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The internal Iranian struggle in the aftermath of the Geneva Nuclear Agreement
By Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
The interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, and subsequent assessments both in the West and in Iran about "winners and losers," have become a focus of fierce domestic controversy in Iran between the conservatives and Revolutionary Guard on one side, and President Hassan Rouhani, the nuclear negotiating team, and those considered the reformist camp on the other. The criticism sometimes relates to the agreement's possible long-term effects on Iran's Islamic nature and the course of its Islamic Revolution. The conservative elements also emphasize that the agreement concentrates solely on the nuclear issue and is not connected to the issue of relations with the United States, which they continue to see as an enemy, or to the issue of human rights in Iran. These conservative elements assert that they will not allow the agreement to become a means of altering Iran's revolutionary nature.
The Revolutionary Guard vs. the Foreign Ministry
The controversy and criticism about the agreements and the conduct of the Iranian negotiating team began to emerge after a very short period of "unity of the Iranian camp" and congratulatory exchanges between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Rouhani upon the signing of the interim nuclear agreement in Geneva on November 24.
The harshest criticism of the agreement, and of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as head of Iran's negotiating team, was leveled by Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, who objected to statements Zarif made to students at the University of Tehran in which he strongly defended the nuclear negotiations and their achievements. Zarif asserted that:
Jafari, for his part, said Zarif was an experienced diplomat but lacked any qualifications in the defense field, and his remarks on that subject were inappropriate. "It is possible that if we are attacked from the air, 10 to 20 percent of our missiles will be destroyed at the most, but our capability is not based on missiles." Jafari emphasized Iran's asymmetrical warfare doctrine and cited as an example Israel's bombing of southern Lebanon in 2006, which did not lessen Hizbullah's ability to respond. He added (echoing Khamenei) that "if the Americans and their rabid dog in the region [Israel] had the ability to act militarily against Iran, the United States and its allies would never have sat down at the negotiating table with Iran."
Similarly, Yadollah Javani, adviser to the Supreme Leader's representative to the Revolutionary Guard, criticized Zarif's remarks as "unprofessional statements that apparently stem from a lack of familiarity with military and defense issues." Iran, Javani claimed, is strong enough that in the event of an attack by the United States and its allies on key facilities, Iran
Javani also referred to Khamenei's declaration that if Iran's enemies were to commit an error, Iran would turn Tel Aviv and Haifa into a heap of ashes. He added, "To understand how credible these words are, one need only look briefly at Iran's power in the region and the Zionist regime's Second Lebanon War and ‘Operation Cast Lead' against Hizbullah. Our words have proof in reality."
Jafari, while publicly expressing support for the "current and previous" negotiating teams, set very clear red lines:
Jafari said the talks between Iran and the Western states, including the United States, were restricted to the nuclear issue. He added that the Iranian people's struggle with the American leaders was fundamental, and that "so long as the United States clings to its wicked and imperialist nature that harms the Iranian people and the nations of the world, we will not be able to reach a solution of our problems with it." Khamenei's representative to the Revolutionary Guard told the negotiating team to act with caution and wait to see if the West kept its promises. "In the past they gave verbal promises but repeatedly violated them and acted in contradiction to them. In general, the Westerners and particularly the United States do not uphold their promises; they promise many things but break their promises."
A "Poisoned Chalice"
The Geneva agreement has also drawn severe criticism in the Majlis (parliament). During a Majlis session broadcast on Iranian television, conservative parliamentarian Hamid Rasaei denounced the agreement and even used a loaded term in Iran: "poisoned chalice." He accused the government of presenting the agreement to the Iranian people as a "sugared drink" and raising popular expectations, while actually serving a "poisoned chalice." Rasaei also characterized the transfer of the nuclear portfolio from the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) as an error and called for restoring it to the SNSC so as to prevent a further blow to the nuclear effort. In its first one hundred days, he charged, the government had caused a strengthening of the sanctions along with "damage to the honor of the Iranian people....Under Zarif, Iran has made a concession of 100 percent and received a minimum of concessions." Rasaei also criticized the MFA's conduct in other areas.8 Majlis member Hojjat al-Eslam Seyyed Mohammad Nabavian, a member of Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi's radical faction, said Iran "doesn't aspire to obtain a nuclear bomb, but it is necessary so we can put Israel in its place."
