Can Rouhani Deliver a Comprehensive Agreement?

This is a guest post by James Devine:

Ever since Hassan Rouhani was elected, the question everyone has asked about Iran’s moderate president is: Can he deliver? After Iran negotiated a deal with the P5+1 powers over the weekend, the answer appears to be yes. The deal has received the endorsement of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, and Iran’s negotiating team was greeted by cheering crowds when they returned to Tehran. So far, so good, right? The real question is can Barak Obama deliver, right? Perhaps, but it is still early going. The deal made in Geneva is only an interim one, there is still six months to a year of negotiating to be concluded, and the really difficult issues lay ahead. I raise the points below not because I think Rouhani cannot succeed, or that the negotiations are doomed to failure. I raise them because these are the issues on the Iranian side that are of concern me and need to be monitored.

First, one of the reasons the deal has been so popular is that Rouhani and his negotiators have been able put the right ‘spin’ on it. On Sunday Rouhani claimed that the deal recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium and that Iran’s “enrichment activities will continue unchanged.” Similarly, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, claimed the deal does not require Iran to change the “structure of its nuclear program”. In short, Iran gave up little, and the West realized that Iran could not be bullied. Not surprisingly, this narrative clashes with one being peddled in the West. US Secretary of State, John Kerry was quick to claim that Iran’s right to enrich uranium was not conceded, and the future scope of Iran’s nuclear program remains to be negotiated. Moreover a central part of the western narrative is that pressure works and that Washington is still able to apply pressure if it needs to.

Of course, both sides need to sell the interim deal to their respective public audiences, but they have to be careful in the way they do it. Neither side lives in a vacuum. The press in both countries is already reporting back on how the deal is being spun by the other side, and the Iranian Foreign Ministry is disputing the American interpretation of the deal. The two sides are likely trying to coordinate their messages, but it’s their opponents who set the tone of the discourse. For instance, the more the Republicans trash the deal, the more Obama has to defend it, even if it hurts Rouhani’s position in Tehran. This problem will likely get worse as we enter the next stage of negotiations.

Second, it is not clear how this deal or a final comprehensive settlement will impact the balance of factional power in Tehran. Khamenei has played the role of balancer in Iranian politics since taking over as leader. He makes sure competition does not get out of hand. None of the factions are allowed to get too strong, or too weak, and if a member of Iran’s political elite rises too high, Khamenei knocks them back down again. This is what happened to President Ahmadinejad, Khamenei’s erstwhile favorite, after the 2009 elections. Will Khamenei have to do the same to Rouhani?

In the short term this deal will give Rouhani a lot of political momentum, particularly if it translates into economic relief for the average Iranian. Although the interim deal only offers modest relief from sanctions, Iran’s currency has already jumped up a few percentage points relative to the American dollar. If a final deal is negotiated, and it ends all of the nuclear related sanctions, which is what the Iranian negotiators are demanding, he will be a hero. Given the divisions that exist between Iran’s elite, this could be destabilizing and the Leader may feel compelled to intervene.

Things have not progressed to that point yet, and perhaps they won’t. So far, Khamenei seems to be managing the situation by supporting Rouhani on foreign policy, but letting him fend for himself on domestic issues. This might continue to work. If it does, though, it might mean that the cost of a nuclear deal is stagnation on the human rights front.

Third, the last time Iran and the US were close to rapprochement was in the aftermath of 9/11. Just as the two sides were working together to put Hamid Karzai in power in Kabul, the Karine-A was intercepted carrying Iranian arms to the Palestinian Authority. The affair undermined Khatami’s credibility and gave hawkish neo-cons the excuse they needed. A few weeks later Iran was part of the axis-of-evil and the ‘new beginning’ in American-Iranian relations was still-born.

It is unlikely that there will be a repeat of this type of incident in the immediate future. Khamenei has warned Rouhani’s enemies not to interfere, and while Iran’s conservatives do not always do exactly what he tells them to, it is unusual for a member of Iran’s elite to publically defy him. In the longer term, though, the situation could change. If the final negotiations get bogged down to the point where Khamenei appears to lose faith, some conservative elements may feel they have licence to undermine the process.

Conversely, if things are going well, and Rouhani’s popularity increases to the point that his conservative enemies fear for their political survival, they may decide it is worth risking Khamenei’s wrath. This would not be without precedent. In the mid-1980s, as Ayatollah Ali Montazeri and Mir-Hossein Mousavi were losing political ground to Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei, Montazeri’s son-in-law leaked details of the Iran-Contra Affair to the Lebanese press even though the deal had Ayatollah Khomeini’s blessing. In this case the ploy back-fired. The whistle-blower, Mehdi Hashemi, was executed. And, rather than embarrassing Rafsanjani and Khamenei, the incident accelerated Montazeri’s fall from grace. This seems like it would be a hard lesson to forget, but the precedent is there.

Fourth, the interim agreement lays out the final comprehensive solution in broad terms: nuclear related sanctions will removed, Iran will be allowed to maintain a nuclear program consistent with its obligations under the NPT, and there will be strict supervision. However, the details have been left vague. Hammering them out will not be easy. Moreover, if there is a deal, some parts of it will have to be approved by the Iranian Majlis (parliament), such as the IAEA’s additional protocols. Like Obama, Rouhani faces a hostile legislature which has no desire to hand him a political victory. Rouhani will need Khamenei’s continued support to clear this hurtle.

To complicate things further, it is also unclear what a comprehensive deal would mean for Iranian-American relations. The interim agreement avoids saying anything that would sound like a ‘grand bargain.’ However, as long as Tehran remains hostile to American interests and allies in the region, it will be hard for the US to give up the most potent sanctions in its arsenal. At the same time, while Khamenei may want an agreement on the nuclear issue, he is not anxious for a real rapprochement with the US. In many ways, normalizing relations with the US would mean the end of the revolution and the beginning of a period of political uncertainty. If Khamenei is going to continue supporting Rouhani and his team as they negotiate a comprehensive settlement, they will somehow have to find the sweet spot between these two positions, “frenemies,” as Akbar Ganji puts it. It will not be easy.

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