Iran’s delicate nuclear consensus

May 29

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani attends a news conference in Shanghai on May 22, 2014. Rouhani said he is not pessimistic about reaching an agreement over nuclear talks with the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany (REUTERS/Carlos Barria).

International negotiations typically play out as “two level games,” with leaders carefully eyeing their domestic political calculations even as they bargain with their foreign counterparts. The EU3+3 talks with Iran over its nuclear program are no different. U.S. domestic constraints are well understood, but what about Iran’s?

Currently, in a rare convergence, almost all of Iran’s major political currents – for the time being – support the negotiations. Still, President Hassan Rouhani faces very real domestic political constraints that could prove fatal to the deal if the United States doesn’t understand them appropriately. While the United States will not agree to a bad deal, it should take advantage of Iran’s delicate and rare consensus and come to an agreement that limits Iran’s access to fissile material and imposes proper verification measures to ensure the non-diversion of fissile material for non-peaceful uses.

Analyzing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s fragmented political system is a notoriously difficult task, and Tehranology is at the best of times an imprecise science. Iran’s political system is not centered on the kind party politics that have characterized many Western liberal democracies. Instead, Iran has had political currents based on shifting alliances between important political figures, state centers of power, and key constituencies. Typical taxonomies of key Iranian political currents divide the currents into four categories forming two broad camps: reformists and centrists, who together form the “moderate” camp, and neo- and traditional principalists, who constitute the “conservative” camp. While even these categories are oversimplifications, they do help us to better gauge the Iranian political elite’s level of support for ongoing nuclear negotiations.

There is little doubt that Iran’s moderate camp is committed to the nuclear negotiations. The negotiations are a lynchpin of the centrist Rouhani’s agenda to ease tensions abroad and improve the economy at home. Key reformist figures, such as former president Mohammad Khatami and 2013 presidential candidate Mohammad Reza Aref, have also endorsed the current talks. The moderate camp has been a consistent advocate of a negotiated resolution to the nuclear issue.

The conservative scene, while more complex, underscores the tenuous consensus to negotiate. At the apex of the conservative pyramid is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Despite serious reservations about negotiating with the United States, Khamenei has nonetheless called for “heroic flexibility” during the EU3+3 talks. Moreover, subsequent to the drafting of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), he called the Iranian negotiating team “children of the revolution” and criticized those who sought to label Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and other members of the negotiating team as “collaborators” with the west.

Ali Larijani, the influential traditional principalist speaker of the parliament, has also supported Iran’s negotiating team. While acknowledging that there are differences of opinion on this issue, Larijani has nonetheless emphasized that “on national interests there is a consensus” and that overall parliament “supports the negotiations.” The same can be said of traditional principalist senior foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader and 2013 presidential candidate Ali Akbar Velayati, who has criticized the previous nuclear negotiating team led by the hawkish Saeed Jalili. Velayati explained, “I did not accept the previous method of negotiations…the method which our negotiators pursue at present is a method which speaks to their experience in negotiations…we are assured of our work and our negotiators.”

And what of the hawkish neo-principalists whose resistance could supposedly derail talks? The most hardline of these voices have, for the moment, been discredited. Jalili’s disastrously failed presidential campaign has shown the limits of their electoral clout. This political weakness extends to the hardline Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, his parliamentary faction the Persevering Front of the Islamic Revolution (PFIR), and their supporters, who have turned to vocal demonstrations and anti-negotiation billboards to express their demands. The failure of these tactics underscores the most hardline neo-principalists’ inability to affect change through the use of traditional levers of power at the moment.

Moreover, Jalili, who had long resisted publically supporting negotiations, recently joined all of the other 2013 presidential election candidates in backing the talks, declaring: “The nuclear negotiation team must be allowed to advance their program in the framework of the principle of ‘heroic flexibility,’ and everyone must help them in the path of attaining the [nuclear] right of the nation.”

Finally, the most relevant neo-principalists, especially in the senior leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have given their grudging support for the negotiations. For example, IRGC commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari has recently said “Because of the sensitive period during which negotiations must advance, we must remain silent for the time being and hold back our tears so that we give excuses to no one.” He added, “It is very sensitive work and the actual goal is removing economic pressure on the people which is very important, so we must progress with care.” In fact, it appears that where the hawkish neo-principalist current in Tehran diverges from the other political currents is on the question of the “day after” a deal. The neo-principalists do not want the resolution of the nuclear issue to lead to a general rapprochement with the United States, increased foreign pressure over human rights, or a rapid influx of foreign firms, among other possible outcomes.

