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When Trump Gives You Lemons: Iran Reformists Try To Pivot After U.S. Spurns Nuclear Deal

Hard-line opponents of Hassan Rohani are already seeking to exploit the U.S. move to boost their own influence and further undermine the Iranian president.

Some Iranian advocates of domestic reform are responding to U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to renounce the 2015 nuclear deal and reinstate tough sanctions by urging the government in Tehran to improve the human rights situation and give the public freer rein.

They suggest that greater freedom for more Iranians would help avoid widespread anger that could deepen divisions within the country, particularly during tough economic times.

“Mr. Islamic Republic, now that you’re under immense external pressure, now that the economy is imploding, treat people well inside the country,” journalist Masoud Kazemi pleaded via Twitter. “Release political prisoners, respect people’s social freedoms, particularly women. Counter systematic economic corruption. This is the only way out."

Many Iranians were hoping that the nuclear deal, which traded curbs on Iranian nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief, would improve their economic situation and provide them and their children with better opportunities.

But Iran's economy has sputtered since an initial bump following the deal, and the national currency, the rial, has been in crisis for weeks as it fell against the dollar.

A wave of antiestablishment protests in December and January, in which some protesters called for an end to Islamic rule, was eventually quelled with the help of security deployments in dozens of cities and thousands of arrests.

Journalist Mehdi Mahmoudian, who was jailed in 2009 for documenting rape and torture complaints at a detention center, echoed the argument that national unity was the best response to Trump’s tough stance.

“National unity can be achieved only if authorities surrender to the social and political demands of the people,” Mahmoudian said via Twitter.

Iranian human rights activist and former political prisoner Emad Baghi urged the government to "announce a public amnesty, free the [political] prisoners, control the executions, banish the extremists."

Writing via the popular app Telegram, which Iranian officials have banned after blaming it for the spread of antigovernment sentiment, Baghi also suggested that Iran should stop harassing and charging with espionage dual nationals and other experts who return to the country, a reference to a handful of cases that have particularly alarmed Iranians abroad and foreign governments.

“Make engagement and negotiation the main strategy in dealing with the world, respect the critics, and recreate trust.... You will then see that America cannot do anything," Baghi said. "Otherwise, we should expect a worse situation."

He added: "Our main problem is not the existence or nonexistence of the nuclear deal; we’re [the problem]."

Iranian Lawmakers Burn U.S. Flag In Parliament
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But a leading Iranian human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, predicted that Trump’s decision was likely to have the opposite effect: contributing to a worsening of Iran's domestic rights situation.

“The end of diplomacy and negotiations can lead the international community toward war. As a matter of fact, when the country faces a war situation, any talk of human rights is meaningless,” Sotoudeh told RFE/RL via telephone from Tehran.

“The Islamic republic can’t fight on two fronts -- internationally against the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia -- and domestically against its own people,” said a Tehran-based sociologist who did not want to be named.

But he said he had little hope that Iranian authorities would change course anytime soon.

“Today I saw images of some lawmakers burning a U.S. flag in the parliament. These unwise actions by some have gotten us where we are today," he said.

Trump’s decision to walk away from the nuclear deal is a blow to Iranian President Hassan Rohani, a relative moderate who invested much of his first term reaching the deal, which was also signed by China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the European Union.

Rohani's hard-line opponents are already seeking to exploit Trump's move to boost their own influence and further undermine the Iranian president, who holds a comparatively weak hand against conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on political and religious affairs in Iran.

“The hard-liners will attack the moderates, including Rohani, and say that they knew the U.S. could not be trusted," the Tehran-based sociologist said, before adding in reference to the dampening economic effect on Iran of reimposed sanctions. “But at the end of the day, we’re all losers, and so is the establishment as a whole."

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.