“Trump’s plan is working”

Donald Trump wants to force a regime change in Iran. But with new sanctions and the killing of top general Soleimani, hardliners in particular are being strengthened. Many Iranians feel cheated.

After the targeted killing of top general Ghassem Soleimani, a military conflict between Iran and the USA seemed to be on the horizon – this is now off the table for the time being after mutual signals of d├ętente. In the Islamic Republic itself, however, the US drone attack is still having a strong impact. Many continue to talk of retaliation and blood, diplomacy has become a dirty word for some. After seven years of political absence, the hardliners and arch-conservative forces that were opposed to President Hassan Ruhani’s reform course from the outset are now back in control. The reformers, on the other hand, are at a loss.

This trend is unlikely to be changed by the spontaneous protests that broke out following the apparently accidental shooting down of a passenger plane with 176 mainly Iranian fatalities. The demonstrators are outraged by the Revolutionary Guards responsible for this and also by the leadership clique of the regime, which is controlled by Islamic clergymen, because they only admitted the fatal shooting after days of denial.

Presidential election next year

But the few hundred demonstrators do not currently represent the political majority in the state with its 80 million inhabitants. Parliamentary elections are already taking place in February, and renowned reformers have not even taken part. Observers therefore expect a clear victory for the reform opponents. An expected coalition of hardliners and arch-conservatives in parliament could then have a strong influence on the outcome of next year’s presidential elections. Their top candidate, whoever it may be, is already considered the favourite for the presidential post. A political scientist in Tehran therefore sums up: “The plan of (US President Donald) Trump and his people to force a regime change in Iran has worked – just in the wrong direction.

This all looked very different when President Ruhani took office in 2013. He promised reconciliation with the West, and two years later, with the Vienna nuclear agreement, he implemented this promise. Politically and economically, the God-state was on the way to international reintegration. Much was also to change in domestic politics, especially after the reformers’ good results in the 2016 parliamentary elections. Even political prisoners were to be released and more freedom of opinion and of the press was to be allowed.

“But then came this trump,” says the former Iranian ambassador in Berlin, Ali Madshedi, looking back today. First the Republican arranged for America’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal, then draconian sanctions. The oil-rich country was suddenly plunged into a severe political and economic crisis, and the currency was worth only half as much in a very short time. The president’s moderate course was quickly ridiculed by critics – and also by his own supporters.

“Credibility has no meaning anymore”

The situation is also bad with regard to the nuclear deal that was worked out over the years to keep Iran away from nuclear weapons and guarantee the country’s economic development. He was the pride of Ruhani and his chief diplomat Mohammed Dschawad Sarif. Now, after the USA’s turning away and the recent escalation, Iran no longer wants to comply with the technical requirements, especially not with the limitation of uranium enrichment. “The deal is virtually in the intensive care unit,” says Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi. In fact, the agreement now only exists on paper. The remaining partners – China, Germany, France, Great Britain and Russia – support the deal, but are unable to implement it without the US. “With political support alone we can’t buy anything,” Ruhani explains the de facto withdrawal.

Another disappointment over the weekend was the admission that Iran was responsible for the shooting down of the Ukrainian passenger plane, which came as a surprise to many. The Iranians feel betrayed by Ruhani’s government, which talked for days about a technical defect and vehemently denied the shooting down of the plane. “Credibility no longer has any meaning with this government,” an angry Iranian wrote on Twitter.

The political scientist sees the conservative forces in charge in the face of the disappointment that has accumulated over the years. “The frustration of the Iranians will already show itself next month,” he predicts. According to polls, only around 20 percent of citizens are likely to take part in the parliamentary elections on February 21, but they will probably come mainly from the hardline camp. Many who hope for fundamental change are likely to stay at home. “If only faces change and not the political