Anti-Intellectualism and the Iran Deal

One theme of the Trump era, first in the campaign and then in the White House, has been the degree to which the president, his administration, and his supporters have rejected expert advice. Be it on climate change, healthcare, or foreign policy, they appear extremely suspicious of, if not openly hostile toward, “know-it-all” intellectuals telling them what policies best solve certain problems.

This contempt for expertise has prompted a broader national discussion about the prevalence of anti-intellectualism in American political thought. Some pundits even declared that we were living in the early stages of a real-life Idiocracy, a reference to Mike Judge’s 2006 film about an ordinary man who wakes up several hundred years in the future to find the country has devolved into a moronic dystopia where Carl’s Jr. is the only restaurant and the most popular movie in America is just a 90-minute closeup of a butt.

These analogies are partially valid — Trump did attempt to nominate Andrew Puzder, the CEO of Carl’s Jr., to his cabinet — but they also miss a critical point: anti-intellectualism in America is nothing new. In fact, it’s been around since before the country even existed.

I was recently looking for a new book to read in my spare time when I spotted Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Hofstadter was one of this country’s preeminent historians. He wrote extensively on the political and social history of America and served as a mentor to many other great scholars, among them Eric Foner, whose writing on race and political history is equally prescient for the modern era.

Hofstadter is perhaps best remembered today for his essay “The Paranoid Style of American Politics,” first published in Harper’s magazine in 1964, the same year that Anti-Intellectualism came out. The essay has become something of a favorite citation for those looking for parallels between our current politics and the American past. Hofstadter’s motivation for writing both the essay and the book was based on the hysteria he observed in the country during the early years of the Cold War when Wisconsin Senator Joeseph McCarthy employed scare tactics to incite a national panic over possible communist infiltration of the government.

In Anti-Intellectualism, Hofstadter traces the origins of anti-intellectual rhetoric back to the pre-history of America. He describes in great detail how the religious refugees who fled England for the new world and their evangelical descendants were in large part responsible for developing and incubating this particular strain of non-thought. In other words, anti-intellectualism isn’t just a passing fad, nor is it an unintended consequence of some aspect of our modern epoch. Rather, it is deeply woven into the fabric of the American society.

Applying this to the nominal subject of this blog, it’s not hard to see how anti-intellectualism has become something of a virtue in discussing Iran. For the common civilian, this usually boils down to simple statements like, “Iran thinks the U.S. is the Great Satan,” or Iran is run by “mad mullahs.” Who needs some jackass with a Ph.D. talking about the long and complex history of Persian nationalism, or the inner workings of the Iranian government and its various political rivalries, or America’s role in the 1953 coup d’etat that toppled Iran’s democratically elected government to reimpose a friendly dictator? It’s far easier just to label them all fanatical zealots who hate America and move on, isn’t it? Iran hates America. Always has, always will. Didn’t you see the sign?


This is clearly what Donald Trump believes. The decertification of the Iran deal this past week was based entirely on these kinds of falsehoods, misconceptions, and oversimplifications. In explaining his rationale — if you can even call it that — for decertification, Trump cited the money being “given” to Iran as a result of sanctions relief, its now supposedly easy path to a nuclear weapon, and topped it all off by accusing it of being a “terrorist nation.”

But again, these ideas aren’t unique to Trump. They are ALL things we’ve heard before. There was a belief among opponents of the deal that Iran would use any financial gains from the removal of sanctions to fund global terrorism. This, of course, ignores the fact that the money was Iran’s to begin with — the U.S. was simply returning it — and neglects any consideration that Iran might have other economic priorities besides senseless violence. Also, there are still plenty of people out there who are convinced that Iran is already cheating or will eventually cheat on its commitment to a deal. All this because they’re Iranians, and that’s what Iranians do.

If Congress reimposes sanctions on Iran, I have no doubt they will be motivated by similar biases or prejudices. The Republican Party has, at this point, all but given in to the cult of the untruth, and there are at least a few Democratic legislators who have demonstrated a willingness to embrace misrepresentations of the deal’s intent.

