The conversation in Western capitals about the nuclear deal signed between world powers and Iran in Geneva last weekend has focused on the degree of sanctions relief and uranium-enrichment limits involved in the trade-off. But in Tehran, supporters and critics of the agreement in the corridors of power and on the streets see the Geneva deal as nothing less than a historic pivot in the Islamic Republic’s dealings with the West. And that puts the fragile agreement at the very heart of a high-stakes political battle over the country’s future.
Credit for Geneva in Iran has gone to the government of President Hassan Rouhani, whose public diplomacy and skillful foreign minister have been essential to securing multilateral Western agreement. But the ultimate responsibility rests with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who approved the bilateral talks with the United States that laid the groundwork for the accord. “This deal was a wider decision to reach accommodation with the West, even if the regime doesn’t want it to look that way,” said Alireza Haghighi, an Iranian political analyst based in Canada.
That Khamenei himself blessed the talks has largely relieved the Rouhani government of the burden of selling the deal. “If Mr. Khamenei is the head of this plan and Rouhani happens to be the overseer, that means criticizing the plan is tantamount to criticizing Khamenei, which doesn't happen,” says Jamshid Barzegar, a senior analyst at BBC Persian. “That’s why the criticism so far hasn’t been substantive, widespread or especially serious.”
On Friday two of the country’s most senior clerics, grand ayatollahs Nasser Makaram Shirazi and Lotfollah Safi-Golpayegani, lent the agreement Qom’s official backing. Other prominent clerics like Ayatollah Abdollah Javdi-Amoli signaled their support before the negotiators even departed for Geneva.“There is no other way but this,” Shirazi said in a meeting with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
While the agreement’s hard-line critics may be muting their anger in deference to Khamenei, they are still fuming. In parliament Wednesday, Foreign Minister Zarif faced light questioning from a handful of conservative MPs over the agreement’s language around enrichment.
But the sharpest backlash has come from a temporary alliance of the hard-line faction known as Jebhey-e Paydaari (Steadfastness Front), for whom the deal is major existential defeat, and the allies of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who oppose it chiefly on the grounds that it did not occur under their watch.
The website Bibaknews, affiliated with Ahmadinejad and his allies, has castigated the agreement all week, comparing it to the Treaty of Turkemenchay of 1828 — a deal synonymous with total diplomatic failure, in which Iran’s Qajar king forfeited considerable Persian land to the Russians. “Ahmadinejad and his allies are the deal’s most dangerous opponents,” said Haghighi.
The interim agreement has political critics, certainly, but Haghighi notes there are also opponents who have an economic stake in undermining it. The myriad profiteers and underground businessmen who are profiting off Iran’s sanctions economy will stand to lose if the more important sanctions are eased in a final agreement, and there are worries that these elements will make common cause with Rouhani’s political foes. The position of the powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps, whose companies have bid freely for contracts in the oil and gas sectors now that many foreign firms have been excluded as a result of sanctions, isn’t entirely clear. The corps has said little publicly about the Geneva deal. “This is both interesting and somewhat like the Saudi silence,” said Reza HaghighatNejad, an Iranian journalist who monitors the independent and hard-line press.
But those around Rouhani realize increasingly that the president’s domestic project is intimately tied to the Geneva agreement, which will require sustained public support. “People need to see that cooperating with the West has a positive influence on their daily lives,” said Haghighi.
Keeping Iranians on board will largely depend on whether the final agreement includes relief from oil and banking sanctions, whose effects will be most acutely felt within the span of Rouhani’s first term. At the same time, many supporters argue that Rouhani must do more domestically to stay connected with the change-hungry constituents who voted him into power. “The current efforts (from Geneva) can only succeed when the administration can regain the massive support, especially of the youth,” wrote Isa Saharkhiz, a prominent journalist and activist released from prison just last month, in Rooz Online.
Earlier this week, on the occasion of his 100th day in office, Rouhani released a video featuring Iranian musicians and personalities paying tribute to his efforts to open up Iran and present a softer, more humane face of the Islamic Republic. Modeled after President Barack Obama’s Emmy-winning “Yes We Can” video, its debut the same week that negotiators returned from Geneva shows how both his presidency and the interim agreement rely heavily on a public mandate for moderation.
Also central is how the Rouhani government will fare in beating back whatever hard-line opposition emerges to the deal. That opposition, says Khajehpour, has lost most of its formal power, “but they are still everywhere,” present in the lower ranks of government, in parliament in enough numbers to initiate impeachment procedures, in the ranks of organizations like the Revolutionary Guards. The Rouhani government has sought to integrate certain figures close to the Ahmadinejad faction into its ranks, with the aim of containing them. “It will be important in the end to see how the overall political establishment and the moderate forces will manage to contain them,” Khajehpour says.
What’s clear is that Iran has expended major political capital on the Geneva agreement, and much going forward — from domestic rivalries to the fate of the Islamic Republic’s historic turn toward reconciliation — will depend on a final agreement. Says the BBC’s Barzegar, “If the climate shifts, if things change and Mr. Khamenei feels he is giving away too much in return for too little, then the criticism may become more serious and reflect an actual change in higher politics.”