Iran’s Hardliners and the Nuclear Deal

By Alex Vatanka | Senior Fellow - Middle East Institute | Nov 26, 2013
Iran’s Hardliners and the Nuclear Deal

Earlier this week, Iran and world powers reached a deal in which Iran will curb its nuclear program for six months in exchange for a drop in some sanctions. MEI spoke with one of its experts, Alex Vatanka, to gain an understanding of how hardliners in Iran are reacting to the deal as well as other internal dynamics in the Islamic Republic.

How have hardliners in Iran, such as the Revolutionary Guards, responded to the news of the interim agreement?

The Revolutionary Guards have by and large remained silent. A number of individuals associated with the Guards have asked for caution, saying that the Americans may not deliver—but no one has come out against the deal. This is indicative of how power works in Iran. One key center of power is obviously the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who supports the deal. Hardliners don’t represent a distinct sector of power, but are part of the Supreme Leader’s inner circle and echo his views. Along these lines, it’s important to note that there aren’t many hardliners in Iran to the right of Khamenei; those who are rabidly anti-American are few in number and don’t have much clout.

The hardliners also appreciate that there is only so much Iran can take in terms of the pain that’s been caused by the sanctions. And in reality, nobody, and that includes Khamenei, wants to see Iran at war with the United States, because they know that it would mean boots on the ground and not just limited aerial strikes. Everyone is looking out for the survival of the regime and an exit from this nuclear mess, so I don’t see anyone in Iran today who would stop Khamenei. Now, if Khamenei suddenly decides that he doesn’t want to continue these negotiations, he will begin to allocate the perpetuation of this view to an entity like the Revolutionary Guards, who will oppose it more openly. But I don’t see this happening anytime soon.

Yet editorials in hard-line newspapers have been critical of the last round of talks.

Opposition to the deal has been relatively quiet, with the exception of one newspaper, Kayhan, the chief mouthpiece of the hardliners, which has questioned whether Iran received a good deal. However, these voices are tactical rather than critical. They are allowed as a signal to the Americans that there are those in Tehran who don’t believe that the diplomatic track is working. Just as in Washington, hardliners are playing a supporting role by showing that if diplomacy fails, nothing but the military conflict will be left on the table. I believe such discourse is being coordinated, more or less, from the Supreme Leader’s office. So I don’t think that Kayhan questions the logic behind the agreement. It’s almost staged. The important point is that it’s the Supreme Leader who decides on the nuclear issue, and he also has the backing of Rouhani and the reformists.

Speaking of Rouhani, how did he and the Supreme Leader come to the same opinion on this issue?

The reformists, who now view Rouhani as their de facto leader, have wanted to break Iran’s isolation since the mid-1990s. Thus the nuclear issue for them is a significant factor, but ideologically they’ve been committed to Iran’s reintegration into the world for a long time. Khamenei belongs to a different school of thought, but he’s been forced to this table because of the sanctions. But it doesn’t matter how they reached a conclusion for the need to talk. The fact is they’re on the same page.

But it’s recently come to light that secret talks began in March, when Ahmadinejad was still president. Rouhani brought a change of tone, but he also brought a different stance in that he isn’t trying to own the diplomatic solution. He’s not saying, “This is me and my genius and my government’s wonderful policies.” He’s trying to make a win for the Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad would have wanted to own it. Rouhani, on the other hand, wants Khamenei to sit in the driver’s seat because he knows that only Khamenei can continue the dialogue, and the hope is that negotiations will have more success this time around with the Supreme Leader fully on board.

How important is the “right to enrich” to Iran’s hardliners and the Supreme Leader? Could it become a deal breaker in upcoming negotiations?

If you scan Iranian hard-line media today, you don’t see many headlines saying, “Iran no longer has the right to enrich uranium,” but rather, “Does Iran have the right to enrich uranium?” The reformists are saying just the opposite, that Iran now has an acknowledged right to enrich. Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif are making the point that this right is written in the agreement. Hardliners, however, are questioning whether this will be an issue later on as the parties move forward toward a comprehensive agreement.  

How might hardliner discourse change as a result of the interim agreement?  

The hardliners have spent 34 years making a bogeyman out of the United States, and it’s going to be tough for them to change their message overnight. I don’t expect them to do that. Khamenei, for his part, has been careful over the last few years to make the point each time he talks about the United States that Iran has no indefinite enmity with any state in the world, with the exception of Israel. He has said that if the United States respects Iran and if the two countries can work something out, then who is to say they should be enemies forever? So Khamenei can work from this foundation to create an exit strategy for his own regime as well as the hardliners. Of course, they’ll make the argument that it wasn’t sanctions that created this scenario, but the Americans changing their ways.

Where do you see things headed in the coming months?

In Washington and in Tehran, the people in charge are clearly committed to seeing the negotiations continue, and that’s what I suspect we’ll see in the months to come. Whether we’ll have a comprehensive agreement in six months, I don’t know, but I see the hardliners continuing to remain largely silent if Khamenei continues to approve of the talks.