Will they, unlike Trump, be willing to listen to the unending chorus of experts urging the United States to stick to the deal as written, or will they succumb to their natural inclination toward willful ignorance? If history is any indication, I’d bet on the latter.

Life After Decertification

After hinting at it for the last three months, it seems likely that President Trump will decertify the Iran nuclear deal sometime in the coming week or two ahead of the October 15 deadline. As pretty much everyone who knows anything about Iran and nuclear proliferation has already pointed out, this is a terrible idea. It’s not worth the effort to rehash those arguments again here in the vain hope that Trump comes to his senses before he makes the announcement, so rather than waste time and mental energy, let’s take a look at what life might look like after decertification.

It is important to remember up front that Trump’s decertification of Iranian compliance with the deal does not actually signal U.S. withdrawal from the accord. Instead, it shifts the onus for action to the U.S. Congress, where lawmakers will have to decide whether or not to take any concrete action on Iran in light of the President’s assessment. They could, as several commentators have already pointed out, do nothing. This would essentially give Trump his temper tantrum moment without actually changing any of the facts regarding the deal. This is probably the best-case scenario.

The real questions start if the Republican-controlled Congress decides to reintroduce nuclear sanctions as a result of Trump’s decision. This would effectively end U.S. participation in the deal, but it would not necessarily mean an end to the deal itself. Iran has been signaling for several weeks that it intends to remain in the deal as long as the rest of the signatories, and especially Europe, do so as well. At that point, attention will shift to Europe. EU leaders will face a difficult choice of whether to go along with the United States and walk away from the deal or stay the course and maintain their commitment to it. If the former, they will likely have to reintroduce sanctions in line with those levied by the U.S. They will also have to cut off many of the budding business ties between European companies and Iran established following implementation of the deal. If this happens, Iran will no doubt take some sort of retaliatory action, which could include restarting development of its nuclear program, possibly with an eye towards building a bomb.

(As a footnote — I’m ignoring the idea of “renegotiation” of the deal. This is more a rhetorical fantasy for Trump than an actual potentiality. Pretty much everyone outside of Trump and his cohort has rejected it.)

The final possibility is if Europe decides to maintain its commitment to the deal despite U.S. withdrawal and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions against Iran. In this scenario, the question then becomes what the U.S. will do to Europe if it continues to pursue business and economic ties with the Iranians. Even under the present circumstances, non-nuclear related sanctions make it nearly impossible for U.S. companies to do business in Iran, so most of the economic benefits Iran is accruing under the deal are the result of new European ventures. These could be at risk if the United States decides to enforce its sanctions by punishing companies that do business with Iran by, for example, cutting them off from the U.S. financial system. Faced with an either-or choice between investment in Iran or access to U.S. finance, most European companies will probably choose the latter.

(It’s worth noting that there are also significant Asian ventures, including massive Chinese investment in Iranian industry and infrastructure, but these are less susceptible to U.S. pressure.)

Coincidentally, the fourth annual Europe-Iran Forum is taking place in Zurich right now. From initial reports, it sounds like the atmosphere is a mixture of uncertainty and optimism. European companies are eager to do business in Iran, and their respective governments are extremely supportive of those efforts, but uncertainty about what actions the United States will take in the coming weeks and months means many are hesitant about making any significant investments in the country.

For now, Iran is in a holding pattern. For as long as Trump has been a political figure, Iran has never had much of a problem blowing off his bloviating rhetoric. They have allowed him his tirades against them without much retaliatory action as long as the U.S. continued its commitment to the nuclear deal and allowed them to develop economic ties with the rest of the world.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gave a revealing interview to Politico this week in which he discussed the decertification debate and Iran’s future intentions. Interestingly, he described the situation as an “internal” U.S. affair, noting that the deal is actually a U.N. Security Council Resolution and is therefore not really dependent on Congressional approval. He also mocked the U.S. President, calling him out for his affinity for “alternative facts” and pointing out how Trump’s anti-Iran posture has actually helped bolster Iran’s standing in the international arena. When asked whether Iran would walk away from the deal if Trump did decide to decertify, Zarif responded, “No, no, no,” insisting that Iran would wait to see what Congress and Europe decide to do.

Whether or not he’s still smiling in a few weeks will depend on those decisions.

Talking Iran in DC

Last week, The Atlantic Council introduced its new project focusing on Iranian influence in the Middle East. The Atlantic Council is a widely respected think tank and does some excellent work on Iran, but you won’t even need to read past the title of this new series to know that this isn’t going to be an example of policy excellence.

The project, “Pushback: Exposing and Countering Iran,” is a product of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. It debuted last Thursday, August 14, with a two-panel launch event at the Atlantic Council’s Washington, DC, headquarters near McPherson Square. I was in attendance.

If you thought the Atlantic Council’s reputation would prevent this event from devolving into a demonization of Iran based on old stereotypes and sweeping assumptions, well, you’d be wrong. According to the announcement, “This series examines the drivers, prospects, and constraints underpinning Iran’s efforts to undermine US policy in the Middle East and restructure the regional order to its liking.”

It would take too long to go through all the problems and bad assumptions associated with this project, in general, and these panels, in particular, so a few examples will have to suffice.

The biggest and most obvious one was also the most shocking. Of seven experts spread over two panels, not one of them could credibly be called an Iran specialist. By this, I don’t mean to suggest that the panelists aren’t smart or experts in their stated fields, but for an event nominally focused on Iran, there was very little discussion of the country itself. Instead, the organizers opted for a hodgepodge of regional and field-matter experts, ranging from a Shia militant researcher (who was clearly more knowledgeable about Arab affairs than Persian ones) to weapons experts to international security generalists. There was even a Yemen specialist. With the exception of Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and later the UN during the George W. Bush administration, none were Persian speakers. One panelist — I won’t say who — alluded to a past reading of Khomeini as a qualification for speaking about Iranian motivations and intentions in the region.

Ironically, for an event with the word “Pushback” in the title, none of the panelists challenged the baseline assumption that Iranian behavior is motivated by anything other than extremist religious belief and/or animus toward the United States and the West. Rather, they all premised their proposals about how to deal with Iran on the idea that Iran’s only goal is to increase its dominance — or, synonymously, establish some kind of “hegemony” — over the Middle East.

This is, needless to say, a gross oversimplification, albeit one that is all too common in most Iran discussions. The vague terminology — “hegemony” or “dominance” — allows an easy out for anyone who wants to speak about Iranian intentions without actually bothering to wade into the murky waters of internal Iranian political rivalries and debate. For example, does Iran establishing hegemony over the region mean subjugating Saudi Arabia or other GCC countries to its will? Or does “dominating” the Middle East entail exporting the Islamic Revolution to each and every country in the region, eventually turning them all into Iranian client states? Furthermore, does this mean that aggressive expansionism enjoys universal support across the Iranian government and public? WHO KNOWS? What is certain is that Iran’s own security concerns and threat perceptions are unimportant in this discussion. All that matters is that Iran is out there, and they are up to no good.

One way this line of thinking manifests itself is in what I like to call the “Iranian boogeyman” argument. This is the idea that pretty much anything that happens in the Middle East is part of a secret Iranian masterplan, pushed by an invisible Iranian hand. Those who press this narrative rely primarily on circumstantial evidence and usually take on a conspiratorial tone in making their case. As one panelist put it, you can see the pattern of Iran’s vast network of Shiite militias if you just know where to look (social media, apparently). It’s like a magic eye poster: if you look at any Middle East problem at just the right angle, the secret Iranian image will reveal itself to you.

At one point, the panel came dangerously close to a moment of self-realization when one of the participants reflected on the complexity of the Iranian political landscape, suggesting that perhaps it was a mistake to attribute everything that is happening in Iraq and Syria to clandestine Iranian influence. The same panelist then said maybe it would be better to look at Iran as a collection of many different competing factions and interests, and that perhaps the Revolutionary Guards Corps’ goals differ from those of Hassan Rouhani and the government. This line of thought was quickly dismissed by the rest of the panelists.

This is not to say that Iran does not have any malign influence in the Middle East, or that it is not playing important military roles in both Iraq and Syria. It very much is. The point that I’m trying to make is that there has to be a middle ground when discussing Iran and that the tendency to view Iran in only binary terms makes solving the problems they create and challenges they pose immensely harder, if not impossible. Having voices with real expertise and nuanced perspectives is the first, most basic step toward achieving this goal.

Strangely enough, one of those voices was in the room that day, although she wasn’t sitting on the stage. The Atlantic Council’s Barabara Slavin, the Director of the Future of Iran Initiative, was in the audience. Slavin does excellent work on Iran, and she played an important role in the discussion by posing two of the most insightful and challenging questions to the panelists during the Q&A sessions. In the second panel, she prefaced a question to the American Enterprise Institute’s Ken Pollack, coauthor of a new report on Iran entitled “US Strategy Options for Iran’s Regional Challenge,” by noting that his report was “all stick and no carrot.” She observed that the only choice his report offered for solving the Iranian challenge was between shooting off a finger, a hand, an arm, or head. She then asked, “Have you considered engagement?” Pollack replied that room for engagement was “implicit” in his call for increased confrontation.

Interestingly, when Slavin was confronted about the funding for this new project on Twitter several days later, she was quick to distance herself from it:

I don’t know what the funding mechanism is for this project, nor do I have any indication on what its plans are for the future. It is definitely something to keep an eye on since the material they produce and disseminate has the potential to influence policymakers in important positions in and around DC.

For now, I’ll just offer one more word of warning: beware anyone selling a “simple” Iran, either in concept or solution. Iran is a complicated place with a rich — and occasionally dark — history. Knowledge of this past is vital for understanding modern Iranian motivations and strategic outlook. It cannot be dismissed. To put it slightly differently: if anyone tells you that they’ve “read Khomeini” and therefore understand Iran, your best bet is to simply walk away.

Down the Alt-Right Rabbit Hole

Just like another famous progeny of a right-wing nationalist leader, Yair Netanyahu has been something of a headache for his father recently. In his zeal to defend his family against the myriad of accusations leveled against them, Yair has seemingly managed something that previously seemed impossible: he’s made a Jewish Israeli a darling of the alt-right.

The controversy started this week when Yair posted a meme on Facebook depicting financier George Soros — a frequent bugaboo and anti-Semitic dog whistle for right-wing conspiracy theorists — as a behind-the-scenes puppeteer secretly controlling the people leveling accusations against his family. As is standard with bonkers far-right conspiracy theorizing, there is also a layer of lizard people and Illuminati between Soros, the mastermind, and the Israelis who seek an end to the Netanyahu government.

Yair’s meme was greeted with jubilation in the anti-Semitic/alt-right/neo-nazi/white supremacist/whatever-we’re-calling-it-now community. David Duke, former KKK Grand Wizard and one-time almost-U.S. Senator from Louisiana, “welcomed” Yair to the “club” in a tweet, exclaiming, “Wow, just wow,” in admiration. The Daily Stormer, the internet’s leading neo-Nazi website, called Yair a “total bro.”

It’s not the first time that Yair has dabbled in the murky waters of the alt-right. A few weeks ago, Yair responded to the violence in Charlottesville by attacking anti-fascist (Antifa) and Black Lives Matter movements, calling them “thugs.” He engaged in the same game of moral equivalence as President Trump, laying equal blame for the catastrophe on the counter-protesters as he did the Neo-nazis and white supremacists, one of whose members plowed a car into a peaceful countermarch, killing one and injuring many others.

So far, there hasn’t been any comment from the Netanyahus on the praise Yair is now getting from the alt-right. Yair hasn’t apologized for his actions or offered any additional explanation, though he did remove the meme from his Facebook page.

It’s worth noting that Yair is no political novice. He’s said to be a valued political advisor to his father, so it’s hard to believe that he didn’t know exactly what he was doing when he made the post.

It’s truly remarkable the degree to which the Netanyahus have decided to mirror the Trumps, ranging from their political style to their scandals. Now, incredibly, you can add flirtation with neo-Nazis to that list.

Even Iran’s Support for Syria Has Limits

One of the best things about national team soccer (or football) is getting to project all sorts of global political issues onto the games. Mostly, the comparisons are meaningless, but that doesn’t make them any less fun (I still really like this poster ESPN made for the U.S. opener against England in the 2010 World Cup, for example). Sometimes, however, a game can’t avoid being placed in a larger political context, whether it wants to be or not.

There was a chance of that this past Tuesday night when Iran played host to Syria in a World Cup qualifying match in Tehran. For Iran, the game held few consequences. As group leaders in Asian qualifying, they had already secured the top overall spot and a trip to the finals in Russia next year. By contrast, the Syrians still had everything to play for, including, shockingly, a spot in Russia. Despite being forced to play all of their “home” games in a mostly empty stadium in Malaysia — a 14,000 mile round-trip from Syria — due to the ongoing war in their actual home country, the Syrians found themselves in third place going into Tuesday night’s game, just two points behind second place South Korea. A Syrian win coupled with a South Korean loss would have sent Syria through to the finals.

I admit I know next to nothing about soccer, let alone the Iranian or Syrian national teams, but when I heard the circumstances surrounding this game, I was intrigued. For a moment, I cynically considered the possibility that maybe Iran would see fit to gift the Syrians the victory. It could have been a potentially brilliant move from a political standpoint: Not only would it have given the Syrian regime a cheap public relations victory at a time when those have been few and far between, it also could have provided a much-needed morale boost to a key military ally now in its sixth year of civil war. To paraphrase Clausewitz, sports are really just a continuation of war by other means. So, why not here?

Alas, it was not to be. After Syria took the lead on an early goal, the Iranians answered with two of their own. Syria managed to find a late equalizer to force a 2-2 draw, but it was not enough to overtake South Korea in the group standings. The result keeps Syria’s hopes for reaching the finals alive, but only barely. They’ll now have to play a home and “home” (in Malaysia) qualifier round against Australia, with the winner advancing to another playoff against a team from the North/Central American CONCACAF division for a spot in the finals.

Apparently, Iranian support for Syria has its limits.

Even with the lackluster result, the game did provide at least one moment of political interest. A cameraman photographing fans captured a picture of several Syrian supporters, including a woman who was apparently not only allowed into the stadium for the game (women are banned from entering sports stadiums in Iran) but was also not covering her hair as required by Iranian law. The picture caused a minor controversy on social media as Iranians decried the hypocrisy and double standards of their government.

Where Things Stand

Hello again! I’ve been absent from these parts for a little while. Occasionally, life intervenes and puts blogging on the back-burner. I’ll be making my best effort to get back to regular updates here in the coming weeks, although I still have some looming deadlines that may make that difficult until early October at the latest. I hope you’ll all bear with me as I get through this busy stretch. Also, I’ll note up here that I’m going to be on a panel discussion in DC two weeks from today. Details are in the last paragraph of this post. Please feel free to come by if you’re in the area! 

Since it’s been a while, let’s check in with what’s been happening in Iran and Israel recently.

First, a quick recap of the current Iran situation: Between the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey and the mounting tensions with North Korea, there hasn’t been as much bandwidth in the United States for Iran recently. The big question remains what will happen when the Iran deal comes up for recertification again. The last certification, which Trump only made “reluctantly,” happened back in mid-July. Trump must notify Congress every 90 days as to whether Iran is living up to its commitment to the deal, meaning the next certification deadline comes in mid-October.

I’ve covered this issue before, as have many others, and the consensus view remains the same at the moment. The rest of signatories — namely, the P5+1 and Iran — have all stated on numerous occasions they will remain committed to the accord even if the United States pulls out. Given that the U.S. has prevented most American firms from entering the Iranian market, a U.S. withdrawal would be more symbolic than substantive. It would likely have very little impact on Iran’s economic prospects or national security, but would certainly increase hostility and intensify rhetoric and threats on both sides.

