This post is part of the “Iran and the Nuclear Deal” symposium.
An intense public debate is unfolding in Iran over the details of the ongoing nuclear negotiations. For a country that has been largely deprived of informed, open and critical discussions on the merits of this costly program, this is highly unusual. Even more striking, it is the hard-liners who are spearheading this dialogue in the run-up to the June 30 deadline for the final agreement.
In his first reaction to the Lausanne framework, Iran’s conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged the authorities to invite criticism and enlighten “the people, particularly the elites” about the next steps. This invitation may seem to aim at shaping public opinion in Iran to bolster the country’s bargaining position, as some policy analysts argue. Political scientists might even view it as an example of audience cost theory. However, the main objective of these debates is the opposite. Instead of using the public to gain external credibility, the conservatives’ goal appears to be to ensure that the negotiations bring about elite cohesion and maintain the internal credibility and stability of the regime.
In a restless country where an election can split the elites and turn into an opposition movement, where a pop singer’s death can spontaneously attract large crowds and where even a preliminary nuclear agreement that may signal a possible end to some sanctions can become an impromptu street party, a final nuclear agreement, or lack thereof, may dangerously polarize both the society and the polity and foment instability. As a conservative senior cleric recently warned, “the product of the negotiations should not be a bipolar society.” In this climate, maintaining societal and political cohesion supersedes the nuclear negotiations, regardless of outcome. This unity can be achieved and fortified through an orchestrated public discourse that manages popular expectations and reveals to the nation U.S. and European betrayal of Iranian dreams.
Iranians from all walks of life anticipate a different outlook after the final deal; from better laundry detergent and more advanced medical technology to easy access to Western visas and even swift social and political liberalization. Popular sentiments are perhaps best captured by the jokes that emerged soon after Lausanne.
What is more worrisome to the conservatives is that their pragmatist rivals, who are leading the negotiations, are determined to tap into and even heighten the popular expectations for a possible nuclear agreement. Playing along with much of the public’s optimism, President Hassan Rouhani has maintained that the nuclear deal is the first step to better relations with the international community. This is a calculated move to link the breakthrough in the negotiations to his 2013 election and keep the moderate-conservative elites and public onboard. More importantly, he hopes that this will induce more flexibility on the terms of the agreement in return for more substantial long-term gains. Hamid Aboutalebi – a political adviser to Rouhani whose controversial nomination to the U.N. ambassadorship was rejected by the United States due to his alleged involvement in the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 – wrote unmistakably on Twitter that there is a bigger prize behind the nuclear negotiations: “The interactions between Iran and the US is more valuable than the nuclear issue. We should not let it pass easily.”
The fear among conservatives is not just that if the pragmatists seal a deal they will be set to overwhelm the upcoming elections for the Majles and the Assembly of Experts – the body that chooses the next Supreme Leader – in 2016. Beyond factional politics, conservatives are concerned that the framework could lock Iran into an irreversible position limiting its nuclear activities together with providing exceptional access to sensitive sites, including military installations. In return, according to the American fact sheet, the nuclear related sanctions will be suspended, not lifted, and only gradually, not all at once.
Under these circumstances and given the ongoing jubilation in Iran, accepting the deal could weaken the regime from outside, while rejecting it could lead to social unrest and potential implosion. This seemingly led Khamenei to remain silent for a week after the Lausanne framework only to add more uncertainty to the preliminary agreement in an April 9 statement “I neither agree nor disagree . . . Everything done so far neither guarantees an agreement in principle nor its contents, nor does it guarantee that the negotiations will continue to the end.” Instead, Khamenei pressed the Rouhani administration not to sideline the opponents of the deal, rather to cultivate a debate to inform the elites of the potential defects in the final agreement. This would either guarantee a good deal or ensure a united country in case of a failed deal. Additionally, this would give more credit to the conservatives for “helping” the pragmatists to secure a better deal and assist them to avoid blame if the deal fails to materialize. Thus, both the regime and the conservatives within it will benefit from an open national debate on the country’s most challenging issue, so the calculation goes.
