The view from the ground.

The Struggle for Iran’s Soul

An unplanned handshake between Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and President Barack Obama has triggered a battle between reformists and hard-line opponents keen on sabotaging the nascent rapprochement with the United States.


TEHRAN — To his admirers, he is a consummate diplomat -- eloquent, urbane, and tough. To his enemies, however, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is a dangerous man, and they're looking to undermine his meteoric rise.

TEHRAN — To his admirers, he is a consummate diplomat — eloquent, urbane, and tough. To his enemies, however, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is a dangerous man, and they’re looking to undermine his meteoric rise.

As Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator, Zarif closed a deal that likely averted a war and looks to take his country out of the international wilderness. On the night the nuclear deal was struck, his name was chanted in the streets in the same breath as Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian prime minister toppled in a British and U.S.-sponsored coup in 1953, motivated by access to oil. Against today’s familiar messages of “resistance” from Tehran’s ruling clerics, Mossadegh is fondly remembered by most as a national hero. As such, Iran’s hard-liners have placed a bull’s-eye squarely on Zarif’s back: Despite his devout upbringing, the foreign minister — like the democratically elected Mossadegh — has started to look more like a nationalist hellbent on change than a loyal revolutionary, a dangerous position in the eyes of Iran’s clerical theocracy.

The nuclear deal may lift sanctions and open up an economy long-closed to much of the West, but it has revived the worst nightmares of some of the Islamic Republic’s aging founders. American infiltration is their new bogeyman. In Tehran, where dialogue with foreigners automatically breeds suspicion, Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani are treading a difficult path. A furor has followed the unplanned handshake between Zarif and U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the recent U.N. General Assembly, exposing the power struggle taking place within the top ranks in Tehran.

Iran’s most conservative faction, still largely loyal to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wants to stop the prospect of a further thaw with the United States. Moderates are also largely against such a step but are not closed off to the possibility of cooperation beyond the nuclear deal. Ardent reformists want normal diplomatic relations. But unlike the gentlemanly diplomacy conducted by the smiling and affable Zarif, such a debate over Iran’s future will not be conducted in private.

“Some spies are paid, but there is another kind of spying that we have to watch out for,” Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejeie, Iran’s deputy judiciary chief and its spokesman, said in a press conference in Tehran the day after the Obama-Zarif handshake in New York. “He prepares the ground for the enemy.”

As is common among Iranian officials with the privilege of using the media to unleash their displeasure, he did not name Zarif, the obvious subject of his consternation, preferring innuendo instead.

“These people would say: ‘Why not allow a friendly handshake with the enemy? What’s wrong with shaking hands with Obama? What’s wrong with sitting with them, chatting away and drinking with them?’”

A relationship with America, to conservatives such as Ejeie, spells the end of the Islamic revolution. For him, the nuclear deal is not a way to lift Iran out of the economic mess created by Ahmadinejad — in whose cabinet he served as intelligence minister, before being fired — but a harbinger of even worse to come.

Diplomatic relations with America will not happen soon — Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will not allow it. He said so again on Oct. 7, when he ruled out further negotiations with the United States, warning that such talks would “open gates to their economic, cultural, political, and security influence” in Tehran. Khamenei’s intervention, to many in Tehran, was taken as a direct rebuke of Zarif’s handshake with Obama.

But the ground has already shifted. President Rouhani talks of efforts to lessen enmity. Educational exchanges between the United States and Iran are speeding up. Business deals, probably first with European states, may be next. When the nuclear talks were deadlocked in early July, Zarif cited the barbarism of the Islamic State as a reason for doing a deal now. It didn’t harm Iran’s negotiating position but made it look like the rational party that Iran’s critics say it is not.

Syria may also lead to greater diplomacy and cooperation. In that war-wracked country, where the death toll is approaching 250,000, Iran has backed President Bashar al-Assad to the hilt, sending in generals from its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to advise and arguably lead Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and other militias against the Islamic State. Another leading IRGC general was killed last week in Aleppo, highlighting Assad’s ever-deeper reliance on Tehran.

Despite having boots on the ground, Iran is now seen as essential to a diplomatic solution — a sharp contrast to the situation before nuclear diplomacy began to break down barriers. As such, Zarif, whose credibility surged with the nuclear deal, has steadily started to look like a man with whom the West’s increasingly desperate leaders could do business.

