Nuclear deal? In Iran, a campaign over who can take credit.
Why We Wrote This
It’s the economy …! The promise of prosperity is a positive political motivator. But that doesn’t make Iran’s debate over whether and how to return to the landmark nuclear deal any less of a bitter brawl.
Iranians attend a rally marking the 42nd anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 10, 2021. The anniversary was an occasion for politicking between bitter political rivals over the possible return to the 2015 nuclear deal.
February 16, 2021
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Banking on the 2015 nuclear deal and engagement with the West, President Hassan Rouhani once raised Iranian hopes of openness and prosperity, only to watch them dissolve as more U.S. sanctions crippled the economy. He was pilloried for trusting the United States.
Now, with only months left for Mr. Rouhani’s time in office, an American president is talking about a return to the deal his predecessor discarded.
As Iran gears up for elections in June, at stake is which political faction will be able to take credit for any deal that lifts sanctions and delivers a thriving economy. If Iranian centrist and reformist factions are pushing for a quick reentry to the deal, conservatives and hard-liners are pushing to slow the process, both to deprive their opponents of bragging rights and to ensure that any new president from their camp can deliver the benefit.
“The economic approach … should give us some hope that ultimately pragmatism is dictating the policy – as long as the Iranian side doesn’t feel betrayed or belittled,” says analyst Adnan Tabatabai. In that case, he warns, “the ideological side of the argument, which is all about resistance and resilience, will be predominant again.”
The usual response, when Iran’s well-practiced chant leaders bark rhythmic recitations of “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” is for the crowd to noisily repeat the chant.
But politics in Iran are poisonously divisive, especially now, just four months before a crucial presidential vote and amid the frisson of a new U.S. president aiming to return America to a nuclear deal his predecessor discarded.
At stake in Iran is which political faction will be able to take credit for any deal that lifts sanctions and delivers a thriving economy, without suffering the humiliations of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, who has been pilloried for trusting the United States.
Mr. Rouhani had once raised Iranian hopes of openness and prosperity, banking on the 2015 nuclear deal and engagement with the West, only to watch those dissolve into hopelessness as more U.S. sanctions crippled the economy.
So in Isfahan, in a parade last week marking the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, young ideologues on motorcycles vented about those failures. When the chant leader called out from his loudspeakers, “Death to America!” the bikers replied, derisively: “Death to Rouhani!”
Trump impeachment: Outcome may be foregone conclusion, but impact isn’t
Again and again they denounced him, according to a video of the event, an incident that speaks to the political challenge in Iran of resurrecting the landmark nuclear deal.
Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal unilaterally in 2018, instead imposing a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic and diplomatic sanctions in a bid to force Iran to renegotiate.
After waiting a year, hoping in vain that the other power brokers of the deal – the European Union, Russia, and China – might take up the slack with sanctions relief, Iran began to incrementally violate the deal’s limits on uranium enrichment.
Both the U.S. and Iran now say they are ready to return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but demand that the other move first.
Experts say that creative synchronization of steps can solve the problem, and note that Americans close to President Joe Biden’s team opened discrete channels with influential Iranians – though not at an official level – as early as last November, to smooth the return to the deal.
But inside Iran, conservatives and hard-liners are pushing to slow the process, both to deprive their opponents of bragging rights before the June election and to ensure that any new president from their camp can deliver the benefit. In contrast, the centrist and reformist faction is pushing for a quick reentry to the deal, to boost the legacy of President Rouhani and even of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is himself tipped by some to be a possible presidential candidate.
At the same time, the conservatives remain deeply distrustful of the U.S., says Adnan Tabatabai, head of the Bonn-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO).
“The political costs to be fooled by the U.S. one more time is huge, and nothing short of political suicide,” he says. “Unfortunately, this one year of staying fully compliant, without reaping the benefits of it, has done serious harm to Iranian willingness to give concessions.”
Fruit of engagement
While the U.S. debate over the deal focuses on its nuclear restrictions and how best to prevent an atomic weapons-making capacity, in Iran it is often cast in economic terms, as a fruit of engagement necessary to boost the economy.
Mr. Rouhani, marking the anniversary celebrations Feb. 10, said there was “no other path” than a return to the deal and “engagement between Iran and the world.” Days earlier the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that after all sanctions were verifiably lifted “in practice,” Iran would resume its “full commitment” to the deal.
