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In Iran, hardliners are burning the deal and the American flag

On Tuesday afternoon, US President Donald Trump made good on a promise to "tear up" the Iran nuclear deal. By Wednesd...

Posted: May 9, 2018 12:43 PM
Updated: May 9, 2018 12:43 PM

On Tuesday afternoon, US President Donald Trump made good on a promise to "tear up" the Iran nuclear deal. By Wednesday morning, hardline Iranian lawmakers delivered on vows to "burn it" in response.

Convening in Iran's parliament -- the Majlis -- conservative MPs literally set a copy of the landmark agreement on fire. They also burned the United States flag amid chants of "Death to America."

"Trump's abandoning of the nuclear deal was a diplomatic show... Iran has no obligation to honor its commitments under the current situation," Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani said in his address to the assembly.

"It is obvious that Trump only understands the language of force."

Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has made a last-ditch effort to moderate Iran's response to Trump's pullout, promising to commit to the agreement for the time being.

But from where I stand in Tehran, it is very difficult to see how the agreement will survive, and for the policy of negotiating with the West, championed by Rouhani, to emerge unscathed.

Clinging to hope

In an address following Trump's announcement on Monday, Rouhani indicated that if other parties to the agreement could provide assurances that Iran would continue to "fully benefit" from the deal, his country in turn would stick to its part of the agreement.

The United Kingdom, France and German -- known as the E3 -- as well as China and Russia are party to the multilateral nuclear agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Each has promised to abide by the deal after Trump's withdrawal, continuing to do business with Iran as they have since the agreement lifted international sanctions.

"I have ordered the foreign ministry to negotiate with the European countries, China and Russia in coming weeks," said Rouhani. "If at the end of this short period we conclude that we can fully benefit from the JCPOA with the cooperation of all countries, the deal would remain."

The alternative, Rouhani seemed to indicate, would spell disaster for international security. He said he had ordered the country's atomic industry organizations to prepare to restart enrichment at an "industrial level" if negotiations fail.

Iran's Supreme Leader, and final arbiter on all Iranian policy, echoed those threats even more strongly. "Within the next few years, on the basis of assessment of the experts, the country will have 20,000 megawatts of nuclear energy," Ayatollah Khamenei said, according to a transcript of his remarks on his official webpage.

"When the nuclear issue started, some of our well-known people were saying why do we need a nuclear program? Just put it aside. Of course, this was wrong. The nuclear issue is needed by the country," he continued.

Much of the rest of the country appears to have adopted Rouhani's stance and is clinging to hope. Many newspapers here are praising Rouhani's response, advocating a wait-and-see approach to see if the Europeans will stand by them, preventing the country from plunging into an even deeper economic crisis.

Still it's difficult to see how this will work. The US is not only pulling out of the agreement but has also reinstated secondary sanctions, meaning countries from Europe that do business with Iran may also be penalized.

US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell has already said that German firms should wind down business dealings that they have in Iran "immediately."

Indeed one of the countries hurt most by Trump's announcement is France -- and just on the heels of French President Emmanuel Macron's "bromance" with the US President.

The French have longstanding partnerships in Iran's automotive sector, which is going to be targeted by Trump's sanctions. France's oil giant Total signed a deal to develop phase 11 of Iran's South Pars field with a substantial initial investment. Trump's sanctions have also hit Iran's oil and gas sector.

While Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have called on the Europeans to defy the US, this seems to be a tall order.

Iran's conservatives, meanwhile, aren't banking on European rescue. Instead, they are preparing their public for a confrontation between the US and Iran and have said that there should be a very strong response to Trump's withdrawal.

It's not clear what the response would look like and how this could hurt the US.

Iranians believe they have honored the deal

While Trump and his cohort of critics of the Iran deal have argued that the agreement has given the country a strategic edge in the region, allowing it leeway to perfect its ballistic missile program, the Iranians say the opposite.

They argue that they have abided by the deal, stopping their uranium enrichment program, permanently destroying their only water reactor in Arak along with many of their centrifuges. Weapons inspectors and US intelligence officials, including former CIA chief and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have attested to Iran's compliance with the agreement.

On the other hand, Iranians say they have seen little in the way of economic benefits, with some US sanctions having remained and Trump's persistent threats to withdraw since taking office dealing a major blow to investor confidence in the Islamic republic.

Trump's announcement yesterday only cemented skepticism, giving hardliners here a big boost. Iran's hawks have always maintained the US couldn't be trusted, and now they are saying "we told you so," greatly undermining Rouhani who has persistently advocated diplomacy with the West.

An end to optimism

A great deal of optimism filled Tehran's streets when the landmark nuclear agreement was first announced on July 14, 2015. Many Iranians from various parts of the country's diaspora, particularly the US, streamed into Iran to start businesses there.

They felt strongly that a bright future could be on the horizon. As the deal played out over the past two years, that optimism faded. On Tuesday night, it took a severe blow with what could be the end of the nuclear agreement.

Trump's actions have potentially united Iranians behind hardliners against the US. Contrary to Trump's hopes to exhaust the regime with extra sanctions, he may have inadvertently extended its life.

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