After US President Donald Trump's Middle East tour, it was clear that he seeks to further isolate Tehran, despite all the current sociopolitical changes the country is undergoing. How should Iran's president react?
On his first trip to the Middle East, US President Donald Trump did not help ease the political tension in the region. Right before a landmark presidential election in Iran, Trump visited Saudi Arabia. While Iranians were in the process of re-electing President Hassan Rouhani, and thus signalizing their support for his detente policy, Trump and King Salman of Saudi Arabia were using harsh rhetoric on the other side of the Persian Gulf.
Rouhani hailed the 2015 nuclear deal as a sign of cooperation with the international community while harshly criticizing missile tests conducted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as an unnecessary provocation. The Iranian president and his government are well aware of the fact that calm relations based on trust at a regional and international level are fundamental for economic success and the political, social and cultural opening of the country.
An intensifying conflict
Yet the harsh tone adopted by Riyadh and Washington does not come completely out of the blue. Saudi Arabia is troubled by the fact that Iran has been granted the privilege of enriching a restricted amount of uranium. Also, Iran's influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon has led to an intensification of the conflict between the two countries over regional hegemony. That is why Riyadh is interested in displaying the Iranian threat for the region even more.
Saudi Arabia, however, pays much less attention to comments made by the Iranian president than what Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has to say. It is ultimately unclear to what extent Rouhani will able to push through his detente policy within Iran's power structures.
At the same time, the tension between Riyadh and Tehran plays into Donald Trump's hands. The conflict lays the ground for weapons sales and business deals worth billions with longtime ally Saudi Arabia. The Americans are much less worried about Saudi Arabia than Iran's hostile attitude toward Israel or Tehran's support for extremist groups in the region. In this respect, Donald Trump is much more decisive about pressuring Tehran and showing his solidarity with Israel than his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Support for reforms, but not everywhere
Neither Saudi Arabia, the US nor Israel are willing to acknowledge the signals coming from Iran after the re-election of Rouhani. There are certain political circles in Riyadh and Tel Aviv that would have preferred a victory by hardliners in order to justify the continuation of the confrontational policy towards Iran. Israel, in particular, is constantly ranting about the nuclear deal. Trump himself has often said that he does not think much of the nuclear deal. His opposition to it, however, is not strong enough to make him want to call it off.
Rouhani's difficult road
In the past few days, Rouhani has responded to the aggressive rhetoric with great restraint. He hopes that the EU, in particular, does not share this attitude but rather pays greater attention to the growing moderate forces in the country. The Europeans indeed seem to have distanced themselves from what was said in Riyadh and Jerusalem. In Berlin, Paris and Brussels, it is obvious that this aggressive line will drive Iran to seek stronger ties with Russia and China. Furthermore, an escalation of the conflict would destroy the prospect of a solution to the numerous crises in the region. Iran's geopolitical and economic significance is too great to simply let the country align itself with Europe's rivals.
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European support alone will not help President Rouhani. In order to take the wind out of the sails of Trumps' confrontational course, Rouhani must work towards making fundamental changes in Iran's foreign policy. Important cornerstones are the acknowledgment of the state of Israel and closer cooperation with the other states in the region with regard to the resolution of conflicts in the Middle East. The more Rouhani caters to the wishes of the population, the less a confrontational course with Iran can be justified.