Donald Trump’s latest Twitter outburst has handed Iran’s embattled leader a lifeline

An Iranian reformer will earn points for enraging the US president. 

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One of the most reckless gambles in recent history is currently playing out, as epitomised by Donald Trump's capitalised tweet. He punched it out after Iran's President Hassan Rouhani hinted at closing the strait of Hormuz, a strategically important shipping channel, in response to the US’s demand that allies cease purchasing Iranian oil. Yet Trump’s fury may give the Iranian president crucial breathing space in his own backyard.

On Sunday, Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, gave a speech at the Reagan Library outlining US policy towards Iran, the latest in a set of moves by the two men to build a case for regime change. The speech was derided online by Iranians at home, members of the diaspora and the Iranian government, not least because Pompeo invited the widely despised People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (better known as MEK), which the US classed as a terror organisation until 2012. 

At home, though, President Rouhani faces public discontent, protests over inflation, regional water shortages and frustration at a nuclear agreement that was meant to bring economic dividends. His political foes have capitalised on the Trump administration unilaterally pulling out of the Iran Deal, with the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei leading the admonishments. Enter the unpredictability of a US president’s social media feed. 

The “threatening” Trump was referring to was a speech by Rouhani, in which he outlined Iran's defensive posture and response to American measures. Since the virtual collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and its tepid support by the Europeans, the White House had begun a set of actions Iranian commentators have called a war in all but name.

Firms from France, Germany and South Korea have ceased operations in car manufacturing, oil field development, and engineering for fear of being hit by fresh sanctions. Despite seeking waivers from US sanctions, General Electric and French auto giant Groupe PSA, which produced 440,000 Peugeot and Citroen cars in Iran last year, has pulled out. The purchasing power of ordinary Iranians has precipitately declined – Rouhani has come under fire for visiting a manufacturing plant in an Under Armour tracksuit.

In recent weeks, Rouhani's focus has been twofold. He has tried to encourage the Europeans to keep economic cooperation alive, while also guarding against his conservative opponents, by going rhetorically toe-to-toe with Trump on defence. In his own speech on Sunday, the Iranian president juxtaposed war and peace, in an attempt to communicate that he would be the least of Trump's problems if the US went to war. 

Indeed, in Iran, Rouhani and his fellow reformers are regularly accused of promoting liberalism, secularism and nuclear retreat. Conservative commentators such as Amir Hossein and Ali Motahari have questioned the reformist strategy on opening up to the West. For now, though, Rouhani, despite setbacks, has been able to depend on broad support.

When the Iranian president referred to “Iran's strategic depth being from the Mediterranean in the west to the subcontinent in the east and going north from the caucasus to the Red Sea in the South” he positions himself as the reasonable moderate nationalist. A more conservative Iranian politician would have talked up nuclear enrichment instead.

So while Rouhani has borrowed the language of the hardliners, he has used it more constructively. Meanwhile, through his foreign minister Javad Zarif, Rouhani has made it clear that as far as Iran is concerned, the Europeans must choose between acquiescing to US pressure or respecting international law. Giving the EU the option of war or peace, Iran hopes, will drive a wedge between the already weakened alliance between Europe and the US.

The exact quote that triggered Trump was most likely the line that the: “US must know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peaces and war with Iran is the mother of all wars”. However, the commander-in-chief may have missed the beginning of the section, in which Rouhani presented the battle as one between Trump alone and the Iranian people. Tapping into an enduring sense of Iranian nationalism, predating the 1979 revolution but utilised well by its defenders, he went on to say “the Iranian nation is its own master and will not serve anyone”.

In the weeks after President Trump pulled the US out of the Iran Deal, it seemed that perhaps it could be saved. European officials pledged to salvage the arrangement, even if that meant negotiating new financial incentives for Tehran to stay in the JCPOA, as the deal is known. However, this process has faltered, in part due to the hesitancy of the European Investment Bank.

Hawkish US presidents have often been the best friends of conservative members of the Iranian political class (see George W Bush vs Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). Yet this time, it may be an embattled reformist who receives a few weeks breathing space. A combination of economic and political pressures is making it hard for Iran's moderates to convince Iranians that remaining in the deal is in their best interest. For now, having proved he is strong enough to make Trump furious, Rouhani and his supporters can stick to their plotted course of engagement with the rest of the West.