How Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ united hardliners and reformers in Iran
“You have somewhat of a dark past.”
Thusly, Iranian presidential hopeful Hossein Dehghan flung a thinly veiled barb at the person who had for an hour given him a platform for presenting his vision for the country’s future.
Despite the air of civility that permeated the online interview, Dehghan, who addressed Hamzeh Ghalebi by his first name and even called him “my son” at one point, could not help but dredge up the activist’s involvement in the Green protest movement that swept — and split — the country following the widely disputed 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency.
“Was the weather here in our country so disagreeable that you had to leave?” asked the Revolutionary Guards commander sneeringly, fully aware that the prospect of incarceration, not bad weather, had forced the pro-reform activist to choose exile in France. “It had nothing to do with the weather,” replied Ghalebi with a smile.
But apart from the occasional jabs, the interview betrayed little to no perceptible hint that the two men are politically far apart.
Dehghan is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), and has served as a Revolutionary Guards commander as well as defense minister. Currently acting as a defense advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, he is close to Iran’s decision-making structure, in particular its national security apparatus.
In stark contrast to Dehghan, Ghalebi’s relation to Iran’s power structure could only be described as extrinsic. His name has been shackled to Mir Hossein Mousavi, the man who has been under house arrest for having spearheaded the protest movement that emerged in the aftermath of the highly contested 2009 presidential race. At the time, Ghalebi was a top aide in the Mousavi campaign, which had sought to unseat the incumbent Ahmadinejad. To quell the uprising, Ghalebi and scores of other pro-reform figures were rounded up and given lengthy jail terms. He spent two and a half months in prison, two of which were in solitary confinement. Having fled to France in 2010, he was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison for his role in the post-election unrest.
Today, Dehghan can rub shoulders with Iran’s Supreme Leader. And although his chances of winning are slim, he can in theory run for one of the highest public offices in the Islamic Republic. The highest public office Ghalebi can hope to occupy upon return to Iran is a cramped jail cell in the famous Evin Prison, or, if he is even less fortunate, solitary confinement.
Their vastly opposing political affiliations and radically unequal access to state power notwithstanding, neither the tone nor content of their largely amicable exchange suggested any irreconcilable disagreement between them.
Despite the wide gaps in views between these two figures, they would come to agreement when discussing Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy. At times, their views on this and related issues would converge so much that one would be forgiven for mistaking the exiled pro-democracy activist for a defense advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Going on the offensive, Ghalebi would press Khamenei’s aide on why Iran had offered so many nuclear concessions to world powers without seeing the economic and diplomatic dividends it had been promised under the 2015 nuclear deal, or the JCPOA.
Dehghan defended Iran’s stance, including its decision to enter the deal: “our conduct was based on principles, [our] interests, logic, reason, the law, and ethical considerations.”
But this, according to Ghalebi, was a key problem with the JCPOA. “This is precisely one of the flaws of the JCPOA. I do not understand, when we one-sidedly gave the U.S. everything it wanted, including the shipment of uranium abroad, what incentive did the U.S. have to meet its obligations?”
The commander, for his part, conceded that Iran had been wrong to rush into the negotiations that led to the JCPOA and to trust the other parties to the deal.
Reflecting the mounting Iranian frustration over Trump’s sanctions and President Joe Biden’s failure thus far to fulfill his campaign promise to re-enter the JCPOA, Ghalebi asked how Dehghan intended to break the impasse over the deal if he were to be president.
“How are we to act right now?” he asked. “We were negotiating with them for a couple of years. We waited for a few years for them to implement the deal. Then they left the deal for a couple of years. And then we waited for the Democrats to reenter the deal, which they have yet to do [under Biden].”
The rally around the flag effect was on full display when U.S. and Israeli military operations against Iran were discussed, with Ghalebi expressing his dismay at what he perceived to be Iran’s toothless response to the assassination of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and revered military figure Major General Qassem Soleimani, as well as Israel’s repeated airstrikes on Iranian forces in Syria (the interview took place prior to the recent attack on Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz). “Israel assassinated our nuclear scientist on our soil. America assassinated the country’s general … Israel pounds our forces directly in Syria, and we haven’t done anything about it.”
It’s one thing for a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and the IRGC, not to mention a senior advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, to espouse hawkish views on foreign policy. It’s quite another for a pro-democracy activist to criticize Iran’s ruling elites of naively trusting the United States and appearing weak on defense. An activist, one might add, with a five-year prison sentence hanging over his head.
Though anecdotal, the views espoused by Ghalebi, who has supported the deal, are to a great extent reflective of a palpable mood swing within Iran’s pro-reform camp after four years of Trump. A camp, one should add, traditionally viewed as being more open to engagement with the West.
That some of the most democratic voices in Iran should harbor suspicions towards engagement with the West, and in particular the United States, should be a matter of profound concern for policymakers hoping to hold future talks with Iran on a whole host of issues, chief amongst them the nuclear dossier. For if skepticism characterizes the attitude among factions traditionally seen as sympathetic to constructive engagement with the West, it takes little intellectual effort or imagination to appreciate how hardened Iranian public opinion has become during the Trump years, especially on national security and foreign policy. Biden’s failure thus far to lift sanctions and ensure the nuclear deal’s long-term survival has fueled cynicism across the political board, irrespective of views on democratic development.
This is in stark contrast to the mood in both the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections when the internal debate over foreign policy gravitated towards engagement with the West, in particular on the nuclear program. Indeed, Hassan Rouhani, who ultimately won both elections, had campaigned on a promise to thaw relations with the West and argued in favor of negotiating directly with the Untied States, which he had likened to the “the village head.” “It’s easier to deal with the village head directly,” he said.
None of this suggests that the political and social fissures revealed during the 2009 election have been fully eliminated. National priorities may be reshuffled owing to external pressure, but they are unlikely to dissolve unless adequately addressed. Indeed, when Dehghan broached Ghalebi’s “dark past” towards the end of their interview, he was promptly reminded that the rally around the flag effect alone cannot overwrite the reformist accounts of the 2009 uprising.
“My past,” Ghalebi grinned back unrepentantly, “was about protesting the results of the  elections.”