As always, Iran’s conservative media is ahead of what the leadership publicly utters. Since the negotiations began in 2013, and particularly after Lausanne, conservative commentators and nuclear experts have been analyzing the declarations, statements, interviews and fact sheets from all parties involved in the negotiations in order to reveal their discrepancies and Western treachery behind them. They bring English dictionaries and compare these texts word by word to show that “suspension” indeed means “suspension,” not “termination” as Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claims. Critics point to the heated Iran debate in Washington, particularly on Capitol Hill, to demonstrate that the nuclear deal will never reduce U.S. pressure on the Islamic Republic.
Zarif struggles to defend a preliminary agreement without divulging the details and resist the call by 213 out of 290 members of the parliament to release the “Iranian fact sheet.” The final agreement can plausibly include elements absent in current framework. For instance, the previous Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) signed by Iran and the P5+1 in November 2013 did not explicitly recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium. U.S. officials, including President Obama, stressed that the JPOA did not “grant Iran a right to enrich.” Even Khamenei reportedly expressed doubts at Rouhani’s and Zarif’s claims: “I am a jurist myself. I have read this [JPOA] text three time and I still do not see the right to enrich uranium coming out of it.” However, now both the Lausanne framework and even the U.S. fact sheet practically recognize Iran’s enrichment program, but under extraordinary constraints and intrusive inspections.
At this point again, Zarif wishes to escape public debate and keep the negotiations in secret until the final agreement in June. But the conservatives fear that by then the foreign minister may have signed a fundamentally flawed deal. In commentaries and televised debates, they blame Zarif for not properly capitalizing on Iran’s regional ascension and “success” in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. “I wish the nuclear negotiation room had one window: a window that would open to San’a, Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad,” lamented a former negotiator. Putting the pragmatists on a defensive position, conservative critics even argue that it is better to give up the entire enrichment program than let the Western spies penetrate the country in the name of nuclear inspectors.
Khamenei’s insistence that he never interferes in the “details” of the negotiations added further credence to these concerns, even though his general support has given the opposite impression. For the past 12 years, he has consistently backed the Iranian negotiators publicly, while preserving the right to criticize their compromises later. This ambiguous posture has led many observers to make two contradictory conclusions: Either Khamenei hopes the negotiations fail before he can remove the pragmatists, or he is desperate for a deal that would lift the paralyzing sanctions. Both of these views miss the two-level game being played here. Khamenei has to juggle between regime security and his institutional interests within the regime. He needs a good deal, provided that it serves both the regime and his conservative grip on power. Otherwise, he would prefer a no deal or another extension, as he recently signaled.
Regime security and factional interests do not always align. But so far, Khamenei has proved to be an astute politician who maintains the right balance between security and faction interests even after grave blunders. In 2013, in what is a classic case of authoritarian durability, he skillfully used the presidential elections to partially mend the perilous rift that emerged in the aftermath of 2009 elections within the elites and between the state and the society. By accepting Rouhani’s candidacy and victory, he won back many disgruntled clerical, political, military and social elites and brought millions of resentful voters behind the polity. To be sure, the ascendance of a candidate who was not perceived as Khamenei’s choice temporarily undermined the supreme leader’s position, but it strengthened the regime’s overall legitimacy. Since then, Khamenei has recovered his factional loss, partly thanks to regional developments. Iranian conservatives boast that the leader’s prudence and resistance paid off, as Iran is now a dominant power in the Middle East, controlling four capitals in the Arab world. The survival of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was particularly critical in changing the domestic balance of power in Khamenei’s favor. The recent selection of conservative Mohammad Yazdi to head the Assembly of Experts after his startling defeat of Rouhani’s mentor, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is the latest evidence of this factional recovery.
Now, in order to gain more credibility for the regime and himself, Khamenei is encouraging the mass media, the universities and other forums to openly foster a national nuclear dialogue. This deliberate debate could reveal, he hopes, that no matter how many concessions Iran makes, the United States will cheat and renege on its promises and impose new sanctions on Iran under new pretexts, instead of removing the old ones. For Khamenei, this could be a fruitful educational process for the elites and the hopeful masses to finally see what he has described as the Americans’ hypocrisy and animosity, and the Iranian pragmatists’ naivete and timidity.
Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar is an assistant professor of international affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He is also a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.