“The economic approach toward the JCPOA … should give us some hope that ultimately pragmatism is dictating the policy – as long as the Iranian side doesn’t feel betrayed or belittled,” says Mr. Tabatabai. In that case, he warns, “the ideological side of the argument, which is all about resistance and resilience, will be predominant again.”
Iranian Presidency Office/AP
President Hassan Rouhani addresses the nation in a televised speech in Tehran, Iran, Feb. 10, 2021. Mr. Rouhani said the West has no way except reaching an agreement with Tehran for restoring the landmark 2015 nuclear deal.
Hard-liners in Iran have opposed the nuclear deal from the start, politicizing it as a pointless giveaway of Iran’s technical achievements, and caving in to Western demands – for little in return – all while undermining the anti-American pillar of the 1979 revolution.
Though Mr. Rouhani’s promise of opening to the West was welcomed by voters, he and Mr. Zarif were attacked by hard-liners as anti-revolutionary traitors. As he provided some political cover – even coining the term “heroic flexibility” to justify the talks – Mr. Khamenei warned repeatedly that the U.S. should not be trusted.
When Mr. Trump abandoned the deal, Iran’s supreme leader was among the first to scold Mr. Rouhani in an I-told-you-so moment. Negotiations with arch-enemy America are “poison,” he said.
Trump’s lingering impact
Since Mr. Biden’s victory, the debate in Iran over whether and how to reengage with the U.S. had been public and constant.
As speculation grew about a return to the deal last November, the head of the ideological and political bureau in the supreme leader’s office warned Mr. Rouhani.
“Those who seek new negotiations with America are after factional and electoral gain. … They want to take advantage of the new situation to return to the political stage,” Rasoul Sanaee-Rad told the hard-line Mehr News. “Whether it is a Democrat or a Republican in the White House wouldn’t make much difference, the same way Coke and Pepsi are both American products and both harmful to human health.”
Yet those cautions are mere politicking, political scientist Ahmad Naghibzadeh told the reformist newspaper Arman Melli. “Conservatives are trying to set in their name and under their own signature any agreement toward economic relief.”
Nasser Hadian, a professor of political science at Tehran University, says the lingering impact of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal “has been tremendous. Certainly, it has strengthened the radicals, and discredited those who have supported Europe and the U.S.”
This makes the manner and timing of any return to the nuclear deal of crucial political importance, as factions joust for advantage before the June vote.
“I tend to believe that [Mr. Khamenei] would prefer that this be done by Rouhani and Zarif, because that would give him plausible deniability,” says Mr. Hadian. “Certainly, he is not going to trust [the Americans], but he doesn’t want to be blamed” for missing this opportunity to lift sanctions.
Keep voters unhappy
The conservatives’ strategy, however, would be to hinder, if possible, the return of Iran and America to the JCPOA before the election, he says.
Conservatives “know that, if we resolve the issue with the Americans … people would think that we are on the right path. The hope is going to be there,” Mr. Hadian says. “So they want to keep things the way they are, with people not optimistic and unsatisfied, so they don’t participate in the election – thus, they have a better chance of winning.”
Already Iran’s parliament, dominated by hard-liners, passed a law to force Mr. Rouhani to boost uranium enrichment levels beyond the 3.67% purity limit prescribed by the deal to 20%. Another provision requires Iran to scale back some cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency if there is no sanctions relief by Feb. 21.
“The JCPOA is dead. The stinking body was irritating our people,” the ultraconservative lawmaker Javad Karimi Ghoddousi said in January. “Thanks to the revolutionary parliament, and its revolutionary legislation, the JCPOA has now been buried.”
Analysts suggest that the law, designed to slow Iran’s return to the nuclear deal, is in fact a tool Mr. Rouhani can use to convince the U.S. to move quickly toward lifting sanctions, wary that a less accommodating president may be elected in June.
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“Obviously the trajectory of the JCPOA-related discussions will have a major impact on the discourse and overall mood of the elections,” says Mr. Tabatabai of CARPO.
“If the JCPOA return fails, that would allow far-right factions to build on the disappointment, the momentum, and the political apathy, which might spike even further,” he says. “If the JCPOA goes through and the return is championed, this can obviously help centrist forces, who argue for engagement with the world, to say, ‘Now we are on track to rebuild our economy.’”
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