It’s tempting to point to the recent departure of several hardline figures from the White House such as advisors Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka as an indication of a softening of the Trump approach to Iran, but this would be overly optimistic. The rest of the Trump foreign and military policy team remains in place, and they are, pretty much without exception, all intensely hawkish on Iran. (If anything, the departure of a strict isolationist like Bannon may actually increase the chances of expanded military action in the Middle East.) Additionally, as the ongoing North Korean fiasco has shown, Trump himself has no problem threatening military action and risking potential escalation, especially if he feels his ego is being challenged.

Definitely keep a close eye on this story in the coming weeks, as it is sure to heat up when the recertification deadline draws nearer.

With that out of the way, let’s talk Israel for a moment. Things haven’t been going so well for Israel’s first family recently. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself the target in not one, but two corruption investigations, his wife Sara is implicated in another case that could soon bring charges, and his son Yair was recently sued by an Israeli NGO for libel. Predictions of the Prime Minister’s imminent demise are nothing new in Israel. Netanyahu has survived several past scandals that critics claimed would force him from office. This recent wave, however, has a much different feel to it. Rumors of impending indictments have grown to the point where even various Likud members are starting to distance themselves from their leader, and there is open speculation in the press about what comes next after the end of the Netanyahu era.

If Netanyahu’s predicament resembles that of a certain American president, his response to these crisis does so even more. Netanyahu is not choosing to lie low in the face of mounting opposition. Quite the opposite, in fact. He’s fighting for his political life by going on the attack. He has started by lashing out at the Israeli media, borrowing one of Trump’s favorite invectives by calling them “fake news.” In another signature Trumpian move, Netanyahu recently held a rally to fire up his political base. In a speech to his supporters, the Prime Minister blamed leftists as the progenitors of a conspiracy to remove him from office. In his telling, the corruption investigations are the product of a coordinated campaign by Netanyahu’s political and media enemies to remove him from office via subversive and unconstitutional tactics. It is a last-ditch effort born of desperation stemming from the fact that these groups have been unable to defeat him in in legitimate elections. Thus, Netanyahu is subtly discrediting the investigations as political witch hunts before they reach their natural conclusion.

It’s no secret that a lot of this has to do with Donald Trump, Netanyahu’s closest and most important international ally. While Netanyahu claimed impartiality during the 2016 U.S. election, the reaction of many Israelis to Donald Trump’s victory, including many members of his own Likud Party, indicated a strong preference for the Republican candidate. Since Trump’s inauguration, Netanyahu has gone out of his way to cozy up to the U.S. President, even going so far as to avoid issuing condemnations of Trump’s recent reactions to the neo-nazi/white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. For a man who has never been shy about using comparisons to Hitler or the Third Reich to score political points, his silence in response to Trump’s comments has been deafening.

Increasingly, commentators are beginning to take notice of Netanyahu’s style and tactics, with many accusing him of being the latest leader to embrace the tactics of far-right populism. The truth, however, is that Netanyahu is not a new arrival to this movement. In fact, he’s been a member for years. Long before Donald Trump descended the golden elevator in Trump Tower, Netanyahu sought to create a political climate of fear and divisiveness that would engulf Israel in a state of constant chaos and moral conflict that has characterized his second tenure as Prime Minister. Only recently has the rest of the world noticed these tactics for what they are and characterized them accordingly. Ironically, Netanyahu has Trump to thank for that.

There’s plenty more to say on this subject, but I’m going to abruptly stop here for the moment. I confess that I’m highlighting Netanyahu’s populism because I actually wrote about it several months ago (before it was cool) as part of an essay contest for the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ academic journal, The SAIS Review. The essay is due to be published in the journal’s upcoming issue, which should be out sometime later this month. I’ll be sure to post an update about where and how to read it once it is publicly available. For now, I’ll just mention that I’m going to be on a panel for the journal’s fall launch in two weeks, where I’ll be discussing this subject in further detail. The event will be at 4:45 in the ground floor auditorium of the Rome Building at 1619 Massachusetts Ave NW. If you’re in the DC area, please stop by!

