After much heated debate and three failed attempts by the Republican-majority Senate to block it, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, entered its implementation phase. However, the vocal opposition of many U.S. senators may have inspired political debate far beyond the United States.
In July, Iranian state television broadcast a live U.S. congressional hearing to the general public for the first time in its history. Although the testimony at the hearing was replete with bitter rhetoric directed at the Iranian government, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, managed to exploit it for his own purposes. Following the hearings, Khamenei authorized the Iranian parliament (Majles) to become involved in the nuclear deal — from which it had previously been excluded — as a kind of retaliatory measure.
The most extreme of the Iranian MPs, who are close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, subsequently established a special JCPOA commission. Although this commission had no authority to change the provisions of the deal, its hearings, too, were broadcast live. In some respects, these hearings, and the manner in which Iranian leaders expressed their disapproval, were the first Iranian imports from the United States. By allowing hard-liner Iranian MPs to speak out about the JCPOA, the supreme leader accomplished several key goals.
After the nuclear deal was reached in Vienna, attacks on the agreement — by Republicans, by Israel and by some Gulf Cooperation Council members — commenced. They were so severe that Iran’s supreme leader began having concerns about the possibility of unilateral termination by the United States. Iran had learned from the 2005 American disapproval of an agreement reached between Iran and the European troika to approach the deal with caution. In August, Khamenei insisted that nothing was final; both the United States and Iran could potentially reject the deal. Khamenei had to simultaneously assure the P5+1 that the agreement would not be jeopardized by Iran and keep Iran’s position reversible. He had a tough road ahead.
On the one hand, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had made clear that his administration would be unable to govern if a nuclear deal was not reached. On the other hand, if the supreme leader announced his full compliance with the deal and the U.S. Congress rejected it, not only would the Iranian government pay the political cost of having compromised with the United States, but it also would have gained nothing from having done so. Inviting the Majles to participate in the process was, perhaps, a means of hedging his bets.
Unlike the administration of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when no comment regarding nuclear issues was allowed, the commission on the JCPOA was broadcast live and soon became public. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi and other negotiators were summoned to the commission, beginning a series of intense disputes between them and the extremist MPs. The hard-liners derided the negotiators as compromisers making concessions to foreigners, with accusations as harsh as if it were a trial.
These heated discussions, however, were intentional. The public difference of opinion would show the West that the nuclear agreement was not a done deal on the Iranian side, either, suggesting that if the radicals won, Iran would resume enrichment, inspiring the West to make more concessions. The underlying message was that the nuclear deal could be reversed entirely by Iran as well, not just the United States, at any time.
In the first two years of his administration, Rouhani considered the economy Iran’s gravest challenge and its sole solution the lifting of sanctions and a return to the international community. By appointing conservatives to the ministries of interior and culture, Rouhani tried not to provoke any further challenges with the supreme leader on issues other than the nuclear deal. But after the Vienna agreement, his reformist supporters expect signs of political openness, and Rouhani in turn needs their votes to win the forthcoming parliamentary elections in March 2016.
Therefore, weeks after the agreement, Rouhani challenged the involvement of the Guardian Council in approving candidates for those elections. He also implicitly referred to the State of the Islamic Republic as the replacement for the Islamic Revolution — rather than a continuation of it — contrary to what many conservatives believe. Both of these very progressive positions by Rouhani were sharply repudiated by the supreme leader
The JCPOA commission proved a useful tool to restrain Rouhani’s reformist agenda without Khamenei’s direct involvement. The MPs went so far as to suggest that Rouhani was incapable of holding office. Such criticism ensured that Rouhani would need greater support from Khamenei against the extremists, increasing the leader’s bargaining power vis-à-vis reforms that the president might seek in other areas.
The extremist current supported by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) during Ahmadinejad’s presidency was able to suppress all dissenting voices. With the rise of the Rouhani government and the conclusion of the nuclear deal, these extremists were on shaky ground, leaving many in Khamenei’s circle upset about the state of the country. By involving the Majles in the nuclear deal, the supreme leader may be seeking to mobilize fundamentalists and IRGC forces in advance of the parliamentary election.
If extremists lacked opportunities like the JCPOA commission to play a role in Iran’s foreign policy, they might become more active within the existing order and eventually could become dangerous for Khamenei himself. With the commission as an outlet for their energy and anger, the probability of this risk has waned.
Khamenei’s involvement of the Majles was a clever ploy designed to achieve both internal and external objectives. By designing a game with much fanfare but without significant adverse impact on the deal, the Iranian leader has provided an outlet for the deal’s opponents that also enables him to contain them. We will have to wait and see if these efforts pay off.
Amir Hossein Mahdavi is a graduate research assistant at Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies and a graduate student at Harvard University’s Center for Middle East Studies. He previously served as an editor at several of Iran’s dailies.