How Trump’s Rebukes Unite a Fractious Iran

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump went to the United Nations on Tuesday to try to weaken and isolate Iran. He called the Islamic Republic the principal U.S. adversary and blamed its leaders for “sowing chaos, death and destruction.” He vowed to push ahead with sanctions and economic strangulation so severe that Iran will be forced to change its aggressive behavior in the region or crack under the pressure.

But instead of weakening Iran, Trump is actually uniting the Iranian system, pushing the country’s fractious and competing domestic forces together.

For decades, Iran’s political establishment has been split between two competing visions. One sees the Islamic system benefiting from some kind of accommodation with the West and with Arab neighbors in its region.

This view has taken different guises over time. In the early 1990s, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani put a premium on economic development and favored rapprochement with both Saudi Arabia and the U.S.  A successor, Mohammad Khatami, spent the early 2000s trying to liberalize Iran internally while travelling widely to improve Iran’s image in the world, launching what he called a “dialogue amongst civilizations.” The current President Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013 on promises to strike a deal with the West and get sanctions lifted. Known as moderate in the Iranian context, this side has always had grand aspirations for Iran’s place in the world and has been ready to compromise.

These figures and the viewpoint they represent have competed bitterly with isolationist ideologues who argued that both neighbors and western countries would always be hostile to the Islamic revolution. They urged Iran to accept its isolation and rely only on a few select friends. These ideologues were indelibly shaped by the Iran-Iraq War, when Iran spent eight years in the 1980s fighting Saddam Hussein largely on its own.

These two competing political forces have been split for years over virtually every aspect of Iran’s governance. From regional policies to domestic issues like women’s rights and civil society, their views of Iranian society and the country’s place in the world diverge.

Today, U.S. hostility is bringing them together.

Both sides now see immediate value in restraint. On the defense side, Iran’s military has refrained from antagonistic moves in the Persian Gulf and responded cautiously earlier this month when Iran’s consulate was attacked in Basra, Iraq. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has ordered support for the Rouhani government, forcing more reactionary hard-liners to behave. Rouhani and his moderate allies, meanwhile, are brainstorming with Europe, Russia and China over how to work around the U.S. sanctions.

The consensus the Iranian establishment has moved behind is intended to keep the country in line with its obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal that the Trump administration abandoned in May, and in the same political camp with the European Union and the other five signatories, leaving the U.S. as the isolated outsider.

The effect inside Iran has been oddly stabilizing, removing long-standing divisions over foreign policy and uniting former opponents behind programs to address domestic problems like corruption and economic mismanagement.

There's even been talk that the state will soon release the confined leaders of the 2009 opposition movement; already it has lifted some constraints on their movement and the conditions of their house arrest.

For the first time, the plans of Iran’s competing factions are not in conflict, and are even in some harmony. Both sides now see merit in the moderates’ strategy of working with the Europeans, who have their own reasons for confronting Trump’s unilateral vision, and in the ideologues’ enthusiasm for looking to China and Russia for oil sales and support.

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif meets regularly with EU foreign-policy chief Frederica Mogherini, seeing this moment as an opportunity to advocate for Iran’s security interests in countries like Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, Ali Akbar Velayati, a top foreign-policy advisor to the Supreme Leader, travels to Moscow frequently.

Since its 1979 revolution, Iran has been an outsider in the global club led by the U.S. Trump's hostility has given it a chance to see itself instead as an insider, with Washington fulminating on the sidelines.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Azadeh Moaveni is senior gender analyst at the International Crisis Group and a lecturer in journalism at New York University, London. She was previously Middle East correspondent for Time magazine, and is the author of "Lipstick Jihad" and "Honeymoon in Tehran."

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