Why Trump's Iran Posture May Be 'More Carrot Than Stick' to the Country's Hardliners

Karim Sadjadpour, Gary Samore, and John Limbert discussed the recent re-election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, how the Iran nuclear deal is holding up, and the prospects for U.S.-Iran relations under U.S. President Donald Trump. Nazee Moinian moderated the discussion. (1 hr., 15 min.)

During his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, President Donald Trump reiterated that he might follow through on a campaign promise to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. “Frankly that deal is an embarrassment to the United States and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it, believe me,” he said.

Trump also labeled Iran’s government a “corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy” and added that the “longest suffering victims of Iran’s leaders are in fact its own people. …The entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change.”

But some analysts say that Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal would, in fact, be detrimental to the political change there that he claims to advocate — and might embolden the very anti-American hardliners Trump decries.

“I think after the nuclear deal was signed, hardliners … felt threatened by Iran's political and economic integration,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Asia 21 Young Leader, at a recent Asia Society event in New York. “When we sanction Iran, when we isolate them politically and economically, in some ways that's more of a carrot to Iran's hardline leaders than a stick.”

In 2013, moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s presidential election on a platform that included increased political freedoms, economic openness, and reduced hostilities with the United States. His landslide victory was propelled in large part by the youth vote — more than half of Iran’s population is now under 35 — and was seen as a rebuke of the hardline policies of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani’s signature foreign policy accomplishment in his first term was the 2015 nuclear deal, in which Iran agreed to halt its nuclear development program and submit to international inspections in exchange for sanctions relief. He won reelection earlier this year in what was touted as a vote of confidence for his reformist policies, including the nuclear deal.

However, Rouhani’s power is still subservient to that of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and limted by a government and military apparatus still dominated by hardliners.

Ambassador John Limbert, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said that the past two elections have illustrated how Iran’s liberalizing society is starting to challenge the old guard. “I think you are seeing change,” he said. “And one of the reasons things are changing is that the message from the population is clear: We reject this group of 20 to 25 senior clerics who have been in power and occupied all of the key positions since 1979. The important thing is this group is passing from the scene.”

Gary Samore, former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction under Barack Obama, said that since Trump took office, Iran hasn’t violated the nuclear deal “by an ounce or an inch.” “I think it reflects the fact that they, especially President Rouhani, are benefiting from the agreement,” he said. “They recognize that if the deal collapsed, it would have a very significant impact on the Iranian economy and plans that Rouhani has.”

Sadjadpour noted that for the supreme leader and other hardliners, hostility with the United States and economic and political isolation might be more useful than openness and engagement for persevering their own power against the reformist tide. “I think [the U.S. should] try to intelligently support Iran's progress and transformation to a more tolerant society,” he said. “I don't think that the Trump administration has done any of these things well, but there's no silver bullet, unfortunately.”

“The pace of change [in Iran] is going to be pretty slow,” he added. “I think the general prognosis is heading in a positive direction, but I think there's going to be lots of back and forth.”

NEW YORK, September 26, 2013 — Iranian President Dr. Hassan Rouhani hails a "window of opportunity" to work with the West on Iran's nuclear program and alludes to the civil war in Syria before sitting down to a Q & A session with Asia Society President Josette Sheeran. (1 hr., 27 min.)

About the Author

Profile picture for user Eric Fish

Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.