On 19 May 2017, incumbent Iranian president Hassan Rouhani won reelection by an overwhelming majority over hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, possibly indicating a significant lean towards genuine reform in the country. Although President Rouhani’s victory is encouraging with respect to Western relations, this should not be construed as a clear indication of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. Despite the Iranian population’s apparent lean toward reform, as evidenced by recent election results, the intentions of the country’s most influential political figure, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, remain unknown. Khamenei is fully aware that opening Iran to the U.S. and the West can potentially call into question the future of the theocratic government and erode the authority of hardliners. Furthermore, considering that Khamenei is 78 years old, a major concern lies in who will replace him and what the implications of this replacement will be for the country’s domestic and foreign policy.
Apart from hardliners, major concerns remain regarding the intentions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the autonomous branch of the armed forces in charge of guarding the legacy of the Iranian Islamic revolution. Since the 1979 revolution, the IRGC has emerged as a center of political and economic power in Iran, as the organization has created a large commercial empire controlling most of the country’s economy. Thus, there is reason to believe that opening up Iran to the West may potentially chip away at the IRGC’s power structure and control. This is already becoming evident in recent privatization efforts led by Rouhani, intended to pay down corporate debts and steadily reduce IRGC interests in major Iranian enterprises. However, reduced shareholdings resulting from these privatizations have not caused IRGC to completely relinquish its control over Iranian companies, despite its minority positions therein, as Iranian corporate ownership structures have and will continue being a convoluted system of grey eminence influence that the West cannot completely understand. As such, the IRGC will likely continue following its mandate for preserving the Islamic Revolution through military and economic advancement at any cost, independently of the Iranian central government.
Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a strong anti-Iranian sentiment among U.S. Republicans, who have opposed any dialogue with Iran. Most continue to staunchly oppose the Obama administration’s Iranian nuclear deal. President Trump appears to act in line with this anti-Iranian sentiment as he has been against rapprochement with Iran and the nuclear deal since his campaign. Also, unlike his predecessor, President Trump appears more focused on pro-Israeli and pro-Saudi policies--two of Iran’s main regional rivals, whose positions are equally threatened by the effects of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. This anti-Iranian stance was recently demonstrated on 20 May 2017, just one day after the Iranian elections, during President Trump’s incendiary speech in Saudi Arabia calling for Iran’s isolation. Apart from this sort of rhetoric, there has not been a major move made against Iran by the new administration. However, President Trump’s open support of Saudi Arabia and Israel may serve to break away the loosely held status quo.
Notwithstanding, despite their long history of hostility, the U.S. and Iran currently maintain many common interests, including the need to secure the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf, curbing the Afghan drug trade, and combating Islamic extremist groups such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. The U.S. also understands that maintaining a positive relationship with Iran will help dissuade them from pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, as per the 2015 nuclear deal, though the IRGC must remain sanctioned and their activities closely monitored. Reintroducing Iran to the West could help Europe lessen its oil dependency on Russia. Moreover, could serve as an infrastructural, trading, and energy conduit to Azerbaijan and other Central Asian countries.
Taking the above into account, the road to rapprochement will remain full of obstacles despite the positive election results in Iran. Though the future is impossible to predict, starting a new phase of rivalry with Iran would deprive both the U.S. and Iran of significant economic opportunities. Hostility with Iran resulting from U.S. policies could potentially isolate the latter, as none of the other major global players would support such policies insofar as they are implemented without any indication of Iranian aggression. The E.U., Russia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea each have an interest in a successfully implemented nuclear agreement and expanding trade with Iran.
Furthermore, perceived U.S. animosity toward Iran can risk pushing the country to strengthen relations with China and Russia, with which it already maintains a peculiar alliance in Syria. The most dangerous scenario would involve Iranian public opinion shifting back to the control of hardliners due a rebirth of anti-American sentiment among the Iranian general population. This could lead to the abandonment of the nuclear agreement and potentially drag the U.S. into a quagmire war with Iran. Given the delicate balance and potential grim scenarios, the need for stability between the U.S and Iran is now more important than ever.
Image Credit: Al-Jazeera 2017