Rouhani Angst: Round II

Hassan Rouhani was sworn in as Iranian president this past Saturday following an inauguration ceremony in the Majlis (Iranian parliament). The week before, he received an official endorsement from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the final step following his reelection victory before beginning his second term.

In his inaugural address on Saturday, Rouhani did not give much indication of what his political strategy would be for the next four years. The most memorable moment of his speech came when he spoke about the future of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) by directly addressing the United States’ attempt to undermine the deal. “On behalf of the Iranian people and authorities, I explicitly announce that the Islamic Republic of Iran will not start violating the JCPOA but will not remain quiet against the United States’ continuing to wiggle out of commitments.” In a clearly implied slight against Donald Trump, Rouhani continued, “We have no business with novice politicians, but we announce to those more experienced that the process of the JCPOA can be used as a model for relations and international law.”

[As an aside: the most memorable moment of the event was clearly when a bunch of Iranian MPs fell all over one another in an attempt to take pictures of/with High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini.]

Outside of his position on maintaining Iran’s commitment to the signature policy achievement of his first term, many of the questions about Rouhani’s second term political strategy have not been answered. Will he make good on his promises to institute more social reforms? Will he be able to jumpstart the Iranian economy and improve the daily lives of Iranian citizens? Will he be able to maintain his power and influence against the conservative establishment? Only time will tell.

Most of the press coverage leading into his inauguration focused on Rouhani’s selection of his second term cabinet members. Their identities and their political affiliation could serve as early indicators of how far Rouhani might be willing to go to implement the reforms he promised — and his followers demanded — during the contentious campaign. If these articles are any indication, the answer is likely “not far enough.”

The clear theme in the popular analysis is that Rouhani is bowing to the hardliners’ will in picking his new cabinet ministers. His picks are expected to be exclusively male, continuing a tradition of female-exclusion at the top levels of Iranian politics, and may also include several prominent conservatives. This would no doubt anger many of Rouhani’s more reform-minded supporters, who expected to be rewarded with greater numbers and influence in exchange for their votes during the campaign. Several key cabinet members are expected to return for the second term, including most prominently Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who along with Rouhani receives most of the credit (or the blame) for negotiating the nuclear deal.

At present, the overall tone of Rouhani coverage in the press feels eerily similar to the negative reviews he was getting from many pundits heading into the home stretch of the election in which any indication of trouble is immediately interpreted as a prelude to disaster. During the election, Rouhani’s “more aggressive” rhetoric led many to conclude that he was on the ropes and that the country was heading for a reactionary swing back to the conservatives. Now, rumblings about a more conservative, or possibly even a less-reformist-than-hoped-for, cabinet have many speculating that Rouhani is prepared to abandon all his lofty promises.

One interpretation, which I have yet to see expressed elsewhere, is that Rouhani may be undertaking this conservative outreach in an attempt to avoid the fate of several of his predecessors. With the exception of Ayatollah Khamenei, who was elevated to Supreme Leader toward the end of his second term as president, all other Iranian presidents saw their influence wane during their tenure as lame ducks. This includes the popular reformist Mohammad Khatami, who despite a landslide victory in his reelection campaign in 2001, was stymied by the conservative opposition when he tried to parlay that result into a more aggressive reformist agenda. By courting conservative input in his new government, Rouhani could be choosing to bide his time and wait for the real battles to come.

Rouhani may already be looking toward his next campaign, though no one really knows when it will take place. It’s possible, even probable, that Supreme Leader Khamenei could die at some point in the next four years. His poor health is well known in Iran, to the point where questions about succession were a major part of this past presidential campaign. Some will recall the rumors that swirled around conservative candidate Ibrahim Raisi about his potential suitability for the role. Many saw his run for the presidency as an attempt to groom him politically for higher office. But with his resounding defeat by Rouhani this May, he has all but faded from consideration. Rouhani remains a dark horse’s dark horse for the job, but he is a consummate government insider who enjoys relationships, albeit not all of them good, with politicians of all stripes. His overtures to the conservatives might be an attempt to put himself in the right political position for if or when the opportunity to reach the pinnacle of Islamic Republic politics finally presents itself.