The idea that Iranian political elites have closed ranks and are moving forward in negotiations from a common playbook has also been confirmed by the influential Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of the parliament’s important foreign policy and national security committee. While discussing the various “links” in the “chain” of Iranian foreign and security policymaking, Boroujerdi noted that the “last link” in this process “is the session formed before the supreme leader and in this session the framework of the negotiations has been finalized and the negotiating team negotiates within this framework.” Perhaps the clearest indication that seriously engaging in nuclear negotiations is not merely a priority of Rouhani is the fact that the groundwork for the success achieved thus far was laid several months prior to the 2013 presidential election in secret back-channel talks between the United States and Iran in Oman.

At the same time, this consensus is delicate and any number of factors could upset it. Take for example the domestic political issues of human rights and economic policy. Here there is a great divide between the moderate and conservative camps, and this will likely be the main political battlefield for Rouhani moving forward. If Rouhani tries to advance domestic reforms too quickly or comprehensively, Iran’s conservatives may feel threatened and attempt to derail talks. Moreover, tangential issues, such as U.S. military intervention in Syria or Western insistence that Iran’s ballistic missile program be included in any final agreement, could also fracture the wide support for the talks inside Iran.

To increase the likelihood of success, the Obama administration should take advantage of this rare convergence of Iran’s divergent political currents to try and reach an agreement. This approach should be narrowly focused on preventing Iran from being able to rapidly obtain weapons usable fissile material, while also demanding that Iran account for its alleged weaponization experiments prior to 2003 and accept the Additional Protocol inspection regime.

This approach won’t be easy. As the parties continue working toward an agreement, the United States must be cognizant of its own “hawks” interjecting unrealistic demands into the current negotiations or the post-deal implementation of any agreement. The focus should be on resolving the narrow set of issues related to the nuclear program, rather than on other, far broader political differences with Iran.

While even moderate demands related to centrifuge numbers could fracture Iran’s nuclear consensus, the introduction of excessive demands could undercut Iran’s delicate political unity. Moreover, a recalcitrant U.S. position also risks fracturing the support of the countries that have agreed to abide by the United States’ extraterritorial sanctions, which the Obama administration needs to keep pressure on Iran.

To prevent the introduction of excessive demands into the negotiations, the Obama administration can begin to outline what it hopes to achieve from an agreement. This will require more transparency about the purported end goal of the talks – beyond the overly simplistic platitude of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. If the Obama administration waits too long, it will risk allowing its own hawks to frame the way in which a possible agreement will be perceived in Washington and abroad. Obama will face pushback from a more hawkish congress, should the EU3+3 reach an agreement with the Iranians, especially in the current highly polarized U.S. election cycle. To prepare for this backlash, the Obama administration can also begin to signal the ways in which – and the reasons why – it will seek to roll back sanctions. This would signal to Iran the United States’ steadfast commitment to upholding its end of the bargain, while also putting public pressure on Congress to act, should an agreement actually be struck.

It is imperative for U.S. demands to remain consistent with the JPOA and remain clearly in line with the Obama Administration’s overarching nonproliferation goals. And to ensure that U.S. hawks don’t derail the talks via the introduction of tangential issues, which could fracture internal Iranian support for the negotiations, the administration could clearly explain why it is imperative to remain focused on the nuclear issue. Inside Iran, the consequences of failure would certainly discredit Rouhani’s foreign policy and empower his most hawkish critics. While both sides are sure to refrain from agreeing to what they see as a bad deal, both still share an incentive to reach an agreement.

Farzan Sabet is a doctoral candidate in international history at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. He is a member of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (NPIHP) network and co-founder and managing editor of IranPolitik.com, an independent website on Iranian domestic politics and foreign affairs. Follow his website on twitter @IranPolitik.

Aaron Stein (@aaronstein1) is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London and a researcher specializing in proliferation in the Middle East at the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. He blogs at Turkey Wonk and Arms Control Wonk.

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