In reaction to the U.S. imposition of sanctions on seventeen Iranian companies, Ala'eddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Majlis, called "for speeding up the pace of the Iranian nuclear program for purposes of peace." In addition, the Majlis discussed a proposed law that, if approved, would require the government to enrich uranium to the 60-percent level "for nuclear fuel" for Iranian ships and submarines. It was reported that two-thirds (200) of the (290) Majlis members have cosponsored the bill. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), chilled the Majlis' tough nuclear line, saying: "If one day we plan to use this nuclear energy to fuel ships or submarines, it is better to use nuclear reactors...[but] if the Majlis deems it expedient that 60-percent enriched uranium is in Iran's interests and votes it into law, we will have no option but to obey."
In a series of articles, the conservative newspaper Kayhan, which usually reflects Khamenei's views, criticized the nuclear negotiating team while trying to avoid criticizing the Supreme Leader himself, who expressed cautious support for the nuclear agreement. This criticism intensified when, after the signing of the Geneva agreement, the U.S. Treasury Department decided to impose sanctions on additional Iranian individuals and companies. Excerpts:
Kayhan also criticized Zarif's statements to the students belittling Iran's military capability compared to the United States, calling it a "message of surrender" and a "very harmful error that must not be repeated....In dialogue and particularly in the diplomatic arena, when one says something, what counts is what the other side understands and not this or that intention of the speaker."
An Ice Breaker
On the other hand, former president and head of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom the West has long regarded as a "savior" working to promote Western-Iranian relations, called the agreement an "ice breaker" that had overcome the taboo on relations with the United States. The conservative camp has been attacking Rafsanjani for this stance and trying to disassociate, as much as possible, the issue of the nuclear talks from the issue of relations with the United States, which still, despite the "Rouhani effect," is a loaded, almost taboo subject in Iran. Rafsanjani expressed gratitude to the nuclear negotiating team and said the signing of the agreement had "rescued us from great distress....Now we feel a letup. Our international status will improve, though much time remains until the final agreement takes shape."
The newspaper Jomhouri-e Islami, which is affiliated with Rafsanjani, wrote in that vein under the headline "The Victory of Logic":
Sadegh Zibakalam, a senior professor at the University of Tehran and a well-known political analyst, asserted that the Geneva agreement is not restricted to the nuclear issue and called it
Ziva Kalam claimed that the Supreme Leader's support for the agreement prevents the extremists from characterizing it as a failure. "What is important is the rift that was created among the extremists regarding their anti-Western stance." Rouhani's Twitter account quoted parts of Kalam's article.
"The Elements That Engage in Petty Criticism"
Foreign Minister Zarif did not passively countenance the Revolutionary Guard's attacks on him and the negotiating team. He used his Facebook and Twitter accounts (ordinary Iranian citizens are not allowed to use these networks) to contend with his critics, particularly among the Revolutionary Guard and including Jafari. While apparently showing restraint because of his mother's illness (meanwhile she died), Zarif wrote on his Facebook page:
Meanwhile, in a series of interviews to the Western and domestic media, the foreign minister emphasized that he upholds the Supreme Leader's red lines regarding Iran's right to enrich uranium and maintain its nuclear program, despite the claims of the United States and of the White House "fact sheet" that was posted on the White House's website. As Zarif told the University of Tehran students,
In the same speech Zarif underlined the fact that the building of the Arak heavy-water (IR-40) reactor would continue and, moreover: "Who has said that we cannot produce 20 percent [enriched] uranium anymore....Today, we are only unscrewing two taps between a cascade and if we decide to enrich uranium to 20 percent we will do it in a period of 21 hours."
