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. [Continue reading…]