Rouhani Celebrates 'End' of Trump, but the Forces That Drove His Iran Campaign Remain

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has celebrated what he called "the end of the political life" of Donald Trump, whose term in office ends on Wednesday.

Iran has loomed over Trump's presidency, with the commander in chief withdrawing from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal and embarking on a "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran in an unsuccessful effort to force the regime to negotiate a more restrictive JCPOA replacement.

Joe Biden wants to reopen dialogue with Tehran and revive the JCPOA, using it as a base for future negotiations to try to limit Iran's ballistic missile program and its use of regional proxy forces. The new president is expected to return the U.S. to compliance with the deal quickly and lift at least some of the punishing American sanctions on the country.

"We expect those in power in the White House to return to the rule of law," Rouhani said on Wednesday, according to the Mehr News Agency. "Of course, if they return to the law, our answer will be positive," he said of Iran resuming compliance with the nuclear deal. "It became clearer to the world and to our nation that the policy of maximum pressure and economic terrorism against Iran has failed 100 percent."

But Biden and Rouhani will have to overcome domestic and international opposition to a diplomatic thaw between their two countries, while powerful Iran hawks in the U.S. push for more aggressive tactics and even military action against Tehran.

Depending on what the outgoing president does next, Biden and the Iranian regime may still have to overcome criticism and disinformation from Trump.

Biden and his top foreign policy aides have been open about their desire to resurrect the deal and Iranian leaders have expressed their willingness to return to compliance.

On Tuesday, Biden's nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told senators that the incoming president "believes that if Iran comes back into compliance, we would too."

He added, however: "We are a long way from there," explaining that the Biden administration would have to "evaluate whether they were actually making good if they say they are coming back into compliance with their obligations, and then we would take it from there."

The GOP senators questioning Blinken gave an indication of the arguments the right will use to undermine a return to the nuclear deal. Sen. Ted Cruz suggested that lifting sanctions would allow billions of dollars to flow via Tehran to terrorist groups across the Middle East. Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Blinken whether he agreed—he did—that Iran is the single biggest sponsor of terrorism.

President Barack Obama had to overcome significant domestic opposition to the JCPOA in 2015 and it is likely Biden will have to do the same, though he will have the benefit of controlling both houses of Congress.

American allies in Europe will welcome the U.S. return to the deal, but some powerful Middle Eastern partners will not. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in particular stand opposed to the JCPOA. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already spoken out against Biden's plans.

Even if Biden manages to marshal the U.S. back into the agreement, there is no guarantee that American allies will not take their own action against Iran, which several nations in the region consider an existential threat.

Israeli operatives are believed to have assassinated multiple Iranian scientists and sabotaged nuclear sites over the past decade, while cyber-attacks and air strikes have also been used to undermine Iranian nuclear progress. Israel might notify the Biden administration before such an attack or might not, or may proceed having been given White House approval.

Trump will no doubt continue to rail against Biden as a private citizen, whether his social media accounts remain blocked or not. The president's future remains an open question, with speculation he may run again in 2024, become a Republican kingmaker or set up his own right-wing media organization to challenge Fox News.

Whatever happens, Trump and former administration officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence will likely push back on American re-engagement with Iran. In Pompeo and Pence's cases, they may do so in preparation for future runs at the Senate or the White House.

In Iran, the nuclear deal's proponents will be battling their own conservatives. The collapse of the JCPOA, the assassinations of Major General Qassem Soleimani and nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and the relentless sanctions have already empowered the hardliners, who warned of potential American duplicity in 2015.

Conservatives swept the board in last year's parliamentary elections and a hardliner—perhaps even from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—is expected to win the race to replace the moderate Rouhani when his term ends this summer.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has been lukewarm on the prospect of JCPOA revival, instead directing his regime to find ways to nullify sanctions and resist American pressure.

Rouhani, then, has a small window to come to terms with Biden. His government is already facing parliamentary pressure to stand firm against the U.S. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was condemned by lawmakers this week for signalling he is open to talks.

On Wednesday, Zarif denied that Iran's United Nations envoy Majid Takht-Ravanchi had been in contact with the Biden team; another sign of how Rouhani's administration is having to navigate anti-Americanism at home.

For all their public support for the JCPOA, Biden officials such as Blinken are framing the potential return to compliance as a slow deliberate process, not part of the new president's planned flurry of executive orders on day one.

At her confirmation hearing, Biden's pick for director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, said a decision on the JCPOA was not imminent. She said the president-elect "has indicated that if Iran were to come back into compliance, that he would direct that we do so as well. And I think, frankly, that we are a long ways from that."

Capitol pictured on inauguration day Joe Biden
This photo shows the U.S Capitol building ahead of the inauguration ceremony for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts