It appears that commentators on both sides attempted to exploit that new context, with some Westerners viewing it as an indictment of the Iranian people while Iran’s state media attempted to claim that the latest chants were a direct response to Trump’s threats and not a longstanding slogan of the Islamic Republic. One report, by Elite Daily, attempted to dispel both of these notions. It pointed out that even among those who attended the celebrations in order to show support for Tehran’s hardline foreign policy, many people explicitly separated their views of Trump’s foreign policy from their views of the American people.
It has been widely reported that the Iranian population is both highly educated and distinctly pro-Western, in contrast to the image of the nation that is put forward by the hardline Islamist regime. Some moderate citizens may have chosen to attend this year’s anniversary celebrations out of concerns about perceived threats from the Trump administration, but Elite Daily points out that the gatherings actually included numerous placards with positive messages, thanking the American people for defending Muslims in their own country and for protesting Trump’s travel ban targeting Iran and six other Muslim-majority nations.
Elite Daily also debunked the notion of amped-up hostility toward the US in the Trump era, noting for instance that there had been a concerted effort by Iranian users of social media to encourage demonstrators to tone down the anti-American slogans and to avoid flag burning, in order to keep attention focused on US foreign policy and not on a clash of cultures between the two countries as a whole.
The Christian Science Monitor seemed to corroborate this account. In fact, it claimed that this year’s celebrations had been characterized by fewer anti-American “taunts.” This can be partly attributed to the social media campaign, but it may also expose the Iranian regime’s uncertainty about how to proceed when dealing with the new American presidency. That is, the Monitor noted that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s speech to the crowd was subdued in tone, despite some references to vigilance in the pursuit of Iran’s military defense goals.
The article suggests that this may have been part of a deliberate effort by the regime to avoid inciting more provocative moves against the US, at least until such time as the regime has a better sense of how to anticipate and manage the responses from the Trump administration. But on the other hand, the subdued tone of Rouhani’s speech is typical of the renowned pragmatist, who was largely responsible for the success of nuclear negotiations with the US and five other world powers.
Those negotiations helped to secure Rouhani’s reputation as a moderate in the eyes of some Western policymakers. But this description is belied by his inaction on domestic campaign promises regarding human rights and censorship. Furthermore, the Iranian president, who is facing a reelection bid in May, has never pushed back against the rhetoric or provocative actions of hardline military institutions, and has in fact increased funding for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Whether this failure to contradict hardliners is a result of complacency or deliberate collaboration, it was on display again in the midst of the anniversary celebrations. Whereas Rouhani arguably maintained a subdued approach to foreign policy rhetoric, the armed forces and the IRGC continued to make provocative gestures and to speak openly about the prospect of war with the United States. Iran’s English-language propaganda network Press TV reported on Sunday that Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, the commander of the Iranian Navy said that his forces would be increasing its activities in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait that connects the two.
The announcement was justified in terms of the improvement of maritime security amidst a threat of piracy, but the Iranians have used this terminology in the past to explain activities that clearly defied the wishes of the West, of Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, and of much of the international community. The Gulf of Aden meets the coastline of Yemen, where the IRGC has been supporting and perhaps even commanding the Houthi rebels who have been fighting a war since 2015 against the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and a Saudi-led coalition supporting him.
Naturally, the Iranians have come under fire for this by the US and its allies. And although Tehran formally denies that it is actively supporting the Houthis, the Yemeni Civil War is widely regarded as a clear instance of the Islamic Republic’s growing imperialism in the region. This is something that the Trump administration has shown a definite interest in confronting, although there is still a great deal of uncertainty about the means by which it would do this.
After Iran test-fired a missile just over a week into the Trump presidency, the White House responded by declaring that Iran was “on notice” not just over its ballistic missile program but also over other provocative activities. But the details of this threat were left vague, apparently as a deliberate measure to encourage uncertainty and give Tehran the impression that “nothing is off the table,” including military action.
The vagueness of that threat is presumably the reason why some reports suggest that even relatively moderate Iranians participated in the state-organized demonstrations on Friday. It goes without saying that even among staunch opponents of the Islamic theocracy, Iranians would generally oppose the notion of invasion or bombing of their homeland by a foreign power. But even though President Trump has specifically indicated that there is a viable military option, most analysts appear to have concluded that armed conflict is an unlikely outcome of the current mutual provocations.
Al Jazeera published an article on Monday which critically analyzed the hawkish background of the Trump White House while reaffirming that the administration is essentially of one mind on the need to confront the Iranian threat to Middle Eastern stability. But even so, Al Jazeera sees war as a political risk that Trump would not be willing to undertake lightly, and also as an outcome that the Iranians would be foolish enough to court.
Other sources suggest that war is not only politically untenable, it is also unnecessary from a practical standpoint, since there are a great many other actions the Trump administration can undertake to put pressure on the Islamic Republic. Indeed, it has already started along that path, imposing new sanctions on 13 individuals and 12 companies in response to the January 29 ballistic missile test, and then beginning the process to potentially designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization.
The possibility of yet another assertive measure was the subject of a report that appeared on Monday at Iran Front Page News. It indicated that the White House may be planning to expose the contents of so-called “secret side deals” to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement – a transparency measure that several commentators on the subject have been urging since the president took office. Hardline Iranian officials have responded to this in a predictable fashion, saying that if the US violated the secrecy of agreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, then Iran would cease to cooperate with that monitoring organization.
Jamali Nobandegani, a member of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission also took the latest Trump administration threat as an opportunity to put forward new accusations of an international conspiracy against the Islamic Republic. “Most of the so-called IAEA agents who are dispatched to other countries are, in fact, undercover agents of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Mossad — Israel’s intelligence agency,” he said, before claiming that the publication of these documents is an old trick by such agencies.
Iran Front Page News also quoted Iranian Member of Parliament Valiollah Nanvakenari as saying that Trump’s threat to publicly expose the content of the agreements is not intended as a transparency measure but rather as a means of negatively influencing the international community’s opinion of the Islamic Republic. Such influence is certainly in the interest of the Trump administration, since international cooperation would be needed in order to reconstruct the sanctions regime that was greatly diminished under the terms of the nuclear accord.
Iran’s threat to withdraw cooperation with the IAEA is effectively a threat to the life of the nuclear deal itself, and the consequences of that deal’s failure would depend greatly upon whether the international community sees Iran or the US as being more at fault for it. The White House is arguably at a disadvantage insofar as Trump repeatedly promised to cancel or renegotiate the agreement while he was campaigning for office. But it is also easy to disprove the claims of innocence put forward by people like Nanvakenari, who was quoted by Iran Front Page as saying, “Iran has always honored the commitments it has made in talks with the [nations involved in nuclear negotiations] and the IAEA. However, the other side has always shown a lack of commitment.”
In fact, over the first year of the deal’s life, various reports emerged to indicate that Iran had briefly violated limits set by the agreement, or had withheld arguably crucial information about its past nuclear activities. Additionally, the recent ballistic missile test was one of more than a half dozen carried out since negotiations concluded, and all of them were at odds with the United Nations Security Council resolution governing the implementation of the nuclear deal. Yet each of these violations and near-violations was effectively ignored by the Obama administration, leading some to believe that Trump could fulfill his campaign promise regarding the nuclear accord by simply enforcing it more stringently and thus convincing Iran to back out.
At least one diplomat with a close connection to the Trump administration believes that this is exactly the current intention. John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN and an avowed supporter of Donald Trump, was quoted by the Weekly Standard as saying that the agreement is possibly “one heartbeat away from disappearing.” He has concluded that Trump’s initial, assertive gestures, including the threat of listing the IRGC as a terrorist group, are likely to cause the Iranians to “throw up their arms and say, ‘It’s an outrage, we’re withdrawing from the agreement’.”
The cancelation of the deal on the Iranian side may re-create a situation in which the international community has common cause to put pressure on the Iranian regime and thus to weaken it without resorting to the threat of military force. Many Iranian opponents of the theocratic regime, such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, believe that this weakening is virtually all that would be needed in order to enable a domestic uprising by the vast majority of Iranians who are pro-Western and who used last week’s anniversary celebration to contradict the regime’s rhetoric, even if some of those same citizens protested against a perceived threat of war.