Following the nuclear deal with Iran last July, there was a sense of hope in Washington and Western capitals that the three-decades-old animosity between Tehran and the United States would dissipate, and that the moderate camp who championed the agreement would be strengthened. Four months later, this sentiment is largely disrupted as Iran’s revolutionary guards redraw the old lines of escalation with the United States by taking more prisoners, humiliating the moderates and ramping up their regional role.
Iran's latest detention of U.S. resident and Lebanese tech professional Nizar Zakka and Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi resets the clock internally to the pre- Hassan Rowhani and Jawad Zarif victory in Vienna, and sends a clear signal that the hardliners are still in charge and are clenching their fist towards the West. Regionally, the hardliners have also staged a comeback post-nuclear deal with their celebrated General Qassem Soleimani visiting Russia twenty days after the agreement, and dispatching his proxies thereafter to Syria and Iraq.
The message from the hardliners, three months before the Iran’s legislative elections, is the bad blood with the United States won’t fade away with business opportunities and nuclear understandings in place, and that Tehran’s bellicose regional role won’t be restrained by its openness to the West.
From Bahrain to Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, the post-nuclear deal Middle East is witnessing a deeper polarization between Tehran and its Arab neighbors.Joyce Karam
Political and economic red flags
In the aftermath of the nuclear deal, many U.S. businesses including Apple and Boeing showed interest in the Iranian market and that the diplomatic detente would open the doors of a vibrant consumer’s market. Not so fast is the response from Iran’s hardliners who intend with the arrest of Namazi particularly to disincentivize the U.S. business community from entering Iran.
The two arrests also humiliate the moderate camp in Iran who was behind inviting and building bridges with both Zakka and Namazi. The Lebanese professional was invited to Iran by the vice president for Women and Family Affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, while Namazi was a leading advocate for rapprochement between U.S. and Iran and ardent supporter of the deal. Their arrest is a slap in the face for the Rowhani camp, and a rude awakening for the West on who is calling the shots inside Iran. In a nutshell, the hardliners are making the case that the bet on the moderates could end you up in jail in Iran, and that rebalancing the internal politics in their favor can not be restrained by the West.
Zakka and Namazi now join three other U.S. prisoners in Iran: Saeed Abedini, Jason Rezaian, and Amir Hekmati. Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter, was handed a “guilty verdict” last month by a secretive Revolutionary court and could face up to 20 years in jail. While the Obama administration officials stress their efforts to release the U.S. prisoners, Iran is publicly defying Washington by detaining more Americans.
Iran’s hardliners' dance is not only on display domestically but is also happening in full force on the regional front where the IRGC is flexing more muscle since July. From Bahrain to Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, the post-nuclear deal Middle East is witnessing a deeper polarization between Tehran and its Arab neighbors, and a more fierce confrontation in the proxy battlefields.
In Bahrain, and on several instances following the nuclear deal the last one being in September, explosives smuggled by boats from Iran were reportedly seized by the Bahraini authorities. While in Syria, Soleimani's trip to Moscow twenty days following the deal, laid the groundwork for the Russian air offensive supported by Iranian backed proxies on the ground in Aleppo and near Latakia.
In Iraq, more photos of Soleimani surfaced from Beiji last month while visiting pro-Iranian militias that are fighting ISIS. Iran is also using its influence to block attempts to form a tribal Sunni force funded by the Iraqi government against ISIS. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told a Senate committee last week that “[Iraqi Prime Minister] Abadi does not have complete sway over what happens in Iraq.”
Interestingly as well, Hezbollah's rhetoric against the United States has dramatically escalated following the nuclear deal. In his last speech, the Secretary General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah lambasted the United States policies in the region, accusing Washington of waging “ a new war, a war on everyone who refused to submit to its hegemonic domination." No breakthroughs are on the horizon in Lebanon as well in electing a President or bridging the political divide.
Whether the hardliners' comeback will last in Iran is contingent on the parliamentary elections and the wishes of the Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. During the nuclear negotiations with the West, it was the Supreme Leader’s authority that gave Rowhani and Zarif the mandate to negotiate a deal. This mandate does not appear to have been granted to the moderates on regional issues and is being marginalized domestically by the hardliners.
Maintaining the animosity towards the U.S. that has charged the revolution since 1979 is still the tool of the trade for the hardliners in Iran. The IRGC is making the point through prisoners and proxies that Obama's handshake with Zarif in New York can not translate into business as usual in Iran.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam