A stunned Iranian nation anxiously watched on Tuesday as President Donald Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the historic nuclear deal with Iran and reinstitute crippling economic sanctions. Now, those born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution might be wondering: Were the hardliners and conservatives right about the futility of dealing with the U.S?
Reaction in Iran to Trump’s announcement was swift. President Hassan Rouhani went on state TV to attempt to salvage the nuclear deal upon which he has staked his political career. He said Iran would stick by the terms of the agreement if the other signatories — the U.K., France, Germany, China, Russia and the E.U. — could prove they would meet their commitments.
But hardliners, who have always been against the 2015 deal, stoked outrage against the U.S. Some staged a mass burning of U.S. flags in the center of Tehran. In parliament, lawmakers burned a flag as well as a copy of the deal. Activists demanded Rouhani resign along with his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who was central to negotiating the deal — known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — with the Obama administration.
The most emphatic reaction, however, was from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei. “You heard what worthless things the American president said last night,” he told Iranians in a televised speech. “He lied maybe up to 10 times and he threatened the state and the nation. I tell him on behalf of the Iranian nation: Mr. Trump, you can’t do a damned thing!”
He accused the U.S. of entering into the deal in bad faith. “When the nuclear issue started some persons told me why do you insist on keeping the nuclear program? We told them that America’s problem with Iran isn’t about the nuclear program. Now you see that that’s true. We accepted the JCPOA but they continued their enmity with the Islamic Republic.” Now the U.S. wants Iran to reduce its regional presence and missile program, he added. “If we accept these they will come up with something else.”
In a sharp break with the more moderate Rouhani, Khameini poured scorn on the idea of preserving the deal with the existing signatories. “Now they say we can continue with the three European countries, I don’t trust these three countries either; don’t trust them,” he said. “If you want to make arrangements with them get actual guarantees from them or they will also all do the same as America … if you can’t, then we cannot continue the JCPOA.”
The heads of Iran’s military echoed Khameini’s comments about the U.S. “The withdrawal of America is a good omen,” said Major General Mohamad Ali Jafari, commander of the Guards Corps according to the semi-official Fars News Agency. “It was clear that the Americans cannot be trusted and that they will never act on their commitments … This shows that the uranium enrichment was just an excuse, their main problem is with Iran’s military and missile might and its influence in the region.”
The deal lifted the harsh sanctions regime imposed on the country in return for strict limitations on Iran’s nuclear program. However the Iranian side always complained that it did not get the economic benefits that it had been promised. The United States and Israel as well as regional Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia complained that Iran was using the deal to increase its reach in the region and interfering in other countries such as Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of lying about its compliance with the terms of the deal, though UN inspectors determined that Iran was living up to its commitments.
Some Iranian analysts believe that Trump’s decision to withdraw completely may actually strengthen Iran. “Trump has miscalculated grossly,” said Amir Mohebbian, a prominent conservative political analyst and university professor in Tehran. “Before the deal the world and the U.S. were united against Iran. Now the world and Iran are united against the U.S. withdrawal.”
But Mohebbian predicted the deal would collapse and Iran would restart its nuclear program in earnest. “It’s not likely that the deal can survive after this, and this gives Iran legitimate rights to exit and upgrade its nuclear program,” he said. As a result, the prospect of military confrontation is greater. “When diplomacy fails the military has to step in to compensate. If the other signatories to the deal are unable to provide Iran’s interests and benefits from the deal, the playing field will change.”
The full ramifications of the U.S. withdrawal will take time to emerge, but the most dramatic effect may be on the youth who had hoped that the nuclear deal would pave the way for more global integration of their country. When the deal was signed three years ago, young Iranian men and women took to the streets to wave one dollar bills as a sign of better economic times to come. These young people had never accepted the official portrayal of the United States as the Great Satan; many dreamed of being able to study or work there.
Now, with the deal never having really impacted their lives positively, and its imminent collapse already setting off a steep devaluation of the national currency, many feel betrayed. “After Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement it isn’t really strange that he would do the same here, but it’s still saddening that this opportunity was lost,” said Kianoosh Pedrood, a 35-year-old engineer who specializes in water treatment.
Mohebbian said the impact might be felt for years to come. “What Trump taught the Iranian youth is that international law is meaningless, what matters is power, power and power. With enough power you can ride over all the laws,” he said. “When this generation takes over the reins they’ll strive to achieve that power at whatever cost.”
For Pedrood the whole nuclear deal reminds him of an old Persian idiom. “It takes one madman to nix what took 40 wisemen to fix,” he quoted, adding, “Now the power is in the hands of madmen.”