As Trump Takes Aim, Iranians Vote for More Engagement
While President Trump used his Middle East trip to denounce Iran and sell weapons to its Saudi Arabian rival, author and scholar Nahid Siamdoust of Yale University says Iranian voters delivered an overwhelming endorsement of deeper engagement with the world
AARON MATE: It’s the real news. I’m Aaron Mate. President Donald Trump has wrapped up his trip to the Middle East. His first stop in Saudi Arabia cemented a massive arms deal. Then in Israel, he vowed to seek peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but offered no plan. As he spoke of peace, he also tied it to confronting Iran.
DONALD TRUMP: Israelis and Palestinians can make a deal, but even as we work toward peace we will build strength to defend our nation. The United States is firmly committed to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and halting their support of terrorists and malicious. We are telling you right now that Iran will not have nuclear weapons.
AARON MATE: This comes just as Iranians have re-elected president Hassan Rouhani who seeks greater engagement with the west, but after Trump’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia, that goal seems increasingly out of reach. Joining me is Nahid Siamdoust, a fellow and lecturer at Yale UNiversity’s Macmillan Center for International and Area Studies. She is the author of Soundtrack of the Revolution – The Politics of Music in Iran. Nahid, welcome.
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Thank you.
AARON MATE: A lot to talk about. I’m wondering if we can start with that comment from Trump that we just heard. He’s in Israel and talking about peace between Israel and the Palestinians but then immediately pivoting to Iran and seeming to tie Middle East peace towards increasingly confronting Tehran.
NAHID SIAMDOUST: That’s right. Trump on this trip more than anything seemed to have wanted to rebalance the security balance in the Middle East that president Obama had really tried to change things around by bringing Iran into the fold so to speak by having the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 which gave Iran more of a responsible role in the region to see them as an actor that acts rationally and can be part of the equation. In one of his last interviews to the Atlantic, president Obama really explained the [inaudible 00:02:33] doctrine by saying that the Saudis needed to learn to share the neighborhood with their neighbors. That Iran and Saudi Arabia needed to really learn to get along.
Iran has been a thorn in the eye of the Saudis and also the Israelis because ever since the Iran nuclear deal but also long before, the Israelis have used the Iranian threat as a reason to distract away from their own abysmal treatment of the Palestinians. The fact that there’s still no peace treaty after nearly 70 years of the Israeli state and so for Trump to mention Iran within the context of Israeli Palestinian peace is really part in parcel of the mission of his trip which is to say there’s a new guy in the White House and my policy is going to be different from Barack Obama’s. I’m going to take things back to before the time of Obama’s presidency and you now have a strong man in the White House who will support you and we need to deal with the Iranian threat, basically taking things back.
AARON MATE: Let’s hone in on what really is different because while Obama made those comments that you mentioned about Saudi Arabia and Iran sharing the region and he also of course oversaw the nuclear deal, he still at the same time sold Saudi Arabia more than $100 billion of weapons which Trump is also doing now. Is this really a big change from Obama?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: It’s true. In fact, Obama also gave some of the biggest aid package to Israel right before he left office. Rhetoric matters. Presenting Iran within the region as the enemy number one basically that needs to be dealt with is a completely different doctrine on the Middle East than what has existed prior to that and what Trump is bringing back. The Saudi Coalition has been engaged in targeting civilians in Yemen and it’s [inaudible 00:04:32] war against Iran and some of the weaponry that’s been found in these attacks have been determined US weaponry and human rights watch in fact has declared many of these attacks on civilians from both sides to be crimes against humanity.
Trump has a weapons deal with Saudi Arabia. Obama did too, but after the attack in December last year on a funeral in which 140 civilians died, Obama basically said that they would no longer allow the Saudis to buy precision guided heavy bombs which basically means there are these bombs that divide into many little bombs and so they can blanket bomb vast areas. Trump in his deal with the Saudis has made no restrictions on the kinds of weaponry that the US will sell the Saudis. In the end, not that it makes much of a difference. What it comes down to is that many of these weapons will be used to kill civilians. Iran is accused of being a state sponsor of terrorism. It arms its owns rebels and forces in the region in order to defend its power in the region.
That’s called state sponsorship of terrorism, but when the US freely hands out weapons in a situation that’s clearly very dangerous, that’s not called state sponsorship of terrorism and part because it is to aid the governments that are in place, but the effect on civilian life is the same.
AARON MATE: Let’s go to the Iranian election. Hassan Rouhani oversaw the historic nuclear deal and he campaigned in part on increasing engagement between Iran and the world, but it’s said that in Iran, foreign policy decisions are ultimately in the hands of the supreme leader. Does Rouhani’s overwhelming election hand him more of a mandate to engage Iran further with the rest of the world?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Absolutely. Foreign policy is not just in the hands of the supreme leader in Iran. It is a policy that is arrived at by many different factions and the president has a great role to play in that. If the supreme leader, let’s say it’s really in the hands of the supreme leader. If he hadn’t wanted the nuclear deal to happen, then supposedly it wouldn’t have happened, but it did happen. It did have the support of a large majority of Iranians and as the elections just a few days ago have shown, still does.
Iranians want to engage with the world. Iran is not a country like Saudi Arabia. Iran is a fairly open country. Fairly equal society as far as education is concerned among men and women. Majority of Iranians are young. The majority of university students are female. A majority of Iranians are connected to the internet. They know what’s happening in the world and they want to have better relations with the world and the fact that Rouhani was re-elected is yet again a signal by the Iranian people that that is the path that they want to take and the path of civic engagement of coming in again and once again expressing the kind of politics and foreign policy that they would like to have as a nation.
AARON MATE: Let me play for you some more comments from the Trump administration. First Donald Trump speaking and then Rex Tillerson, both during this trip to the Middle East.
DONALD TRUMP: There is a growing realization among your Arab neighbors that they have common cause with you and the threat posed by Iran and it is indeed a threat. There is no question about that.
REX TILLERSON: We will continue to take action to make it clear to Iran when their behavior is unacceptable. We will be dealing with Iran in the economic sanction front and we will be dealing with Iran in these countries where they have decided to put their presence militarily.
AARON MATE: Nahid, how do you think the Iranian government responds to this kind of rhetoric? You have Tillerson talking about we’re going to respond to them where they are making their presence militarily and Trump saying that Israel and the Arab neighbors have a common threat, Iran. How does the Iranian government respond to that?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Well, President Rouhani’s first reaction to this was that it was ironic that this should come from a speech by the US President in a place that’s basically never seen elections, Saudi Arabia–Made the –made a similar remark. To them, this is baffling. Iranians have just elected a moderate president who wants to open up Iran to the world. Continue the path that he’s gone for the last four years and right on the heels of this election, the US president completely ignores the masses of Iranians who went out to vote to cast their ballot for this opening to the world for better relations and completely ignores the masses and admonishes them like children of a country who are worse off than the place from which he spoke, Saudi Arabia which as I said again does not even have a constitution. It’s an absolute monarchy. To them this was really baffling.
AARON MATE: Were you surprised at the scale of Rouhani’s victory? Turn out with something like 73%. Over 40 million votes were cast and not too long before the election, it was appearing or at least it was thought to be that this election was quite close.
NAHID SIAMDOUST: That’s true. In fact, it looked like many of the conservative power centers in Iran including Iran’s television and radio and many believe the supreme leader himself supported Raisi, the conservative candidate and yet the majority on this is not just an urban phenomenon now that the numbers are coming in from the provinces. Rouhani was elected by a majority even in provinces and smaller towns and by working and poor districts of Iran. This was not just a middle class phenomenon. It was surprising to some but not to those who have been watching.
What was surprising was that Iranians once again came out and partook in a … I’m sorry, I’m going to have to do that sentence again.
AARON MATE: No worries.
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Yeah. Can I go?
AARON MATE: Go ahead?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: To people who’ve been observing Iran for a long time, they’ve been engaged in doing their civic duty for more than a century. Iran had a a constitutional revolution in 1906 before many European countries and they’ve re-engaged their very political population and they once again came to the ballot boxes to show their preference and it has been noted by many observers that this really points us to this long process, the long game of Iranian politics where the citizens have decided that staying back and not participating in the elections doesn’t really in the end serve their purposes.
What they need to do is stay engaged and bit by bit create a crack in Iran’s authoritarian system toward greater openings, both internally and externally to the world.
AARON MATE: Nahid, on the issue of Iranian engagement, I’m wondering what all these developments mean for the green movement. This mass movement that we saw in 2009 when scores of Iranians took to the streets demanding democratic reforms. Rouhani has said that he needed a strong mandate to be able to free those opposition leaders who are still under house arrest. I’m wondering if you could talk about what this election means for them? Also, what happens internally in Iran when you have someone like Donald Trump and his administration and their allies making such harsh bellicose statements towards Iran? How that affects the internal dynamic of Iran.
NAHID SIAMDOUST: The green movement leaders have been adopted so to speak by Rouhani. During his first term, he was a little more tepid in his support of them, but during these elections he realized that in order to get the votes, he needed to swerve a little more left in order to respond to the demands of the Iranian electorate. The green movement really became part in parcel of these elections and the masses of people that appeared in election rallies were purple, the color of Rouhani as well as green. Some of these gatherings the songs of the green movement were played as well. They kind of became one thing. It’s this movement for reform. I forgot your question.
AARON MATE: Okay. Okay wait. It’s a movement for reform. That’s okay. I’ll just pick up on my second part here and keep going. In terms of bellicose statements coming from Trump and his allies-
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Oh right.
AARON MATE: No. Listen. What I’ll do is I’ll just ask it again. It’ll be an easier edit.
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Okay.
AARON MATE: In terms of what bellicose statements from Trump and his allies towards Iran mean for Iran’s green movement and those who seek greater democracy inside Iran?
NAHID SIAMDOUST: It doesn’t really help the moderates and reformists in Iran because sooner than later, the conservatives in Iran, the hard line factions will come forward and say, “Look. You can’t oppose bellicose United States like this. A US president who’s garnering the support of everyone in the region against Iran with a moderate government who wants to basically shake hands and make peace. Sooner or later this is going to harm Rouhani and it’s a real shame because the Irani nuclear deal was a huge achievement and for that to have happened, both internally for–to have been green lighted and for the US to have been able to and the other world powers have been able to achieve that, that huge achievement basically means that Iran will not build a nuclear bomb.
Well, Trump was just in Israel saying we will never allow Iran to have a nuclear bomb. That’s what the Iran nuclear deal is for. Trump’s stance has gone back on the promises on this new agreement, this huge achievement and that will embolden the conservatives in Iran.
AARON MATE: Well, Nahid Siamdoust, a fellow and lecturer at Yale University’s Macmillan Center for International and Area Studies and author of soundtrack … Sorry. I’ll do this again. Well, Nahid. We want to thank you for joining us. Nahid Siamdoust is a fellow and lecturer at Yale University’s Macmillan Center for International and Area studies. She is the author of Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran. Nahid, thank you.
NAHID SIAMDOUST: Thank you, Aaron.
AARON MATE: Thank you for joining us on the real news.