhani of not respecting the establishment’s red lines during the nuclear negotiations, and said the United States and Europe were in effect playing “good cop-bad cop” and that Europe, just like the United States, would not abide by its commitments.
The letter was initially characterized as a statement by the Assembly of Experts, which the administration criticized. However, it was later revealed that the document, while carrying the letterhead of the assembly, in fact only represented Jannati.
Hard-line daily Kayhan harshly attacked the United States in its May 22 edition and described Pompeo’s threats as hollow and baseless. It said the threats stemmed from Washington’s inability to limit Iran’s regional power. It also referred to Pompeo’s demand for restrictions on Iran’s missile program as a ridiculous US dream, and further described his demand that Iran stop its support for groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas as wishful thinking.
The above are but a few examples of how hard-liner criticisms of Rouhani become louder as the US increases its pressures, threats and sanctions.
In a tweet May 21, Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister under the administration of former President Mohammad Khatami and a theoretician of the Reform movement, wrote, “Pompeo’s words are clear. Either Iran does nothing outside its borders or the people of Iran topple the regime before they reach an oil-for-food [program] stage. But what is the establishment’s response? Sympathizing with the people and political parties or seizing the opportunity to settle their bets with the different political groups?”
Saeed Laylaz, a prominent university lecturer and political analyst, told Al-Monitor, “I think the Islamic Republic can succeed in the face of the US and its threats if it relies on itself. This means granting people freedom in political, religious and social issues and explaining the current situation for them clearly. If they realize that their civil rights are not going to be limited, they will surely appreciate that it is the US and [Donald] Trump who have gone back on their promises and are being a bully. To succeed in this path, you only need to expand the civil rights of the people and be transparent with them.”
However, it seems that expanding civil liberties is precisely what Iran’s hard-liners fundamentally object to. Indeed, they appear intent on using foreign threats and the difficult domestic situation as pretexts for more restrictions and to make the general atmosphere more radicalized. If they are successful, it won’t be the first time. Ahmadinejad effectively used sanctions and foreign pressures as an excuse to move the government toward political closure and limited freedom of speech. Such a situation will be repeated unless the European signatories to the JCPOA manage to keep the nuclear deal alive. If they fail, one can expect radicals to once again seize power in Tehran and for serious clashes to emerge in the Middle East with the potential of turning into a global crisis.