The hopes that followed Hassan Rouhani’s election to the presidency reverberated around the world: The millions of Iranian people who voted for him were joined by hundreds of millions of Westerners who felt that Iran was finally on its path out of isolation. These hopes came to a peak in the signing of the JCPoA which fulfilled one of Rouhani’s most ambitious promises by killing three birds with one stone: 1) normalizing foreign relations with the West, 2) boosting the economy by lifting sanctions and opening Iran to foreign trade and 3) legitimizing Iran’s nuclear program.
Paradoxically, the signing of the JCPoA which had elevated Rouhani in the eyes of most Westerners and his Iranian voters was also Rouhani’s fall from grace in Tehran and losing control on all three fronts to none other than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Once the deal was signed, Khamenei, who had taken a back seat for over two years, took back control of the implementation of the JCPoA, rescinded the budding relationship between Tehran and Washington and banned American companies from the Iranian markets. But this wasn’t the end of Rouhani’s fall since hardliners in Iran, with the IRGC as their spearhead, found in Khamenei’s move to consolidate control, an open invitation to “move in for the kill”. Within weeks, Rouhani’s demotion was followed by a crackdown on human rights and freedoms as the IRGC arrested journalists, artists, activists, foreign businessmen etc…while Rouhani impotently objected.
The hopeless stability exemplified in Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has now given way to a volatile atmosphere of instability in which hopes and resignation are constantly jockeying for position. The implementation of the JCPoA is fraught with contradictions between the JCPoA itself and Khamenei’s red lines. The trade delegations are still flying into Tehran but they are becoming weary of the hardline political atmosphere. Khamenei’s anti US rhetoric is creating unease even among the EU members who are beginning to understand that they may be next in line to being banned for introducing Western influence.
The only “player” who seems unfazed from the backlash is the same “player” who is cutting ahead of the line of all the Western delegations and closing deals worth billions of dollars: Russia. The Kremlin, historically unfazed by government crackdowns and unworried from the possibility of a ground-roots uprising, placed its relations with Khamenei on a high pedestal as Putin’s historic meeting with Khamenei exemplifies.
And the Iranian people, who finally saw a light at the end of the tunnel of sanctions and dreamt of peaceful relations with the West, are back in the dark again.
Proxy Wars Take Center Stage
Meanwhile, Tehran found itself involved in two civil wars: the first, supporting Assad’s government in Syria and the second, supporting Yemenite rebels in Yemen. These civil wars quickly evolved into proxy wars involving Iran’s regional nemesis, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Russia, the US and the EU and are spiraling out of control, forcing Iran into a potentially volatile position of a regional or even global conflict.
The proxy wars are a matter of great concern for the Iranian people and potential Western investors for several reasons. First, these wars are costly and Tehran is invested in them to a tune of approximately $10 billion a year. Second, the definition of allies and foes is very fluid at this moment and Tehran may be anti-West as far as opening markets but it may find itself allied to the same Western countries in the mutual fight against ISIS. Third, the Iranian casualties are estimated to be only a few hundred for now, but an all-out war in Syria or in Yemen is sure to increase the death toll which will, at some time or another, create unrest among an army and a people who are still scarred from the devastation of the Iran-Iraq war.
Once again, Moscow is proving itself to be Tehran’s unswerving ally in the proxy wars: not only did Putin take the plunge in the Syrian conflict, Moscow has launched a fire-sale for its military equipment to Iran, including missiles, anti-aircraft guns, jets etc…
But for the Iranian voters, the situation seems much worse than it had been before Rouhani: Until Rouhani’s election, Tehran’s involvement in Syria was on a slow burner and it has now flared up dramatically. Furthermore, the Iranians are now allied to the Russians who seem hell-bent on testing the West’s resolve in regards to the regional power-play over the Middle East.
Winners and Losers of JCPoA
The JCPoA that Rouhani and his team hammered out for over two and half years was supposed to be a blessing for all Iranians who had suffered under Ahmadinejad’s 8 year tenure. It’s a tragic paradox that Iran is now much more unstable than it had been before Rouhani’s election. Under Ahmadinejad, Iran was defiantly closed, hopes for change were non-existent and its involvement in the civil wars was at a constant “minimum”. The West simply tried to ignore him and was content to sanction Iran while the Iranian people reluctantly accepted their fate. Many Iranians and Westerners would feel that the situation wasn’t good but at least it was stable.
But once the JCPoA was signed, under immense pressure from…you guessed it…Russia, the hopes of the Iranian people, especially those who voted for Rouhani, were shattered. As time ticks on, the JCPoA is evolving into a deal which cannot hold and it is just a matter of time that it will unravel. The Western powers have placed a lot of emphasis on the possibility of slapping back sanctions if Tehran gets out of line in its nuclear program but such a move would only dissolve the deal and legitimize Tehran’s path to militarizing its nuclear program.
Now that Moscow is firmly on Tehran’s side, the possibility of sanctions seem less dangerous for both: deals between Russia and Iran are being closed with or without sanctions and plans to trade mutually using local currencies have already been inked. In the event of the JCPoA disintegrating into a series of accusations between the West and Iran, a military option, which was never really on the table pre-JCPoA, will now be next to impossible to even discuss since it would mean declaring war against Russia, initiating a third world war.
Once again, it is the Iranian people who will suffer the consequences of the power moves of Iran’s regime: instead of heading for a few decades of well-deserved peace and prosperity, they will find themselves at the center of a global power-play between the West and Russia.
There is little hope for the Iranian people: the backlash in human rights and freedoms, the open market that might rapidly close down, the peace with the West that is already disintegrating…all will lead to the simple fact that the Iranian people, and Rouhani, are going to foot the bill for Khamenei’s anti-Western paranoia (and Russia’s anti-Western agenda) to keep the revolution alive instead of opting for an evolution lead by the will of his people.