The theater and flourish may again soon pass.
The repeating deadline upon which US President Donald Trump must agree to continue to waive nuclear-related sanctions against Iran plays into his best or worst aspect: showmanship.
We are again on tenterhooks as the Commander in Chief plays to his hardline base, while the US’ staunchest European allies look on hoping sense will prevail. Trump’s top national security advisers are said to be encouraging him to continue to waive the sanctions relief — the US’ side of the bargain in the nuclear deal that in theory stops Iran from getting the bomb. Recent circumstances will have helped their case for moderation.
The protests that began around December 28 in Iran were — for the most part, on that scale, for that duration — a surprise. They showed economic and political grievances were prevalent among even the traditional working classes that Iran’s hardliners consider their base. In short, the protests exposed Iran’s society as being more divided and more discontent than previously thought. It showed that it was a gross simplification to see the country split between an intellectual urban elite that sought moderation and a rural, religious poor who backed the hardliners.
Iran is young, often unemployed, and often looking on social media at a globalized world it remains cut off from. So people hit the streets, and even some hardline leaders — whilst blaming US and Saudi outsiders for fomenting trouble — were led to admit they sympathized with some protestors’ grievances.
The sanctions currently waived under the nuclear deal haven’t led to the economic transformation that many Iranian moderates had pledged they would. Trump’s continued application and tightening of sanctions in other areas over issues like rocket technology has led to a climate of economic apprehension among European companies who would have liked to get into the Iranian market again, yet fear being penalized for such an investment in their US dealings if they do. Trump’s hostile rhetoric also makes them wary of sinking cash in Iran at all.
But still, the deal is better then no deal, moderates argue. Without it, you have a strong risk of Israeli military action against Iran’s nuclear program and regional war. You would pull part of the rug away from under the moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani, and likely empower hardliners whose message that the West cannot be trusted would resonate yet further as the economy faltered yet further under more isolation. And Iran might end up taking the so-called club of nuclear weapon states into double digits.
So it may be that recent protests save Trump from having to live up to his harshest promises (he did similar in October by announcing Iran wasn’t really in compliance of the deal, but leaving Congress to work out what to do next). Iran has been seen to have more pronounced internal troubles of its own than previously thought. Trump openly encouraged protests and declared a “TIME FOR CHANGE!”.
He can claim the pressure is working to discomfort the hardliners, kick the can down the road, and keep the threat of renewed sanctions there, even if it does grow increasingly weak as each repeat deadline passes.
Trump’s continued softballing may have other motivations at heart other than adhering to the advice of pretty much everyone around him and on the other side of the Atlantic. To kill off the deal, he needs Congress, and he has a lot else on his plate with them in the months ahead.
Yet as the uncertainty persists, the economy is doomed to slow growth, Iran’s youth continue to doubt if their moderate government can deliver them from this malaise, and their regional enemies smell blood. The theater slips into intermission, yet the plot darkens yet more in the later acts.