Nuclear Talks Are Dividing Iran From Within

Rohani and the heads of the Revolutionary Guards have been conducting a vitriolic public dialogue of the sort that is impossible in democratic states, where the army is firmly subordinated to the government.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Iranian President Hassan Rohani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside the port city of Bushehr, January 13, 2015.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declares that Iran is responsible for last week’s cross-border attack at Har Dov, which killed two Israeli soldiers and wounded seven, he needs to say precisely which Iran he means. Is it the Iran of the Revolutionary Guards or that of President Hassan Rohani? Is it the Iran of those who hope to scuttle the agreement taking shape on the country’s nuclear program or the Iran of Rohani, who said recently that Iran cannot have sustainable growth while the country remains isolated?

In recent weeks Rohani and the heads of the Revolutionary Guards have been conducting a vitriolic public dialogue of the sort that is impossible in democratic states, where the army is firmly subordinated to the government. This conversation proves that Iran is not a monolithic entity, in which the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is also the supreme puppet master who pulls all the strings.

“Are we strong if we have all kinds of military equipment in our possession but rely on others for our needs in wheat, rye, meat, cooking oil and sugar? Some people seem to think that if the range of our missiles increases we will have more strength,” Rohani said in late December. Ali Saidi Nazik, a high-ranking figure in the Basij militia, which is subordinate to the Revolutionary Guards, could not let the comment pass in silence: “What Israel fears are these very missiles. They are what strengthens the Syrians, the Palestinians and the resistance,” the last a reference to Hezbollah.

“We cannot grow when we are isolated,” Rohani insisted. “Today’s world is all about interests. At the negotiations table neither party talks of principles or ideals because every country today pursues its own interests and desires,” he said, adding that ideals are linked not to nuclear centrifuges but rather to “minds, heart and our will.”

These remarks, which were directed at the Revolutionary Guards, or IRGC, which accuse Rohani of being too soft, too conciliatory toward the West, also did not go unanswered. Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naqdi, unleashed a venomous riposte against Rohani, without mentioning him by name: “Fake revolutionaries who do not work for God talk of ending the struggle in the name of reason because they have lost the youthful zeal. They are unwise because they have wasted their youth,” Naqdi said.

Khamenei has not intervened in this tit-for-tat. He has remained on the sidelines, listening, after emphasizing to Rohani, after the president complained about the IRGC, that the Guards “don’t obey even him.” Khamenei was not entirely accurate: As supreme leader, he has total authority over the IRGC’s conduct, but in the checks and balances that he is trying to establish, he recognizes the IRGC’s undisputed power.

The IRGC, which controls more than half of Iran’s economy, fears that the nuclear agreement will not only deprive Iran of its deterrent power, but also harm its economic standing: The end of the international sanctions on Iran could allow new competitors to enter the market and take over assets that are under the sole control of the IRGC.

Rohani has also not hesitated to attack the Revolutionary Guards over issues that have nothing to do with the agreement over its nuclear program. “When weapons, wealth, and media are in control of a single institution, an inevitable result would be corruption,” Rohani shot back.

For his part, an adviser to the commander of the guards challenged Rohani with the following: “There is in government someone who wishes to clip the wings of the guards because they have become dangerous, because they have power, wealth and the media. Doesn’t the government have such assets?”

It was as if the government and the guards were competing powers, or at least of equal standing.

Rohani and his negotiating team, headed by Foreign Minster Mohammad Jawad Zarif, have Khamenei’s support for now, but the dispute between Rohani and the IRGC is over the red lines that Khamenei, as supreme leader, has set down. They are deliberately vague, giving the negotiating team reasonable room for maneuver with the goal of getting to March 1, the end of the first portion of the negotiations, with an agreement in principle. Because of those same vague instructions, however, Rohani’s rivals can portray him as not sticking to them and instead rushing to offer unnecessary concessions.

The president’s conservative rivals stirred a major controversy at a meeting of the supreme culture council, attacking him for the “stroll” by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif in Geneva, on the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations last Wednesday. The two took a 10-minute walk alone, like two old college classmates at a reunion. The photographs had Iranian conservatives in a tizzy, demanding an explanation from Rohani, but the Iranian president called the criticism “populist comments resulting from a lack of knowledge.” There were several reports that Rohani got up from his seat and stormed out of the meeting room. The intense tension between Iranian opponents and supporters of a nuclear agreement is increasing in the face of the threat from Congress in Washington, where a political campaign is underway to impose additional sanctions on the Iranians.

In Iran it is assumed that the Obama administration will manage to head off these sanctions, but there is no guarantee. Perhaps to assuage supporters of new sanctions, last week Zarif declared that if no agreement is reached by the deadline, there will be no extension of the talks. In other words, the talks need to be given a chance, and if they don’t succeed, Congress can then impose whatever sanctions it wishes.

Zarif, who continues to project optimism, is convinced that it will be possible to reach an agreement and that only “a few technical matters” are left. If one is to judge based on the statements of senior Israelis, these technical issues are sufficiently substantial as to leave a gap that for the time being cannot be bridged. The Iranian parliament, for its part, is also applying pressure at the same time. A bill is pending before it that would require that the Iranian government increase uranium enrichment using the new generation of centrifuges if the United States imposes new sanctions. Rohani and U.S. President Barack Obama, who are trapped in the face of similar political pressures, need to weigh the risks well that stem from a failure to sign an agreement.

For Rohani, it would represent a more stinging political defeat than for Obama, who is halfway through his final four-year term. But even Khamenei, who has given his stamp of approval for the talks, could be substantially hurt if the promise of rehabilitating the Iranian economy doesn’t come to fruition.

This isn’t the only front that Rohani is facing. His supporters among reform movements are still waiting for some kind of development in areas close to their hearts, such as human rights, an expansion of freedom of expression and lifting the house arrest that was imposed on Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, leaders of the Green movement that initiated the demonstrations against the regime in the 2009 election.

A couple of weeks ago, the Iranian parliament witnessed the unusual sight of conservative members hitting their colleague Ali Motahari when in his speech he mentioned the demand that Mousavi and Karoubi be freed from detention. Parliament members also set upon journalists present and confiscated their cameras. A few days later, the “Setareh Sobh” weekly, which published an article by Motahari in which he claimed that his detention and that of Mousavi were a violation of the constitution, was shut down.

This is where the line is crossed between the executive powers of the president and the area controlled by Khamenei as supreme leader. The nuclear talks and even direct bilateral dialogue with the United States will not change the ideology or culture of the revolution that Khamenei is obligated to protect. If an agreement is signed with the Western powers, it needs to serve the regime of Iran and its economy, but it is not to be translated into a license to “import” Western culture or to institute reforms in the Iranian regime, Khamenei insists.

And this also holds the rationale for bringing the nuclear talks to fruition. If Iran prospers, with a growth rate of 8 percent if the sanctions are lifted, Khamenei can calm economic and social tensions, tighten the regime’s control and present a “steadfast position” as an achievement for the revolution.