With Rouhani embattled, where is Iran going?

It is official: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is embattled and holding onto his position for dear life.

What does this mean for which direction Iran will choose in the current nuclear standoff with the US? Will it fold and compromise, stick to its guns and start to violate the 2015 nuclear deal and maybe even make a dash for nuclear weapons, or might the regime finally get toppled?

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On Tuesday, before the nation. He was the face for Iran of its 2015 deal and of trying to dialogue with the West. It rejected most of his explanations for the Islamic Republic’s economic plight and referred him to the judiciary.

All of this comes as Iran’s currency has lost more than half its value in recent months and the economy continues to tank – it was doing poorly even before the Trump administration left the deal and snapped sanctions back on Tehran.

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Most likely, Rouhani will not be impeached in the near future as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said that firing him now would play into the hands of the US and Iran’s adversaries.

But after parliament fired two of his key economic ministers and Rouhani himself fired his head of the central bank, maybe he thought those moves would spare him from a direct political attack.

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He was wrong.

Just as Rouhani would not be impeached without Khamenei’s approval, his dressing down was also likely approved by the supreme ayatollah.

Overall, this middle ground of keeping Rouhani in office, but permanently wounding him politically could suit Khamenei.

Rouhani is now his insurance policy to blame for the Islamic Republic’s economic problems should they continue and should protests build.

He can keep Rouhani around as a punching bag who will still try to argue for keeping the deal, which it is getting and diplomatic support are worthwhile.

At the same time, Khamenei has officially declared the deal a mistake and Rouhani and his “pragmatists” camp come out of the nuclear standoff damaged. This limits any political threat they could pose to Khamenei and Iranian hardliners.

What will Iran and Khamenei decide after all of this besides how he tries to tactically deflect blame onto Rouhani?

Some of how this is viewed depends on how one viewed Rouhani before Tuesday.

There were experts who viewed him as a potential reformer who would start with the 2015 nuclear deal and eventually lead Iran into becoming a more responsible power with friendlier ties to the West.

Other experts viewed him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They said he was no true reformer, as true reformers had been arrested and prevented from running for office. Rather, he was a friendly face for Iran to hoodwink the West to ignore its ugly underbelly and wide sponsorship of terror.

For those who viewed him as a true reformer, this is not only the moment when the 2015 nuclear deal became more permanently wounded. It is the moment when a dream of cooperatively persuading Iran’s regime to rejoin the West was more formally closed off.

For those who viewed him as a clever and dangerous swindler, it could be the moment when Iran reveals its true self as a country more committed to terror and confrontation with the West, than it is to dialogue.

Either way Rouhani is viewed, his being politically damaged makes the rise of hardliners, Tehran’s leaving the nuclear deal and its dashing to develop nuclear weapons more likely.

There are two large unanswered questions that remain.

Will the economic pressure that the US is putting on Iran be enough to get even the hardliners to blink before they double down on the confrontational path? Or, alternatively, will the economic pressure bring down the regime in the face of popular protests before it can make the dash for a weapon?

A majority of experts are worried that Iran will go for confrontation over compromise and that the regime is too well organized to be toppled.

For those experts who disagree, Rouhani’s being dressed down likely means the clock has accelerated toward confrontation, and the window on compromise or for regime change is narrowing.

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