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Trump's War Of Words With Iran Comes At A Bad Time For Rouhani


Now to a war of words - this one between President Trump and Iran. President Trump recently said that Iran would face consequences if it threatens the U.S. In fact, he tweeted - and specifically to Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani - quote, "never, ever threaten the United States again, or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before" - end quote. But later, President Trump said he'd be willing to meet with Iranian leaders. This all comes at a delicate time for Rouhani. He is considered a pragmatist in Iranian politics, but as he faces challenges from anti-Western hard-liners in Iran, he's taken a harder line himself.

NPR's Peter Kenyon takes a look at Rouhani's balancing act.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: President Hassan Rouhani doesn't have effective control over Iran's military or security apparatus. That lies with hard-liners led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But Rouhani is the public political voice of Iran, and in the face of mounting pressure from Washington, that voice has been sounding a lot more conservative lately.


PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: That's Rouhani making an indirect threat recently to choke off oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz. He also said peace with Iran would be the mother of all peace, but war with Iran would be the mother of all wars. Such comments caused Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps, to tell state TV he wanted to kiss Rouhani's hand. After Trump tweeted that Iran should be careful or face heavy consequences if it threatens the U.S., Soleimani responded with characteristic defiance, saying, quote, "you shouldn't insult our president. Be careful what you say."

Analysts say Rouhani's efforts to carve out a centrist position in the Islamic republic - neither a reformer nor a hard-liner - are becoming less tenable. His immediate problem is the economy. The Iranian currency plunged to record lows since Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear agreement and announced the return of sanctions on Iran.

Analyst Ali Ansari at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland says Rouhani's options are very limited. He says it's not surprising the official reaction to Trump's offer of a meeting has been robust rejection.

ALI ANSARI: Particularly coming from the Revolutionary Guards, who've basically said that there is no way that the Iranian population will allow for any discussions with the Great Satan, and they're very emphatic about that. But, actually, if you look a little bit beneath the surface, you'll see there is some interest in having some sort of discussion, deliberation, negotiation. Whether that will lead to anything is another matter.

KENYON: It's more at the street level where there's some interest in seeing a meeting with the Americans, largely because of the growing economic pressure Iranians find themselves under. Iranian reformers who support Rouhani have long wanted more contact with the West. But Rouhani has turned to the right as he faces constant pressure from hard-liners. Iranian political analyst Reza Haghighatnejad, who's based in Istanbul, says Rouhani's ability to move between those competing pressures has been disrupted by the Trump administration's hostile policies.

REZA HAGHIGHATNEJAD: (Through interpreter) Even if you want to say Rouhani is turning into a hard-liner, you must acknowledge that it was Trump who took Rouhani's more moderate tendencies off the table.

KENYON: As to where that leaves future U.S.-Iran relations, analysts say neither side appears to want a war. But those in Iran who hoped Rouhani could use his second term to reconnect Iran with the global economy are likely to be disappointed. Now, says Haghighatnejad, Iranians see a return to an inward-looking resistance economy, as the supreme leader refers to it. That, he says, is not good news for Rouhani.

HAGHIGHATNEJAD: (Through interpreter) And what we're expecting is for the economy to be more under the influence of the military and security sector - even more than before.

KENYON: In this environment, analysts say, any Rouhani efforts to keep the nuclear deal and Iran's engagement with the West alive are both more important and more difficult than ever.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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