The Sunday Magazine

Trump's actions will only embolden Iran's right-wing populists, says historian

Ervand Abrahamian, perhaps the pre-eminent historian of modern Iran, argues that the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani has strengthened the hand of Iran’s theocratic government. He says the fallout from the assassination will include more anti-Western hardliners and right-wing populists being elected in Iran’s upcoming elections.

Moderates are going to be swept aside in parliamentary elections next month, Ervand Abrahamian says

Iranians march with a banner bearing an illustration of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Major General Qassem Soleimani during a demonstration in Tehran on January 3, 2020 against the killing of the top commander in a US strike in Baghdad. (Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)

It was not long ago that the idea of restoring relations between the United States and Iran actually seemed to be possible.

The year was 2015. And after months of secret and high-level talks, the Iran nuclear deal was reached under Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani. Under that deal, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear work in exchange for limited relief from sanctions. 

The two countries had reached a détente. People in Iran — and around the world — began to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

The world looks like a much different place now. And in times of such chaos and change, history can often be a useful guide — not just for explaining how we got here, but in looking ahead to where we might go next.

Ervand Abrahamian is the pre-eminent historian of modern Iran and first spoke to The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright a year ago, in a special program marking the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

He is a professor emeritus of history at Baruch College at the City University of New York and has authored many books, including The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations.

Following the death of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in an U.S. airstrike, Abrahamian returned to The Sunday Edition to discuss what recent events mean for the upcoming Iranian parliamentary elections and Iran's future relationship with the U.S. 

Here are some highlights from their conversation. Abrahamian's comments have been edited and condensed.

After the assassination of General Soleimani, Iran promised a crushing revenge. What did you make of how Iran has ended up responding?

It was very well-calculated. It was mainly the handiwork of [Javad] Zarif, the foreign minister, and of course [Hassan] Rouhani, the president. They obviously did not want to get into a major confrontation with the United States but they had to do something for the internal public. So they staged this missile attack but made sure that there were no casualties. We now know that before the missile attack they informed the Iraqi prime minister that missiles would be flying over Iraqi territory, as a way of respecting their sovereignty. That would have given time for the United States to actually remove their own people. 

Last year, Iran was going through street demonstrations and some of the dissenters were thrown into jail. Now, it's been said that President Trump has done something that was not possible internally — that it has united Iran. Is that right?

Definitely. The demonstrations for the funeral were unprecedented. I think there will be even more when it's the 40th day of Soleimani's death, which will coincide with the anniversary of the Iranian revolution. So in February, I think you will get major mass meetings and mourning sessions, both for Soleimani and also to commemorate the revolution.

And that will set the stage for something that is quite pessimistic. The elections in the parliament are due in late February. They are usually competitive and actually quite serious. Because of the mood and the perceived danger from abroad, what we call the moderates like Rouhani's candidates, are going to be swept aside by much more diehard, right-wing populists, who never liked the nuclear deal in the first place. They will dominate the parliament and therefore they will actually have a greater role in the cabinet. From that, the setting is very dismal because they will then push for pulling out of the agreement. They could argue that there is no agreement, Trump has already torn it and flushed it down the toilet. So that there is no reason for Iran to abide by a deal that doesn't exist.

Once they do that, especially if they ask the U.N. inspectors to leave, we'll be entering a real serious crisis because then the ball will be in the American court. Are they going to accept that? Or would they have to then go into airstrikes to make sure that the nuclear program doesn't become a nuclear weapons program? So, I think after February, the crisis is going to heat up very seriously.

If Trump is re-elected, I can't see how one can avoid a war between the two countries.- Ervand Abrahamian

Is there anything that the government or the moderates can do to control the far right or to downplay the idea of populism?

In the past their argument was that if we have a deal, we can then enter the world economy, jump start the economy internally, create jobs and get rid of the sanctions. So that was their main trump card. That's gone because of Trump. It has become worse because of the whole threat of war. In that type of mood, it gives trump cards to the right-wing populists.

They will say, "We should never have trusted the Americans. Look what they've done. They're about to attack us anyway. The way of defending ourselves to actually go into a military mode." They may even encourage allies in the region to attack the United States.

So it becomes a different ball game. That's something that those in Washington don't realize: there is politics in Iran. That actions taken in Washington have repercussions in Tehran. And the last thing you want to do is to give fuel to the right-wing populists. This has happened before. Years ago, when Iran had a reformist, President Khatami, he was more eager than ever to get a deal normalized with the United States. Instead Bush gave him a slap in the face and undercut the reformers. That brought in the right-wing populists at that time, which was Ahmedinejad. Then you had eight years of tension between the two countries.

Do you believe that the Americans were facing an imminent threat? Therefore, there was a modicum of justification in the assassination?

Absolutely not. That's the U.S. argument. They have to give an excuse for why they took this action without consulting anyone, especially Congress. So they're saying this was a preemptive strike because Soleimani was about to initiate an attack on the United States. They have provided no evidence. There is actually contradictory evidence, which we have from the prime minister of Iraq. He said right away that Soleimani was in Baghdad. He traveled on a commercial airline to Baghdad at the invitation of the Iraqi government in order to bring an Iranian peace proposal or a negotiating proposal to lower the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

So you could say that Soleimani was on a peace mission rather than a war mission. 

Is there an option that can satisfy the ambitions and expectations of both sides?

I think the rational solution would be to go back to the Obama position and the agreement that was made. But as long as Trump is in the White House, he's not going to accept that. He seems to have a fixation with Iran. So that's not on the table. The only hope is that after the American election we'll have someone in the White House that will return to the Obama policy. But that's a big if. If Trump is re-elected, I can't see how one can avoid a war between the two countries.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.


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