Tehran’s Post-Deal Rhetoric

Guest post by James Devine:

Everyone expected the vitriolic reaction to the Iran nuclear deal from the Republicans and Benjamin Netanyahu. The rhetoric coming out of Iran, however, is less easily understood. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, recently tweeted a picture of what appeared to be Barak Obama with a gun to his own head. He also claimed that Iran’s hostility toward the US was unabated and that the deal needed to be examined very carefully before it was accepted, suggesting his support was in doubt. Similarly, Ali Jaffari, the head of the powerful Republican Guard, claimed the deal crossed several of Iran’s red lines and was therefore unacceptable.

It is not surprising that there was some hardline opposition to the deal in Tehran. A segment of the political elite prefers to maintain an ideologically driven confrontational policy toward the West no matter what the economic and diplomatic cost. Iran’s current moderate president also has political enemies who would rather see the deal fail than allow their adversary to score a political victory. Nevertheless, Khamenei is the dominant figure in Iranian politics and if he approves the deal, it would be very difficult for Rouhani’s opponents to attack it too vigorously without seeming to be challenging his authority. There is little doubt that Khamenei was well briefed throughout the negotiating process, and he made it clear on numerous occasions that the negotiating team had his support. While it is possible that he was not aware of a few details before the deal was signed, it is not likely that there was anything so unexpected in the deal that he would change his position. Indeed, Jaffari had also given his support to the draft framework earlier. So why the change in heart?

Part of the reason is Iran’s complex and tumultuous political system. Khamenei is the most powerful figure in the state, but he guards his political capital jealously. He has traditionally avoided getting too closely associated with any one of Iran’s political factions for fear of alienating the others. He has only broken this pattern under the most extreme circumstances, such as the 2009 election unrest. This allows him to maximize his political influence and maintain the stability of the political system. Khamenei’s current rhetoric can therefore be seen as consistent with his leadership style. He could push the deal through if he wanted to, but it would mean snubbing his traditional power base among the conservatives, and moving closer to Rouhani and his pragmatist-Green party supporters, whom he does not trust. Moreover, if the deal does get blocked in Congress, or somehow breaks down later, it is better for Khamenei that the deal is seen specifically as Rouhani’s work. That way its failure would be a black mark on the President’s resume, not his. Therefore, distancing himself from the deal, at least a little, makes good political sense.

The rhetoric is also likely a response to the debate taking place in the US. With the deal under attack, the Obama Administration has defended it by saying the US can reapply the pressure on Tehran whenever it wants, and bring the Islamic Republic to heel. Khamenei therefore needs to send a message back to Washington: Tehran cannot be bullied. At the same time, it is also a message for the Iranian people. The regime may have compromised with the Great Satan, but it has not lost its teeth.

It is possible that the rhetoric is a sign that the deal is in serious trouble in Iran, as some have suggested. The spiral of inflammatory rhetoric continues to escalate, it could reach such a point that Khamenei feels he has to disavow the deal to protect his own position. However, it is more probable that the rhetoric will have an impact on the US side, where no one will want to look soft on Iran lest they weaken their position for the upcoming presidential elections. In all likelihood though, the deal will be ratified in both countries. Obama still has a veto over congressional overview, and Khamenei would probably not have let the process get so far if he did not really want to have a deal in place.

The real problem is likely to be further down the road. Indeed, the rhetoric we are experiencing now is likely just a taste of what there is to come. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is a complex document. As it is put in practice, there will be debates at each step about what was agreed upon and how it must be implemented. Both sides will fight strenuously to protect their interests and demonstrate resolve. If the rhetorical posturing grows too intense, one side or the other may decide that they no longer have a negotiating partner, or that the domestic costs of the agreement are too high.

Bargaining always involves both carrots and sticks. It would be unrealistic to hope for no rhetoric or posturing, or for either side to make concessions without the threat of punishment at least implied. However it is essential that both parties recognize the complex dynamics behind the other’s signaling, and understand the underlying meaning. They must also realize their own rhetoric and coercive threats strengthen hardliners on the other side, and force their negotiating partners to respond in kind. Carrots and sticks therefore need to be carefully calibrated.

Rouhani and Obama have been able to manage these dynamics so far, something few people would have predicted as recently as 2013. If the deal is to survive, there is 10-15 years of more work ahead.

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