Lend Rouhani a Hand

As the hard-liners wage a media war against the reform government of Hassan Rouhani and his nascent nuclear deal, the West has to step up and show it means business.

Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is under fire from his right flank. Less than a year after the reform-minded Rouhani was elected, hard-line critics say that engagement in negotiations with the P5+1 over Iran’s nuclear program puts the country in grave danger. The negotiating team is reading the "last rites for the Islamic Republic," one hard-liner said after a May 3 conference of Rouhani critics called "We Are Concerned."

That may be an exaggeration. The Rouhani government, with tentative backing from the powerful clergy, is making earnest efforts to reach an agreement over the future of Iran’s nuclear program. But under pressure from political adversaries at home and influential quarters in the Middle East, Rouhani will need the West to cooperate too.

Hard-liners have transformed the negotiations into an excuse to weaken and possibly paralyze the Rouhani administration. They reject the "dishonorable" interim Geneva accord that freezes Iran’s nuclear program in return for temporary, partial sanctions relief. They claim that Iran has made every concession, but received nothing in return, and that the most crippling economic sanctions are still in place — and may not be lifted for years, even if a final agreement is reached. They also claim that the Rouhani administration has colluded with the West and has retreated significantly from Iran’s defensible position of maintaining a meaningful nuclear enrichment program, but has received no concessions in exchange for its sacrifices.

While Rouhani’s critics oppose the sanctions, they also refuse to make concessions that might get them lifted for good. The sanctions are not a response to Iran’s nuclear program, they say, but an instrument to topple the Islamic Republic. They fear that even if Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States — plus Germany) reach a comprehensive agreement, the sanctions may not be lifted.

The hard-liners declare that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is a national achievement and thus should not be given up or scaled back, and that Iran can resist the sanctions by resorting to what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei refers to as the "resistance economy" of self-sufficiency. Thus, the hard-liners reject any reduction in the number of centrifuges that Iran may have, oppose redesigning the new research reactor under construction in Arak to produce far less plutonium, and will not accept a complete halt to production of enriched uranium at 19.75 percent.

And the chorus of dissent within Iran is growing louder. In a May 21 newspaper editorial, Kayhan, the mouthpiece of the hard-liners, declared that "all the concessions made to Iran in the Geneva accord were only promises" and that in return for Iran’s "27 obligations" made to the P5+1, the West had committed itself to stop its efforts to halt the flow of Iran’s oil exports. But, claimed the editorial, under U.S. pressure, Iran’s oil exports greatly decreased in March and April. Moreover, Iran was to receive payments of $4.2 billion, but has received only $2.65 billion because, due to the sanctions on Iranian banks and financial institutions, the rest of the funds cannot be transferred to Iran. Japan has transferred what it owed Iran to banks in Oman and the United Arab Emirates, but the funds cannot be transferred to Tehran.

Piling on, Saeed Zibakalam, an academic hard-liner, said in an interview reported by Mehr News that the letter that Rouhani wrote to Khamenei after the Geneva accord was signed was a "big lie." He also claimed that Javad Zarif lies when the foreign minister says that Iran’s nuclear rights have been preserved. "I believe he means the building [of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure] has been preserved [not the nuclear right]," he added.

Put simply, the hard-liners are worried that control is slipping away, and they appear intent on undermining the Rouhani government. Some conservatives, however, say that these proclamations about Rouhani single-handedly bringing down the Islamic Republic are unnecessarily alarmist. The Iranian Constitution stipulates that the supreme leader has a final say on matters of national security and won’t allow a deal to move forward that undermines the regime.

"I declare with certainty that the Supreme National Security Council has set all the details of the negotiations, which cannot be deviated from," said Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of the parliament’s national security and foreign-policy commission. "How is it possible that the supreme leader let the negotiations team to continue their work and ‘read the last rites’ [to the nuclear program]?"

Khamenei himself may not be in line with the most extreme of these anti-negotiation positions, but he does have concerns. He has said repeatedly that he is not optimistic about the talks with the P5+1, predicting that Washington will force them to fail by demanding too many concessions from Iran. "I have always supported creativity in foreign policy and diplomatic negotiations," but the United States and its allies are "trying to force Iran to retreat and bringing it to its knees," Khamenei said this month.

And the supreme leader, who has final say over the country’s foreign policy, has his own red lines as well. Iran’s conventional missile program is one of them. The legal precedent seems quite clear: U.N. Security Council Resolution 1696 calls on governments to "exercise vigilance and prevent the transfer of any items, materials, goods and technology that could contribute to Iran’s enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and ballistic missile programmes." Resolution 1929 stipulates that Iran "shall not acquire an interest in … technology related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons."

Khamenei rejects both resolutions and views them as illegitimate. "They are expecting Iran to limit its missile program while also threatening Iran. Thus, their demand is stupid and idiotic," Khamenei said this month while visiting commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

As the ayatollah tries to pour cold water on the nuclear deal, the P5+1 has an even bigger role to play. If Rouhani doesn’t receive tangible results from the negotiations, the Rouhani government may have to forgo any hope of genuine domestic reform — potentially, a decade-long setback.

But the nuclear negotiations don’t have to lead to failure despite contentious issues. All political factions in Iran have repeatedly stated that their country is not pursuing nuclear weapons. Khamenei has even issued a fatwa against the production of nuclear weapons. Iran has indicated its willingness to allow extensive inspections led by the International Atomic Energy Agency to prove its intentions. Even Mohsen Rezai, a retired commander of the IRGC and the secretary of the Expediency Council, has said that Iran is not interested in nuclear weapons and is willing to provide "any guarantee" and make the program "completely transparent."

But the onus is now on Rouhani, who must produce tangible results by winning
greater reductions in economic sanctions. This will allow him to stand up to the hard-liners on domestic issues, in particular human rights. The president has firmly and publicly rejected blocking access to social media and text-messaging services, has declared his support for equality of gender rights, and has encouraged free speech.

Significant sanctions relief that will help in reviving Iran’s economy will go a long way toward this goal. That has not happened yet. On the contrary, several months after signing the Geneva accord, the West — and, in particular, the United States — has still not delivered on its commitment to supply Iran’s old civilian aircraft with the spare parts that will allow them to fly safely. And, as the Kayhan editorial notes, Iran still does not even have direct access to the oil revenue that is to be released in installments according to last November’s Geneva agreement.

Rouhani wants to reach a comprehensive and final nuclear agreement. He believes that diplomatic relations with the United States — suspended since 1980 — can resume after an agreement is reached. But serious forces are aligned against him. Iranian, American, and Israeli hard-liners oppose and are doing their utmost to scuttle the negotiations. The consequences could be dire.

If the negotiations fail, the Middle East will witness more wars, and regional and international security will be unstable for years to come. A collapse of the nuclear negotiations will increase the likelihood of a war between Iran and Israel, a situation that would dramatically disrupt the flow of oil from the region — and with it inflict serious pain on the global economy.

The West must aid the Rouhani administration in its efforts. If a final agreement is reached, it will have profound consequences for peace and stability in the Middle East and beyond. The future of any hope for stability and genuine reform in Iran, too, hangs in the balance.

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