The foreign minister made similar remarks in a speech to the Majlis in which he described Iran's achievements and improved international status:
My Dear Friend, Jafari
Zarif also responded to the attack on him by the Revolutionary Guard commander. He said he respected Jafari's view, but "I do not share his opinions and belief system and think what we [the negotiating team] achieved is noteworthy....Some claim that I lack all security-military qualifications; I claim that I taught national-security studies for decades and read numerous documents related to American national security." Zarif again explained, in response to Jafari, that:
The foreign minister also asserted that:
In an interview to the Washington Post, Zarif addressed Jafari's criticism of him and said, "I respect Gen. Jafari's remarks, his views, and I expect him to have differences of views with me." He also said Iranian opponents of a deal with the West had "asked for my removal."
A Fitting Ally
Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), supported the foreign minister and the negotiating team and stressed in a series of interviews that Iran's nuclear program continues to advance, Iran has joined the countries that have a complete nuclear fuel cycle, and that Iran has installed one thousand advanced centrifuges of the IR-2M kind but, in line with the Geneva agreement, has not fed them with UF6 gas. On another occasion Salehi said his organization aims to make Iran a center of uranium enrichment for West Asian countries.
Conversely, Salehi's predecessor in the post, Fereydoun Abbasi, said Iran had unnecessarily accepted the conditions the West had dictated on curbing its level of uranium enrichment. "A hero is the one who does not surrender to the conditions of his powerful opponent." He asserted that suspending 20-percent enrichment would "prevent Iran from reaching its developmental goals on the time schedule it had set for itself." Abbasi also criticized "Rouhani's vague and passive stance that undermines the will and resolve of the Iranian people."
Leveraging the Geneva Agreement to Enhance Ties with Regional States
Iran is also trying to leverage the nuclear agreement to improve its relations with the states of the region, particularly Saudi Arabia. But here, too, some amiable statements by the foreign minister (on attempting to resolve a dispute over certain islands with the United Arab Emirates, and on improving ties with Saudi Arabia) have prompted sharp criticism by conservatives. In the Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Alawsat, Zarif published an opinion article, "Our Neighbors Are Our Priority," in which he tried to use the nuclear agreement to court Iran's neighbors. He also visited the Gulf states bearing such messages.
President Rouhani, for his part, published an article in the Saudi daily Al-Eqtisadiah in which he touted the agreement's importance and again denied that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons, mentioning Khamenei's fatwa against such weapons – a fatwa from which no direct quotation can be found, not even on Khamenei's own website.
In response to these initiatives, Kayhan wrote that "the statement by Mr. Zarif that it is possible to converse with the UAE about its claim to possession of the island of Abu Musa [a strategic island overlooking the Strait of Hormuz] was ill-considered" and "a statement one does not expect to hear from an experienced diplomat."
Alraf Ala'eddin Borujerdi, head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, has termed Arab states' request to attend the nuclear talks as irrelevant. "I wonder why countries with no nuclear capability and with no leverage in negotiations would demand such a thing....[I]t is not even worthy of consideration." Borujerdi's deputy said the announcement that the security of Arab states was connected to the security of Iran is a true and real announcement. For years we wanted the Arab states to acknowledge this reality." He added:
No Real Change
The domestic debate in Iran on advancing the nuclear program concurrently with the negotiations with the West will likely continue and intensify, if the negotiations progress. It is only at the end of January that the implementation of the interim agreement is supposed to begin. But criticism related to the nuclear negotiations by elements in Iran – some of them close to the Supreme Leader – is mounting.
