August 22, 2017

Making Iran’s revolution great again

Donald Trump is helping Iran’s radicals

THE ritual chants of “Death to America” had grown fainter in recent years. The feverish crowds had thinned. Some demonstrators seemed to wave Uncle Sam banners less to jeer America than to cheer it. Yet thanks to Donald Trump this year’s annual rally to commemorate Islamic Revolution Day on February 10th in Tehran looks set to be one of Iran’s biggest. Mr Trump’s tweets have upset even the secular middle class (for example: “Iran is playing with fire—they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”). The new president has also imposed fresh sanctions and an executive order (currently suspended by the courts) blocking Iranians from travelling to America.

Hardliners who had warned that America was targeting Iran’s people, not just its regime, say they are vindicated, and that their government will not trust America again. “Thank you, Mr Trump, for showing the true face of America,” mocked Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, in an anniversary address. Even reformists, who had dismantled Iran’s nuclear programme and handed over enough fissile material to build ten nuclear bombs as part of the deal, feel betrayed. Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, who negotiated the deal with six world powers, has lost his smile. Iran has difficult days ahead, he growled. Even Muhammad Khatami, a former president who had tried to mend fences with the West, called on reformists to join hardliners in decrying America.

This anger seems likely to spill over into presidential polls in May. Hassan Rouhani, the president, had hoped that his chances would be bolstered by the nuclear deal. Relief from sanctions helped Iran’s economy grow by 4% in 2016, and the IMF had expected growth to reach 6% this year. But Mr Trump’s rhetoric has scared off potential investors, especially large corporations that had been enthusiastic about the opportunities. “The gold rush is over,” says one British official-turned-businessman. Mr Rouhani, his opponents say, has failed to deliver.

The hardliners have yet to select a presidential candidate. Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi, the Islamic Republic’s first female minister, had been mooted in the hope she might garner the women’s vote. Now the conservatives seem to be leaning towards running a military man. “If Qassim Sulemani stands, he will win,” says a confidante of Mr Khamenei’s, referring to the head of the Quds Force, the foreign legion of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which is fighting across the Middle East.

Even without a conservative president, the hardliners are flexing their muscles. Fajr, Iran’s annual film festival and cultural showcase, banned ten local films this year, including one that had replaced women’s headscarves with wigs. They were too feminist, said an organiser. In the past, Mr Rouhani has overruled the censors. This time around, he has yet to secure the approval of the Guardian Council, a conservative-dominated body that vets parliamentary candidates and laws, and is staying his hand.

Is a further deterioration in relations between Iran and America inevitable? Many in Mr Trump’s entourage see Iran’s missile tests not just as domestic acts of defiance but as projections of regional reach. They want to help Israel and Sunni Arab states put Iran back in its box. James Mattis, Mr Trump’s defence secretary and a former commander of American forces in the Middle East, will not have forgotten that Shia militias backed by Iran killed many of his soldiers in Iraq. Iran’s Sunni rivals also see an opportunity. “We agree with Trump that the nuclear deal has given a green light to Iran to do whatever it likes in the region,” says Khamis al-Khanjar, a Sunni leader in Iraq.

But others, including Britain, argue that a tougher line on Iran will embolden its hardliners. They might yet be heard. Mr Trump’s latest sanctions seem largely symbolic, affecting just 25 people and companies. The nuclear deal survives. For now, the war is only one of words.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Remaking Iran’s revolution”

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