The intensifying conservative-led campaign in Washington to sink the international agreement over Iran’s nuclear program is mirrored by a similar effort in Tehran — a fact not lost on President Barack Obama, who last week enraged the deal’s U.S. critics by comparing them to Iran’s hard-liners.
As in Washington, the debate over nuclear compromise in Tehran is not confined to the corridors of power; it’s raging in the media and often overlaps with domestic political battles.
Sunday saw a roundtable discussion on the nuclear agreement featuring Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, top nuclear negotiator Majid Takht-Ravanchi and Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. The discussion was hosted by reformist politician and former Ambassador to France and the United Nations Sadegh Kharazi, who also publishes Iranian Diplomacy — an online foreign policy magazine.
The setting for that high-powered panel discussion was an interesting choice: the offices of the newspaper Ettelaat, one of the leading conservative newspapers questioning the nuclear agreement.
More bombastic and hard-line criticism of the deal has come from the daily Kayhan, edited by Hossein Shariatmadari, a close friend of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khamenei hand-picks Kayhan’s and Etellaat’s editors.
Ettelaat’s Farsi-language coverage of Sunday’s panel discussion led with Zarif’s statement that “Western attempts to cripple Iran were defeated in the Vienna deal.” And Iranian advocates of the deal appear to be following the example of its advocates in Washington, packaging it in hawkish terms in the hope of making it more palatable to skeptics.
The Ettelaat report noted that Seyed Abbas Araghchi, one of lead negotiators said, “During negotiations, there was no trust between either parties. We did not trust our counterparts, and they did not trust us either, and negotiations came through as a result. But in any case, we have to accept risks, and risks must exist to some degree.” That’s language similar to what John Kerry has used in briefings on Capitol Hill.
“Nothing in this agreement is based on trust,” Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on July 28. “Nothing is based on an expectation of some change of behavior. This agreement is [109 pages] because it’s specific about what is expected of whom.”
Kayhan made clear it was less impressed with Sunday’s forum, running its report under the headline “Analyzing Vienna’s agreement without the presence of critics?!”
The paper wrote, “This is yet another example of government gatherings where its representatives sit and thank themselves, congratulate one another and praise the agreement — and in the most one-sided fashion and without the presence of any critical voice who aims to question the technical matters of the deal, they attack the critics and call them traitors!”
The most popular reformist publications, Etemad and Shargh, continue to write approvingly of the negotiations and their outcome. Etemad’s headline on the Sunday forum quoted Zarif to the effect that the nuclear agreement was a product of the 2013 election, which put him and President Hassan Rouhani in office with their promises to ease tensions with the West, get sanctions lifted and reconnect people to their elected government.
Shargh offered a more nuanced report on the conversation, focusing on the hard-liners’ assertion that the nuclear deal will jeopardize the Islamic Republic’s core values and principles. “Those who did not fear the fragility of our regime and values during the height of sanctions and constraint are now suddenly speaking of these values being at risk?” it quoted Zarif as saying.
It quoted Kharazi as saying the deal “will help demilitarize Iran’s image and the perception of the Islamic regime for the entire world and the region” and noted that Israel was isolated in opposition to the deal.
The reformist paper provided a detailed report on the arguments of each speaker, which combined to suggest that a “balanced” agreement stayed within Iran’s “red lines” and should be celebrated as a triumph for Tehran.
Iran’s press operates in a repressive climate — all media outlets are directly or indirectly controlled by the government — and as a result, news organizations walk a fine line. While they openly express the desire for changes and more moderate policies and occasionally criticize hard-liners, they typically express strong praise for the values of the regime and support for the supreme leader.
The climate of media control can be just as restrictive for conservative publications as it has been for more moderate ones. On Aug. 3, Rouhani’s moderate government had the ultraconservative weekly 9 Day shut down.
On July 27, news outlets, including the conservative news site Alef, which is headed by Ahmad Tavakoli — a conservative member of parliament — reported on a directive that Rouhani’s Ministry of Culture and Guidance issued in mid-July, in which media outlets where reminded of the importance of positive and unified coverage of the nuclear agreement.
“We need to halt and certainly not allow anyone write and imply negative remarks around sensitive national security matters,” Hossein Noush-Abadi, the spokesman for the Ministry of Culture and Guidance, reportedly said during a press briefing. “The nuclear negotiations are not a political issue we’re having with another country but a significant matter that’s being managed by our supreme leader and cannot be subject to foul criticisms.”
Despite the arguments’ intensity, many Iranians inside and outside the country concur that the debate in the Iranian media is unlikely to have any significant impact on the nuclear deal — even if it reflects differences within Iran’s closed political system.
“In Iran, the supreme leader is the sole power,” Arash Ghafouri, a D.C.-based analyst and former campaign organizer for reformist presidential candidate Mir Housein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest since 2011. “The deal is done, the regime has approved it, and the supreme leader has signed off on it, so all this is just political rhetoric.”
He told Al Jazeera, “Despite all that the hard-liners are saying, which is nothing new, the regime has already accepted this deal, and one or two or three hard-liner headlines won’t have any impact on the country’s acceptance of this historic deal.”
That view of the limited impact of media debate on policy was confirmed to Al Jazeera by Sina Ghanbarpour, the editor-in-chief of Kelide Melli, a weekly magazine in Tehran.
“As a journalist who has worked for many years in Iran, it’s unfortunate to say that the press has very little impact,” he said, adding that in Iran, “the total number of circulation does not even reach 2 million.”
Ghanbarpour said hard-liners are using their media platforms to amplify their campaign inside the corridors of power and position themselves for future political battles on other issues.
“The influence of Iranian hard-liners in Iran is not as much as the conservatives in the United States,” said Ramin Asgard, a former senior foreign policy adviser to U.S. Central Command who served as the director of the Voice of America Persian service in 2012.
Still, he saw a parallel between their hardening stance against Rouhani and the difficulties being encountered by Obama on Capitol Hill. And he said their arguments were similar.
“The people against the deal in the U.S. say it’s appeasement, arguing that they are giving a bad guy — in this case Islamic Republic — something that they are not deserving of,” Asgard said, while in Iran the hard-liners claim the deal was a “capitulation” and “humiliating to accept for our regime.”
After more than three decades of implacable hostility, neither side is finding it easy to sell the fact that they’re making compromises with the other. Instead, in Tehran and Washington, those most invested in the deal are spinning it to their constituencies as a victory over an adversary’s nefarious designs while their domestic critics cry appeasement.