Selling the Nuclear Deal in Tehran
President Hassan Rouhani is riding a wave of popularity, and is seeking to transform his diplomatic victory into political leverage at home.
TEHRAN — President Hassan Rouhani was grinning ear to ear when he spoke to Iranians on Aug. 2. In what was the biggest in a series of stage-managed government media appearances, Rouhani said on state television that “today’s achievements are more than what was imagined yesterday, and what we have achieved today is more than what we thought we could two years ago.”
The message to the Iranian public was clear: The nuclear agreement is a good deal, and let’s get it done. In a sign of growing acceptance that he has won this domestic battle, there has been little dissent voiced recently in Tehran.
Sunday night’s appearance was very different from Rouhani’s last big public event. On June 13, when giving a press conference in Tehran with the outcome of the talks still in doubt, he appeared far from confident. “He was looking at one of his advisors every so often,” recalled one well-connected Iranian establishment figure. “It was almost as if he didn’t know what to say.”
Already, that seems like history. With the nuclear deal in hand, the president has reason to be more confident that the political wind is at his back. His gamble with nuclear diplomacy seems to have paid off: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was struck in Vienna on July 14 and was greeted late that evening by celebrations in Tehran. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s name — not Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s or Rouhani’s — was sung in the streets.
Unlike a speech given by Khamenei four days after the deal in which a giant crowd in Tehran chanted “Death to America,” there was no ill will expressed toward the United States by Iranians on the night of July 14. Many Iranians expressed gratitude to Secretary of State John Kerry for sticking with negotiations when it seemed it would be easier to walk away. Tired of being treated like international lepers, many Iranians want to come in from the cold. Rouhani is now capitalizing on that pent-up desire.
A failure in the talks, on the other hand, would have finished Rouhani — if not immediately, then probably in 2017, when he faces reelection. Instead, the United Nations has passed a resolution that makes way for sanctions to be lifted. Few think that the U.S. Congress, which has less than 50 days left to review the deal, will be able to muster a veto-overriding majority against the deal. Iran’s parliament has seen some consternation about the agreement, too — but despite the noise, the lawmakers who shout loudly are a minority and will never oppose Khamenei.
However, spoilers within Iran’s complex power structure still threaten to throw a wrench in what should be Rouhani’s moment of victory. On July 20, as the U.N. Security Council prepared to pass a resolution on the deal, a top Iranian military figure broke ranks. “Some parts of the draft have clearly crossed the Islamic Republic’s red lines,” said Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Jafari argued that the resolution detrimentally affects the maintenance and upgrading of Iran’s ballistic missile industry, and therefore constituted an “unacceptable” interference in Iranian military capabilities. His intervention was nevertheless the IRGC’s way of noting that the shadowy military force is not at one with the government. “We will never accept it,” Jafari said of the resolution.
The IRGC commander was supported by the bête noire of Zarif and his colleagues in the Foreign Ministry — Hossein Shariatmadari, editor in chief of Kayhan, the chosen journal of Iran’s hard-liners. “Even by simply looking at the deal you can see some vital red lines of the Islamic Republic have not been preserved,” he said. In a sign of Rouhani’s annoyance at Shariatmadari’s long-standing opposition to a nuclear deal, the newspaper was on Aug. 3 given a warning that it was breaching reporting guidelines on a deal designed to “maintain national unity.”
The comments of Jafari and Shariatmadari, both Khamenei appointees, are highly confusing. Nobody in the Islamic Republic believes Rouhani or Zarif would ever conceal details of the deal from Khamenei, who surely approved it before it was published. Yet on July 18, Khamenei said the text of the agreement must be carefully examined to protect against the insincerity and untrustworthiness of the six world powers with whom Iran signed the agreement.
In the public-private labyrinth that is Iranian decision-making, this seems to be further proof that Khamenei is leaving himself an emergency escape route — should the deal collapse, he wants to be able to say that he warned all along that America could not be trusted. As one joke about his renowned ambiguity goes, the supreme leader’s speeches always carry at least two messages: Just in case he’s wrong on the first point, he can always say he was right on the second.
Despite the naysayers, Zarif and his deputy, Abbas Araghchi, are holding firm. Iran has got a good deal, they say. Zarif even told parliament that “give and take” with the West was necessary. Such candid admissions are rare and not without risk in a forum which sees a lot of “Death to America” orations, despite many in the chamber resisting the sentiment.
For now, however, Rouhani and Zarif appear to be ascendant. The foreign minister, after being more or less banished for the eight years of Ahmadinejad’s rule, is now the hero of the hour. Hard-liners, meanwhile, hate the thought of him or Rouhani garnering public adulation, given that it magnifies their own past failures. But the supreme leader appears to think differently: “Whether this deal is approved or not … they deserve their reward,” Khamenei said of Iran’s nuclear negotiators on July 18.
For all the mystique that surrounds the IRGC, Khamenei’s words carry far more weight in determining the course of Iranian politics. As such, Jafari’s criticism of the deal is likely another smokescreen designed to insulate Iran’s main military force — whose chief task is to protect the revolutionary state from threats at home and abroad — from any hint that it would cooperate with the West.
Zarif, meanwhile, has sung a different tune. On July 8, when the nuclear talks seemed to be struggling, he held out the possibility of greater cooperation between Iran and the West in confronting the Islamic State. Iran, he wrote in the Financial Times, was “prepared to open new horizons to address the shared challenges,” such as the growth of extremism that, he warned, threatened to spread to Europe. The IRGC, already bogged down in Syria, is unlikely to share Zarif’s enthusiasm for any alliance.
Rouhani’s supporters are already encouraging him to be bold. With the economy still hurting, the president remains on probation among ordinary Iranians as well as the elite, many of whom want him post-deal to act fast to effectively erase a black decade in the nation’s history.
“I expect the political pressure may rise even higher,” a reform-minded analyst said of Rouhani’s next steps. “Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government infuriated our civilization. The urban middle class of Iran is hoping that Mr. Rouhani can bring it back.”
Another Iranian political battle has already been launched: Parliamentary elections will be held in February. Rouhani’s new challenge is to harness the momentum of the nuclear deal to allow his moderate allies to remove the Ahmadinejad-era cronies, who have opposed efforts at reform in the past two years. All Rouhani has said so far is that the elections should be fair, a demand likely intended to signify that not all of the reformists who were banished after 2009’s disputed presidential election should be disqualified this time around.
To further complicate matters, a less heralded but arguably more influential vote will be held on the same day as the parliamentary ballot. Iran’s electorate will pick the country’s next Assembly of Experts, a powerful committee that appoints and theoretically has the authority to dismiss a supreme leader. Khamenei is now 76 years old. Rumors of health problems and possible prostate cancer persist, though he has looked and sounded remarkably robust of late. But many doubt he will be in power in a decade — when the nuclear deal’s main restrictions lapse — and when the effects of the agreement will be far easier to judge than they are now.
The length of the deal preoccupies the founders of the Islamic Republic who, 36 years after the revolution, are steadily dying out. But for all the talk of transformation in the next decade, Rouhani has to keep Khamenei on his side if he hopes to challenge Iran’s conservative establishment on difficult social issues, such as the hundreds of political prisoners jailed in the upheaval that followed the 2009 presidential election. The men who said that ballot was rigged — presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi — have been under house arrest for four years. Rouhani, as a candidate, said he hoped they could be freed. Few think they can, as long as Khamenei is alive.
“That is the leader’s other red line,” a prominent reformist said. “Khamenei cannot control Karroubi or Mousavi, so they cannot be released yet.”
Such a blockage does not help Rouhani, the man who says he is a reformer but has yet to show it in arenas beyond the nuclear dispute. But as he showed in the nuclear battle, Rouhani is capable of gritting his teeth for confrontation if necessary.
“Never threaten an Iranian anymore,” he said on July 23, before immediately sweetening his tone. “This agreement sent the message to the world that the most difficult and complex international issues can be resolved through negotiations. Iran’s path is a path of moderation.”
Be it in Tehran or Washington, Rouhani will be held to account on that claim.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images