By Yeganeh Torbati and Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The re-election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is unlikely to change the skepticism with which he is viewed by the Trump administration as the public face of a government opposed to U.S. interests and allies in the Middle East, former U.S. officials and analysts said.
Rouhani, a cleric who, with foreign minister Javad Zarif broke the taboo of holding direct talks with the United States and reached an international deal in 2015 to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for relief from economic sanctions, won 57 percent of the vote in Friday’s election.
He defeated Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric and acolyte of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate power in Iran’s complex, hybrid system of theocratic and republican elements.
President Donald Trump’s administration seems likely to want to keep putting pressure on Iran over its weapons programs and what it sees as Tehran’s destabilizing efforts in the Middle East, analysts said.
“I think the Trump administration will remain pretty consistent on this issue. So I don’t expect any change” in U.S. policy toward Iran, said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former CIA Iran specialist.
Despite the nuclear deal, the United States still considers Iran a “state sponsor of terrorism.”
When Rouhani was first elected in 2013, it was taken as a sign that Iran’s leaders might be more open to the West and would change the confrontational stance they had taken against the United States and its allies in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
While Khamenei gave Rouhani some leeway to negotiate the nuclear deal, other reforms he sought at home, especially greater political freedoms for Iranians, were stymied by Khamenei and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
There was no immediate reaction to Rouhani’s victory from the Trump administration. Trump is visiting Iran’s main regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Israel, on his first foreign trip.
While Trump, a Republican, has harshly criticized the nuclear accord struck under predecessor President Barack Obama, a Democrat, he has kept it alive while signaling a desire to confront Iran more directly.
Washington says Tehran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the Hezbollah political party and militia in Lebanon, have helped destabilize the Middle East.
Ahmad Majidyar, an expert with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, forecast growing tensions between the United States and Iran over Iraq and Syria, where U.S.-backed forces and Iran-supported Shiite Muslim militias are fighting Islamic State.
“Washington and Tehran are de facto allies in the fight against Islamic State,” Majidyar said. “But now ISIS is on the verge of defeat, we see signs of tensions between Iranian backed- militia forces and the U.S. forces,” he said.
By coincidence, the United States on Wednesday faced a deadline for renewing sanctions waivers that would maintain the nuclear deal. Trump decided to do so, but also imposed narrow sanctions against two Iranian defense officials and an Iranian company that the U.S. government said were linked to Iran’s ballistic missile program.
Rouhani’s re-election is likely to make it harder for the Trump administration to galvanize international support for European Union, United Nations sanctions or other tough action, analysts said.
Rouhani and Zarif have presented a more conciliatory face to the world, traveling often to European capitals and in Zarif’s case, conversing easily in fluent English and giving frequent interviews to Western media.
“It makes it much more difficult to isolate Iran internationally when you have a foreign minister like Zarif,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Without sanctions such as those that slashed Iran’s oil revenues and barred it from the international financial system, which were effective because China and Iran’s other Asian oil customers cooperated, the U.S. is left with more targeted measures against individuals, companies or organizations that assist in Iran’s ballistic missile program or are found to have violated human rights.
“The last thing the Chinese are interested in doing is enacting new sanctions against Iran,” Sadjadpour said.
(Reporting By Yeganeh Torbati and Jonathan Landay; Editing by John Walcott and Grant McCool)