Analysis: Crumbling of nuclear deal boosts Iran hard-liners

Iranian lawmakers prepare to burn two pieces of papers representing the U.S. flag and the nuclear deal as they chant slogans against the U.S. at the parliament in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, May 9, 2018. Iranian lawmakers have set a paper U.S. flag ablaze at parliament after President Donald Trump's nuclear deal pullout, shouting, "Death to America!". President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal on Tuesday and restored harsh sanctions against Iran. (AP Photo)
In this photo released by official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani addresses the nation in a televised speech in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, May 8, 2018. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday he'd send his foreign minister to negotiate with countries remaining in the nuclear deal after Donald Trump's decision to pull America from the deal, warning he otherwise would restart enriching uranium "in the next weeks." (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Across Iran, the hopefulness that followed the 2015 nuclear deal has been replaced by a rising hard-line fever with President Donald Trump's decision to pull America from the accord.

From lawmakers burning a paper U.S. flag on the floor of parliament to public opinion swaying toward restarting higher uranium enrichment, Iran is seeing a political swing threatening the Western rapprochement once sought by President Hassan Rouhani.

That's not to say Iran wants the deal to end. After Trump's announcement, Rouhani quickly sent his foreign minister to the other countries party to the accord for talks in order to save lucrative business contracts already in hand. But if the Islamic Republic feels there's no chance of salvaging the deal, jumpstarting the nuclear program remains within reach.

Distrust between the U.S. and Iran is nothing new. Rouhani himself offered a litany of complaints after Trump's speech about American interference in Iran, dating back to a 1953 CIA-backed coup that overthrew the country's elected prime minister. For the U.S., memories of the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover and 444-day hostage still linger.

But while hard-liners shout "Death to America," most Iranians frequently interact with the West, even if only through online videos or through movies seen on the illegal satellite dishes that dot rooftops throughout the country. Many families have loved ones who live abroad, with Los Angeles popular among Iranian emigrants. For them, the nuclear deal meant a way to have a wider connection with the world.

The collapse of the deal only further angers the Iranian public about Trump, who has included Iranians in his travel bans and referred to the Persian Gulf as the "Arabian Gulf," a slight that never goes unnoticed. It also raises support for hard-liners and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who warned since the beginning of negotiations that America wasn't to be trusted. Khamenei on Wednesday also directly challenged Trump, saying: "You cannot do a damn thing!"

Most Iranians feel they haven't seen the benefits of the nuclear deal anyway. Though Iran has been able to sell its crude oil and natural gas on the international market, its economy remains in a dire condition. Unemployment and inflation remain high.

The Iranian rial is trading on the black market at 66,000 to the dollar, despite a government-set rate of 42,000 rials. So Iranians have seen their savings dwindle in value even as everything grows more expensive.

Those tough economic conditions sparked nationwide protests in December and January, which were egged on by Trump and others who want to see Iran's theocratic government collapse. Though the demonstrations largely have subsided, the economic situation only worsened, making it the biggest political risk in the country even today.

Trump's withdrawal has even prompted prominent reformists — those who seek better ties with the West and want to change Iran's government structure from the inside — to rally behind the flag as well.

Only "naive individuals would accept to enter talks with such a country" like the U.S, said Iran's senior vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, a popular reformist politician who has been suggested as a possible presidential contender in Iran's 2021 election.

Even Rouhani, a relatively moderate cleric, has toughened his talk. Immediately after Trump's speech, he warned Iran could "begin our industrial enrichment without any limitations." Other officials have warned Iran could resume high-grade enrichment within a week.

So far though, there's been no sign of Iran breaking into any sealed nuclear equipment or otherwise violating the nuclear deal, which the United Nations continues to monitor.

Today under the deal, Iran can maintain a stockpile of only 300 kilograms (661 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, compared to the 100,000 kilograms (220,460 pounds) of higher-enriched uranium it once had. Iran can only enrich uranium to 3.67 percent, which can be used to fuel a civilian reactor but is far below the 90 percent needed to produce a weapon. Experts say today, Iran remains at least a year away from being able to build an atomic bomb, something Tehran denies having any desire to do.

However, European countries would be wise to expedite any possible negotiations with Iran, especially as public opinion continues to turn against the West.

A telephone survey of 1,003 Iranians conducted in April by IranPoll, a Toronto-based firm, found 67 percent of respondents felt the country should "retaliate" if the U.S. violated the nuclear deal. The survey had a margin of error of 3.1 percent.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Jon Gambrell, an Associated Press reporter since 2006, has covered the Middle East from Cairo and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, since 2013. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap . His work can be found at http://apne.ws/2galNpz .

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