He met with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during his recent trip to New York, during which the U.N. chief “asked Iran to exercise its influence in promoting a political solution” in Syria, according to a readout from Ban’s office. Such is the stark change from 2012, when Iran was not even invited to U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva about Syria’s future. Despite the presence of the IRGC in Syria, no one believes the endgame will be by military means alone.

To Zarif and Rouhani’s opponents, however, the only calculus that matters is survival. The nuclear talks, which hard-liners undermined from the start, have left Iran’s conservatives sidelined and angry. Without an enemy such as the “Great Satan,” how can Iran’s ideological regime continue? 

Having spent 20 of his 55 years in the United States as a student and diplomat, Iran’s foreign minister is not a pure product of the revolution. He was in San Francisco — not Tehran — when radical Islamist students stormed the U.S. Embassy in 1979. While many of his current critics headed to combat in the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, he stayed in America, first helping out at the Iranian consulate in San Francisco, then closing its doors when diplomatic ties were cut that same year, and later working for the Islamic Republic’s ambassador to the United Nations. By the time the Iran-Iraq War was ending, and after hundreds of thousands of young men had been killed and maimed, Zarif was the youngest diplomat involved in crafting the cease-fire resolution.

Such a role, however, seems to count for little among the likes of Ejeie. A struggle for the future of Iran is already underway — one in which a hard-line vision of the Islamic Republic will be pitted against that of pragmatists like Zarif in two crucial elections next year. Within five months, not only could Iran elect a more moderate parliament that may help Rouhani pass some of the modest social and cultural reforms he promised as a candidate, it may also sow the seeds of a different country.

The elections to the majlis, Iran’s parliament, will be held in February 2016. On the same day, the electorate will pick the 86 members of the Assembly of Experts, the only body that has the power to dismiss a supreme leader. In practice, the assembly has become a salon for praising the incumbent — but given that the next formation will serve for eight years, it may well pick a successor to the 76-year-old Khamenei.

Rouhani knows the darker forces of the regime, namely its judiciary and other powerful clerical bodies, are prepared to meddle, and he has warned them against ballot fraud. There is no public mood for tumult — Iranians have seen the wreckage that has come from the Arab Spring — but neither they nor Khamenei want a repeat of the contested 2009 reelection of Ahmadinejad. Rouhani, despite Iran’s sputtering economy, is currently viewed as close to unbeatable in 2017, when he’ll seek a second term. “He has no plan for defeat,” said an ally.

Rouhani’s chances seem assured partly because the conservative camp remains split after Ahmadinejad’s rancorous tenure. However, the hopes that Rouhani has raised are far from fulfilled. The economy has slowed again in recent months, and a letter from four of his ministers warning the president of a new economic crisis was recently leaked. It has served as a reminder that Rouhani cannot afford to simply bask in the glow of his recent diplomatic achievement.

Rouhani’s reelection will also mean little if he doesn’t have a moderate parliament that can deliver reform at home. Without success for his allies in the February election, Rouhani’s supporters fear he could suffer a similarly sad fate as Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s last reformist president, who despite incredible personal popularity was stymied by hard-liners in his attempts to deliver change. Khatami is now a recluse, banned by the regime from traveling abroad or giving public speeches. Iran’s leaders fear the influence he can still wield — he helped Rouhani get elected in 2013 by persuading the eventual winner’s closest rival to drop out of the race. Newspapers are not allowed to use his name or image, referring to him only as “the reformist president.” As one leading analyst in Tehran put it: “They want to make the public forget about him.”

Zarif’s popularity is also prompting speculation about his own future. Could he stand for president, likely in 2021? “I have urged him to go for it, but he seems very reluctant,” one Tehran insider said. Westerners discount the possibility. “He’s a technocrat, not a politician,” said a European ambassador in the Iranian capital.

The fact that such internal debates are taking place has already proved that Iran has changed. Zarif and Rouhani have shown an Iran beyond the “axis of evil” stereotype. Many Iranians, whose liberties were fenced in by the security state that took hold of the country after the 2009 revolt, see an opportunity — particularly the young who were born after the revolution, who want jobs rather than more war or the hardship of sanctions. Given these changing aspirations, there is a potential political opening for moderation — and Rouhani and Zarif just may be positioned to seize on the public mood. But first they have to withstand the assault bearing down on them from the old guard.


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