Don’t Fear the Hard-Liners

If domestic politics kills the Iran nuclear program deal, it will be in Washington, not Tehran.

Iranian Shiite Muslim worshippers attend the weekly Friday prayer on April 3, 2015, in the Iranian capital Tehran. Iran vowed to stand by a nuclear deal with world powers as President Hassan Rouhani promised it would open a "new page" in the country's global ties. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

The scenes in Tehran in the hours following the announcement of the nuclear deal were a testament to how important Iranians felt it was to their lives. In different cities, people took to the streets on Thursday, honking horns, waving flags, cheering. It had been a long time coming. In the months leading up to the deadline, whenever I visited or called friends and family in Iran, the first questions I heard were typically, “What’s going on in the talks? Will we get a deal?” A day after the agreement was made public in Lausanne, when Friday prayers were held across Iran, prayer leaders welcomed a “success” for the Islamic Republic, and upon his arrival at the airport, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s return to the country was celebrated as if he’d led Iran to the next World Cup.

With the technical issues on the table in Lausanne now virtually all addressed, many eyes are turning toward Washington and Tehran to see what will happen next. As the parties draft a final deal ahead of the June 30 deadline, the key challenges won’t be in the international arena, but in the domestic politics of both capitals. There are, to be sure, a number of skeptics in Iran, some of them in positions of power: Hossein Shariatmadari, the managing editor of the influential hard-line newspaper Kayhan, for instance, said Iran had “given up a horse with a saddle for a broken harness.” Esmail Kowsari, a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, claimed that the Iranian negotiating team “has only killed time” in the past year, and that “the nation and country’s time has been wasted.”

But despite these protests, it is Washington, not Tehran, where domestic politics are most likely to become a stumbling point. The three months between the announcement of the agreement and when the final deal will be made public are a crucial phase that could make or break its success. Interim deals have been brought home to skeptical audiences before. But this time — at least in Tehran — a combination of factors, from the savvy salesmanship of the negotiating team to the implicit backing of some of the country’s most important stakeholders seem primed to ensure, if not smooth sailing, then at least enough buy-in keep the accord viable.

Zarif will be summoned before Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, on Sunday, as he has been periodically throughout the process so far. The attitude of the Majlis tends to mirror that of the U.S. Congress: When Iran hawks in Washington begin balking at negotiations, their counterparts in the Majlis usually do the same. The Majlis, like Congress, wants to play a role in the process; it wants to be kept in the loop — after all, the nuclear negotiations are the country’s top foreign policy priority. Zarif has gone to the Majlis a number of times throughout the process, and engaged with hard-liners there – but this time, he will come particularly prepared.

Zarif learned his lesson in November 2013, after his team announced an interim deal only to have hard-liners dominate Iran’s domestic debate. He has done a much better job laying the groundwork for success this time around. Fresh off the plane from Lausanne, Zarif began speaking to the press and trying to shape the narrative: He both went over some of the terms of the agreement, but also reiterated the strength and fairness of the accord saying Iran would neither submit, nor expect the other side to submit.

President Hassan Rouhani, too, has been doing his part to sell the agreement at home, reminding the domestic audience in an address to the nation this week that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, had been involved in the negotiating process all along, constantly “providing advice” to the government and its negotiators. This was a clear message to the hawks: the supreme leader is on the negotiating team’s side and aware of all of its work. Indeed, in his remarks after announcing the deal, Zarif thanked Khamenei, the highest political authority in the country. It was an appropriate thanks to offer. Without Khamenei’s endorsement, there wouldn’t have been a negotiating process to start with.

Khamenei is known beyond Iran’s borders as a hard-liner, and on many issues, like his views on the United States and Israel, that’s the case. But on the nuclear program, he’s been a moderating force. His role isn’t just limited to giving the green light to negotiations, and a thumbs up or thumbs down to the end result; he’s also been kept apprised throughout. Some members of the negotiating team, like Abbas Araghchi, the chief nuclear negotiator, have a direct line to Khamenei’s office.

Khamenei has been firm throughout these discussions: He’s warned continuously that the United States cannot be trusted and even if the nuclear issue is solved, that doesn’t mean the end to the contentious relationship between his country and America. But his endorsement of the negotiating team’s efforts has played a key role in quieting a very small but vocal minority of critics in Iran. In particular, his endorsement has helped shape the position of another key stakeholder: the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Many observers and policymakers in the West believe that the IRGC serves as a sort of beacon for Iranian hard-liners, the institution from which they take their cues. And the IRGC could stand to lose from a nuclear agreement. The guard corps has benefitted financially from sanctions and the country’s political isolation: The corps has gotten involved in businesses ranging from infrastructure to importing goods in part as a result of a limited private sector and limited foreign companies due to sanctions.

But so far, even the IRGC has remained relatively placid. They’ve cautiously endorsed the negotiators, much like their commander in chief, Khamenei. IRGC commander Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, for instance, endorsed sanctions relief during the November 2013 round of negotiations. “God willing, it will be successful,” the hard-line general said.

In the past, the Guards Corps has proven itself to be surprisingly flexible and able to adjust to changing policies and circumstances. The IRGC has gone through a series of reinventions, remaking itself from an organization aimed at maintaining internal security at the beginning of a revolution, to one that protects the country from outside threats during the Iran-Iraq War, to, now, Iran’s biggest security apparatus, with a navy, army, air force, and intelligence unit, as well as elite forces. This flexibility, along with its allegiance to Khamenei, means that it will likely continue to cautiously support the negotiating team’s efforts.

The hard-liners will continue to stage their protests. A headline in Saturday’s Kayhan, for instance, reads, “The nuclear [program] is gone, the sanctions remain.” But popular support, the ayatollah and the IRGC’s cautious endorsements, and Zarif’s efforts to set the terms of this round of debate early on mean that hard-line criticism from Tehran will likely be contained to a few scathing editorials, harsh statements, and attempts to undermine the negotiating team but no major efforts at sabotage. If only Congress were so predictable.


Ariane Tabatabai is the Middle East fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and an adjunct senior research fellow at Columbia University. She’s the author of the forthcoming No Conquest, No Defeat: Iran’s National Security Strategy.

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