No, Trump’s Iran Policy Doesn’t Strengthen ‘Hardliners’

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani / Getty Images

Much of the recent commentary on the Trump administration's Iran policy has been deeply flawed. Beyond the usual claims that hawks in Washington want regime change and to trigger a U.S.-Iran war, many analysts and commentators have argued that a more aggressive U.S. posture toward the Islamic Republic will actually strengthen Iran's cruel and virulently anti-American government. These voices, abetted by the Western media, use two claims to support their argument: the administration's policy will bolster Iranian-regime "hardliners" at the expense of "moderates," and the policy will alienate the Iranian people, leading them to rally around their government in opposition to the United States. Both of these talking points are quite wrong and divorced from reality, yet they continue to appear in debates over Iran policy.

The notion that there's a divide between hardliners and moderates in the Iranian regime, and that the latter can chart a more moderate course for Iran if only the West empowers them, has become sacrosanct in some corners of the foreign-policy establishment. "Iranian pro-democracy activists overwhelmingly supported the Iran deal," tweeted Ben Rhodes. "But [President Donald] Trump and his anti-Iran deal echo chamber will spend a lot of time telling us about how they support democracy in Iran when in fact they're only helping hardliners."

"Iranian hardliners, empowered by the deal's failure, are sharpening their knives for [President Hassan] Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and the chances of catastrophic war are undoubtedly greater," wrote Trita Parsi and Ryan Costello. "Now the hardline narrative—that the United States cannot be trusted and will never lift the sanctions—has been vindicated by Trump's shortsighted and self-serving decision to abrogate the nuclear accord. The hardliners seek to seize back all levers of power from moderates like Rouhani and Zarif, to destroy hopes for reform and to ensure the elevation of a hardline successor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei."

These hackneyed arguments miss a basic truth about the Islamic Republic: there's no meaningful difference between hardline and moderate elements of the theocratic regime, and even if there were, the latter has no ability to exercise real power. Claims about empowering one over the other are based on a false premise, leading to flawed analysis. Why? Because both "factions" share the same basic goals: to ensure the Islamic Republic's survival and to bring about its preeminence in the Middle East. They agree on the issues that matter most for the regime—ballistic-missile development, hatred of Israel, human-rights abuses to crush dissent that threatens the regime. Just look at a recent video of a smiling Zarif, Iranian darling of the Western elite, chanting "death to America," "death to Britain," and "death to Israel." Beyond ideology, systemic factors also make the hardliner-moderate distinction irrelevant. Over his 29-year rule, Khamenei has created institutions and forged alliances that effectively form a parallel, unelected government, which has far more power than its (un-freely) elected counterpart. The elected government, headed by Rouhani, has little power in forming the country's foreign, defense, and nuclear policies—the areas that matter most for the United States.

Listen to the Iranian people. For months, countless Iranians have taken to the streets across Iran to protest against their government, with many demonstrators calling for an end to the Islamic Republic. They're not distinguishing between hardliners and moderates. "Reformists, hardliners, the game is up," protesters have chanted, as well as, "Rouhani the liar, where is our money?" "We shall get our right to water, even if we die. Let go of Syria; think about us. Death to this imposter government," said protesters in the central city of Isfahan this year. "Equality and justice, this is the demand of the nation. If the water will not flow to the river, there will be a revolt tomorrow. The liar Rouhani, where is our Zayandeh Rud river."

Beyond strengthening hardliners, critics of Trump's policy have argued that a U.S.-led pressure campaign will cause the Iranian people to back the regime and reject Washington's support. "Tough rhetoric doesn't always translate into effective policy," wrote Michael McFaul and Abbas Milani. "Some hope that this new confrontational tone coming from Washington might weaken Iran's theocracy. In fact, however, the opposite is more likely." Why? Because Trump's policies "turned attention inside Iran back on the United States. The regime now has new evidence for its argument that the United States—pressured by Israel and Saudi Arabia—is seeking to impoverish the Iranian people. Patriotic Iranians, including those opposed to the autocratic regime, are now likely to rally around the flag, just as they have done during earlier periods of rising external threats." Former Obama administration official Jarrett Blanc echoed these sentiments on Twitter, saying after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's recent Iran speech: "[The speech is] a lightly camouflaged call for regime change that is likely to scare off potential international partners and get Iranians to rally round the flag."

The ongoing protests in Iran show this argument is wrong and based on a mistaken view of the situation on the ground. On the surface, the demonstrations, which began in late December and haven't stopped, are largely about economic struggles and water shortages—caused by the regime's corruption and incompetence. Iranians know the regime's failed policies are responsible for their economic problems, not the United States. American analysts should have more respect for the ability of Iranians to think for themselves. But the unrest is ultimately political. There's a reason why so many of the chants heard at protests quickly turn from the immediate economic issue at hand to "death to tyranny," "death to repression," and even "death to dictator."

Large segments of the Iranian people—including among working-class citizens from peripheral provinces, the regime's supposed base of support—want the Islamic Republic to end, not simply to reform. This hasn't changed since the U.S. left the nuclear deal. Just take one incident from May 24, when hackers took control of electronic boards at Mashhad International Airport and protested the regime "wasting Iranians' lives and financial resources in Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps." If one looks at the trajectory of the protests, there was no change after Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal or Pompeo's 12 demands to restart nuclear talks with Tehran. In their op-ed, McFaul and Milani link to video of anti-U.S. protests breaking out in Iran to show Iranians are rallying around the flag. But the regime often organizes counter-demonstrations to respond to protests. These would pop up regardless of U.S. policy. Either way, the number of planned anti-U.S. protests pale in comparison to the spontaneous anti-regime ones—during which Iranians have been heard chanting en masse, "Our enemy is here, but they always say it's America." This has become a common chant at protests across the country.

Both arguments against the Trump administration's Iran policy—that it will empower hardliners and that it will cause Iranians to rally around the flag—aren't just wrong; they're dangerous. They're the intellectual foundations of flawed policies, excuses for inaction in the face of Iranian aggression. Washington should certainly engage Tehran and offer the ayatollahs a path to closer bilateral ties (as Pompeo did in his speech), but diplomacy with a hostile adversary must be backed by credible threats to be effective. Too many commentators let what sounds good to them in theory dictate their policy views rather than empirical evidence. That needs to change—not just for the good of U.S. policy, but also for the good of the Iranian people, many of whom seek freedom and the chance to live in dignity.