Iran is rolling out 'moderates' again to demand US end sanctions -analysis

Iran studies the US carefully in trying to craft a narrative that will fit with US domestic pressure for a new Iran nuclear deal.

Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, July 2020 (photo credit: KHAMENEI.IR)
Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, July 2020
(photo credit: KHAMENEI.IR)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has indicated that the US must end sanctions in order for “diplomacy to survive.” This is a key talking point in English for the Iranian regime. Iran studies the US carefully in trying to craft a narrative that will fit with US domestic pressure for a new Iran Deal. It did this prior to 2015, telling an America wary of war in the Middle East that there would be “war” if there was no Iran deal.
While it may seem odd for a regime like Iran’s to talk about war when it cannot afford war – and is fearful that such a conflict could lead to its destruction – it nevertheless presents these kinds of threats because they have worked in the past. The new Rouhani push to demand that the US return to the Iran Deal while offering “diplomacy” is part of the game plan.
A recent article in the US captured how well the Iran model works. It claims that an Iranian presidential election could “usher in a more hard-line government,” and that the US must therefore run to re-enter the Iran deal or see the window of opportunity narrow. Yet Iran wants the deal more than the US, so why would the US need to re-enter it to help Iran’s mythical “moderates” win an election?
This narrative of the “strengthening of the hardliners” is used by Iran on every occasion that their negotiations with the US stall. During the four years of the Trump administration, this narrative largely disappeared because pro-Iran lobbyists knew that the US administration had called the bluff of the storied hardliners.
Iran behaves the same way regardless of which “moderate” face it shows the world because its ostensible moderates, such as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, don’t actually make policy, and are beholden to the ostensibly “hard-line” IRGC. Zarif has indicated as much, showing his support for the IRGC and the late Qasem Soleimani.
The idea that Iran’s regime functions in a way in which one part of the government does one thing and another does the opposite is an enduring myth that Iran presents to the West, because this narrative works.
They know that the West always looks for “moderates” and “engagement,” whether dealing with the Taliban, Hamas or Hezbollah. Iran doesn’t mention “hardliners” when discussing issues with Turkey, China, Russia or other authoritarian regimes. The very notion that it might present Moscow with mythical “hardliners” would never work, because Moscow doesn’t cater to Iran’s demands. When Iran negotiates with China, it doesn’t send Ali Larijani to Beijing to threaten China that if they don’t agree to a new 25-year agreement, then “hardliners” might come to power. China would find this laughable.
Iran understands that in discussions with authoritarian regimes it puts on an authoritarian top-down approach. When it talks to democracies it pretends that its policies are chaotic and uncontrolled. It will claim, for instance, that “hardliners” are enriching more uranium, but moderates are not; hardliners are attacking ships in the Gulf of Oman; hardliners order rocket attacks on the US in Iraq; hardliners kidnap westerners in Iran and hold them hostage; and hardliners execute wrestlers and protesters.
This is like a US police department claiming that only the “hard-liner” police commit brutality, moderates don’t, and protesters should therefore work with “moderate police.” But if the protesters become more violent, then the “hardliners” could be empowered in the police department. Such logic would never work in an internal Western context because no one supposes that any government structure needs to be begged to perform normally lest its “hardliners” make it more stringent.
There is no evidence that hardliners have ever been empowered in Iran, regardless of what the US does, because the regime is not as chaotic as it is made out to be by its own explainers. In May 2018, the “hardliners” narrative briefly appeared when the US was moving to leave the Iran deal. The narrative was that the US was handing the hardliners a “gift.” The hardliners were said to be “ascendant.”
But what has actually changed in Iran? Protesters are still hanged. Journalists are targeted abroad and kidnapped. Missile production continues. Militias from Houthis to Hezbollah and in Iraq continue their attacks. The murder of Lokman Slim in Lebanon or Hisham al-Hashimi in Iraq last year was not by “hardliners,” but by the usual pro-Iranian death squads.
In the lead up to the Iranian election it appears Iran will seek to exploit its domestic politics to encourage the West to return to the table. At the same time Iran is brazenly attempting to enrich uranium and break aspects of the 2015 deal. It thus presents the US and the West with several scenarios.
First is that if the US doesn’t come to the table it will continue enrichment. Second is that it will use proxies in Iraq and other areas to attack the US. Third, it will present its “hardliners” as empowered unless the US does the right thing. This is a kind of three-pronged effort. It has worked in the past. Iran believes it will work again.