Trump Just Gave Iran's Beleaguered Leaders a Gift

An expert in U.S.-Iran relations argues the U.S. pullout from the nuclear agreement gives Iran's government a convenient scapegoat.
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President Donald Trump signs a document reinstating sanctions against Iran after announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal at the White House on May 8th, 2018.

President Donald Trump signs a document reinstating sanctions against Iran after announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal at the White House on May 8th, 2018.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump announced that the United States is pulling out of the multilateral 2015 agreement that lifted sanctions on Iran in return for that nation halting its nuclear weapons development. Reaction has been largely negative: Fred Kaplan in Slate called this Trump's "most irresponsible act in foreign policy to date."

Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, is similarly critical. "The U.S. is doing the opposite of what I think it should have done," he said a few hours after the decision was announced. "Trump is right that the deal had flaws, but this is one of the most important rollbacks of a nuclear program ever."

He discussed the possible long-term consequences for both Iran and the U.S. in a phone interview.

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According to the Washington Post, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has directed his diplomats to negotiate with the European Union, Russia, and China about retaining the deal without the U.S. But he also said Iran "is ready to start unlimited uranium enrichment if these negotiations do not yield benefits." What's he trying to do?

He's trying to stop a panic inside Iran. The country is facing a very serious economic crisis, and Trump's decision dampens the likelihood that hope is on the horizon. To get Europe, Russia, and China on the same page, create a wedge between them and the U.S., and then blame all your failures on Trump—from his point of view, that makes sense. What doesn't make sense is that Trump would give him that opportunity.

How bad are things inside Iran?

The currency has lost its value in the market. It was at 3,000 to the dollar two months ago, and is now at 7,000 to the dollar. About four-fifths of the banks are essentially bankrupt, as people withdraw their money. Everyone is trying to get their hands on gold, euros, or dollars. There has been massive flight of capital from Iran. Rouhani is trying to stop the bleeding.

Can he?

I don't think so. Almost everything that can go wrong has gone wrong, in terms of the Iranian economy. Trump's miscalculation is his apparent belief that the economy is bad, so if we pressure them a little more, it will collapse. My sense is the opposite is true. I think the economy would have collapsed on its own. Now, the regime will be able to blame its failures on the U.S.

The conventional wisdom here is that, since Rouhani, a moderate, pushed hard for sanctions, he will now lose power to the hard-liners. Do you agree?

If I were to bet, I'd bet he'll lose more popularity and influence—and he has already lost a considerable amount. His government hasn't been able to deliver on the economy, or on freedom of information, such as keeping social media apps like Telegram operating. Every passing day, with the economy becoming worse, they lose more political capital. The possibility of a military coup is openly discussed in Iran. It's talked about in the major newspapers.

Such a regime would presumably be more hostile to the U.S.

Absolutely. I can't imagine how this decision will help the people of Iran to become more favorably disposed to the U.S.—including the reformists. They feel they have been let down, although they know part of the responsibility [for the collapse] lies with the Iranian conservatives. They did everything they could not to allow a rapprochement with the U.S. when [President Barack] Obama was in power. They did everything they could to weaken Rouhani and dampen the possibility of an economic windfall, because they didn't want Rouhani to get political capital.

They sound a lot like the Republicans in the U.S. Congress.

Yes, the critics of the deal weakened it in both countries. There are striking similarities between the rhetoric of the conservatives in the U.S. and Iran.

Does today's decision make war between the U.S. and Iran more likely?

Israel and Saudi Arabia may not be disinclined to have the U.S. take on Iran, but I don't think it's likely. The Iranian regime can't afford a war, politically or economically. And the U.S. talks about wanting to withdraw from the Middle East. That's incompatible with picking a fight with a country that's much bigger than Iraq or Afghanistan. Of course, there is always the possibility of a mishap—a missile that misfires and hits somebody, followed by a response.

The other thing Trump should have thought about is what this means for the long-term strategic fate of the region. [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei is openly talking about re-aligning with Russia and China and away from the West. They're going to replace English with Russian as the second language of choice in K-12 schools. I'm almost sure Russia and China are among the winners. [Vladimir] Putin is very happy today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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