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American-Iranian political tensions will only escalate

Reactions to Mr Trump's victory have differed in Tehran depending on the political camp. Atta Kenare / AFP
Reactions to Mr Trump's victory have differed in Tehran depending on the political camp. Atta Kenare / AFP

Donald Trump’s presidential victory took the world by surprise. Indeed, Mr Trump has created considerable uncertainty in Tehran because he uses tougher language than his predecessor Barack Obama. When Mr Trump warned that Iranian boats will be “shot out of the water” if they “make gestures” at American sailors, he sent an unequivocal message to Iran.

Reactions have differed in Tehran depending on the political camp. While concerns are high among president Hassan Rouhani’s camp (the moderates), the hardliners are more mixed.

The Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has called on Mr Trump to remain committed to the nuclear agreement – and certainly, the president-elect's most recent comments suggest he may consider rowing back a little on his previous pledge to rip up the 2015 deal.

Some hardliners also view Mr Trump’s victory as their own triumph. The argument goes that they have long criticised the nuclear agreement and Mr Rouhani’s administration for handing too many concessions to the West.

But the reality is that Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the senior cadre of the Revolutionary Guards have been extremely cautious about issuing any statement regarding Mr Trump’s victory. Since the establishment of the Islamic republic, Iranian leaders have generally been capable of predicting US presidential policy because those elected to the White House were mainly from the US political establishment.

However, Iran’s cautious recent behaviour originates from what it perceives as Mr Trump’s unpredictable Middle East policy. They are troubled by the possibility that he might become another George W Bush.

It is fair to argue that the foreign policy of the next American administration is going to be the most unpredictable in US history. At the same time we can make several projections based on Mr Trump’s statements regarding Iran.

On the one hand, Mr Trump has clearly voiced his long-held opposition to the nuclear deal. But this does not mean that he will pull the United States out of the nuclear agreement as soon as he gets into the White House. Mr Trump is likely to seek to renegotiate the terms of the deal. However, any US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement is not going to lead to the snapping back of UN sanctions as long as other Security Council members, specifically Russia and China, remain pro-Iranian.

Mr Rouhani stated recently to his cabinet that there is “no possibility” of the nuclear agreement with world powers being overturned by US president-elect Donald Trump: “Iran's understanding in the nuclear deal was that the accord was not concluded with one country or government but was approved by a resolution of the UN Security Council and there is no possibility that it can be changed by a single government.”

However, renegotiating the terms of the deal will more than probably lead to increased tensions and the nuclear deal falling apart.

Addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Mr Trump outlined his policy: “I will adopt a strategy that focuses on three things when it comes to Iran.

“First, we will stand up to Iran’s aggressive push to destabilise and dominate the region.

“Secondly, we will totally dismantle Iran’s global terror network which is big and powerful, but not powerful like us.

“Third, at the very least, we must enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable. And we will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before, folks, believe me.”

There are two other potential and critical venues of future tensions between Tehran and Washington: the Trump administration’s improving ties with Israel and Congress passing unilateral sanctions against Tehran.

More importantly, Mr Trump has also made it clear that Washington should get closer to Tel Aviv.

The nuclear agreement appears likely to fall apart as Iranian leaders will be unwilling to renegotiate terms. Tensions between Iran and the US are only likely to escalate.

Dr Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American political scientist, Harvard University scholar and president of the International American Council

Updated: November 13, 2016 04:00 AM

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