Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani officially started his second term in office.
First voted in back in 2013, the charismatic Rouhani won a landslide reelection in May of last year, in large part due to his administration’s unprecedented success in hammering out a nuclear deal with the West that resulted in an easing of economic and commercial sanctions.
But just as Rouhani was about to be sworn in for the second time, U.S. President Donald J. Trump rained on his parade by announcing that that Washington would be slapping Tehran with a whole new batch of economic sanctions for Iran’s unbridled meddling in regional politics.
Trump, whose disdain for Iran is no secret, has also said that he is considering scrapping the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, also known as P5+1, referring to the five permanent members of the United Nations plus Germany) all together.
Faced with the prospect of the new sanctions, Rouhani immediately cried foul, saying that his country has kept its end of the bargain and repeating his government’s now-tedious song and dance about having no intentions of developing a nuclear warhead.
He also upped the ante in the intensifying faceoff with Washington by threatening to “retaliate” if the United States goes through with the new sanctions, which would only serve to justify further U.S. measures against his government.
Rouhani likewise pointed to the fact that, up until now, there have been no incidences of Iran’s violation of the nuclear deal.
But while Rouhani maybe complying with the letter of the rules laid out in the P5+1 accord, he hasn’t exactly bent over backwards to court Western favor, having, in the last 12 months, blatantly launched a crackdown on dissidents and human rights defenders, and having imprisoned a U.S. graduate student and researcher on trumped up charges of espionage less than a month after Otto Warmbier died following a similar imprisonment in North Korea.
Rouhani has also antagonized Trump by maintaining a military presence in Yemen and further inching its political and martial influence into the regional conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Although the moderate Rouhani may have been trying to straddle a political tightrope between his more liberal supporters (who want closer ties with the West) and his ultra-conservative hardline detractors (who were opposed to the JCPCA in the first place and favor extended isolationism), he now seems to have maneuvered himself into a dangerous corner where he risks alienating both sides and getting Iran tagged once again as an international rogue state.
Right now, Rouhani’s best bet may be to ignore international politics all together and focus instead on problems closer to home, mainly, the Islamic Republic’s staggering 26 percent unemployment rates.
It is worth noting that one of the key components of his 2016 campaign platform was the promise of an economic revolution.
In order to achieve that revolution, Rouhani is going to have to court nearly $200 billion in foreign investment projects.
A constantly escalating war of words and antagonizing tit-for-tat sanctions with the United States is not going to be conducive to attracting international capital.
Like it or not, Rouhani will have to swallow his pride and trade in his gallon of vinegar for a pint of honey when it comes to wooing Washington.
Otherwise, he won’t be able to get Iran’s sputtering economy back into full gear.
Little gestures, such as the release of the detained U.S. graduate student and an easing of the persecution of dissidents and human rights workers, could prove to Trump and the U.S. Congress that Rouhani is sincere about wanting to warm up to Washington and put the bilateral relationship on track for a real rapprochement.
Because of term limits, Rouhani will not be able to run for reelection in 2020.
But if Rouhani wants to hold on to his power for the next four years and keep Iran out of the spiraling instability that is syphoning its neighbors into a black hole of political chaos, one way or another, he is going to have to budge.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at email@example.com.