The optimism, almost to the point of euphoria, that accompanied that signing focuses particularly on a possible improvement of relations with the United States. Meanwhile, amid ongoing revelations about secret U.S.-Iranian contacts that led up to the negotiations, the optimism is gradually giving way to the anti-American discourse that Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard promote. Central to this discourse is the denigration of the United States as an untrustworthy partner and breaker of promises. Khameni said in this regard that "One of the blessings of the [nuclear] negotiations was that America's hostility towards Iran, Iranians, and Islam became clear to everyone." In adding Iranian organizations and individuals to its blacklist following the signing of the agreement, Washington provided ammunition to opponents of ties with the United States. At the same time, issues such as human rights, freedom of expression, women's rights, and executions keep rising to the surface, partly on the initiative of the Iranian opposition.
All this has led to the current crackdown by the regime's security establishment, particularly the Revolutionary Guard and the Intelligence Ministry, on social-network activists, an increase in executions since Rouhani was elected, attacks on writers, bloggers, and poets, the blocking of websites and SMS networks, the ongoing house arrest of Mir-Hossein Musawi, one of the heads of the Green opposition, and the intensifying extremist discourse that calls the Green opposition "the greatest anti-Iranian conspiracy." These extremist elements want to make clear that they will not countenance any linkage between the nuclear talks and the path Iran takes.
Rouhani, for his part, was included in Foreign Policy's list of one hundred "leading global thinkers" for 2043,37 and the "Rouhani effect" is continuing to revitalize his camp with its goals of a nuclear agreement and better relations with the West. (Recent visitors to Iran have included the Italian foreign minister and parliamentary delegations from Britain and the European Union.) At the same time, Zarif, Rouhani, and the rest who seek to leverage the nuclear agreement to improve Iran's international status are well aware of the power of their opponents, especially among the Revolutionary Guard, who want to obstruct this trend and particularly its ramifications regarding the United States and human rights. Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guard leaders keep affirming that they will do whatever is necessary to protect Iran's values and revolutionary Islamic nature. When, during Khatami's presidency, they perceived a sharp deviation from the revolutionary values as they understand them – including the anti-Western struggle – they sent Khatami a letter of warning and were able to make him tone down the reform process.
The Revolutionary Guard commanders learned the lesson, and in the short time Rouhani has been in office they have had considerable success in constraining his hesitant efforts toward a domestic transformation, while repeatedly warning that they will not accept the use of the nuclear agreement to facilitate far-reaching domestic, regional, and international changes that would divert Iran from the path they have ordained for it.
In any case, Rouhani is part of the establishment, and his room to maneuver in effecting major domestic changes is limited to begin with. Although Rouhani is still basking in the glow of the elections and his charm offensive in the West, his actions do not add up to a real change in Iran, given the strong status of the Revolutionary Guard.
The intensity of public support for Rouhani (which "moderate, reformist" former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani also enjoyed), or the lack of it, is of no significance when it comes to Iran's nuclear progress and status. It is already clear that the interim agreement allows Iran to maintain its capabilities regarding the full nuclear fuel cycle as well as enrichment, even to high percentages "within twenty-four hours," as Zarif said. Nor is the public support for Rouhani likely to have substantial implications for the state of civil society and human rights in Iran.
In sum, the Revolutionary Guard and the Supreme Leader will keep steering the president and the foreign minister along a clear-cut path of seeking to extract maximal concessions from the West. Such concessions would entail, on the one hand, Iran's preservation of its nuclear capability, and ability to "break out" to nuclear weapons, and, on the other, an easing of the economic pressure.
We are still in the midst of the drama of Rouhani's election as president, ostensibly despite Khamenei's stance and auguring a "strategic change in Iran." The Iranian reality has proved time after time, however, that the Revolutionary Guard's hold on power and influence on the Supreme Leader is only growing. From the Revolutionary Guard's standpoint, the nuclear negotiations are of diplomatic importance and may be of some economic benefit to Iran. The Revolutionary Guard, however, will obstruct any attempt, by means of the negotiations, to effectuate the transformation that the reformist camp and the Iranian people desire.
If necessary, Rouhani, too, will receive a letter of warning from Revolutionary Guard commanders, as the "reformist" president Khatami once did.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Terrogence Company.