by Adnan Tabatabai
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrived in New York yesterday with the clear understanding that he’s being carefully watched back home. The official purpose of his trip is to address the United Nations General Assembly, but much more is at stake. Rouhani made solving the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, but while the Nov. 24 deadline to reach a final accord is steadily approaching, no deal is in sight. Meanwhile the president of the United States—essentially Iran’s main negotiating partner in the talks—is facing growing pressure to develop a coherent strategy against the radical militia that calls itself the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). The course of the next few months could define both leaders’ presidential legacies.
No matter how you look at it, resolving both these issues requires a modus operandi between Iran and the United States. Bilateral talks between the two long-time adversaries have almost become routine over the last year; the latest meeting between Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry lasted for more than an hour Sunday in New York. But the debate over the definition of a “functional relationship” with Washington is among the most sensitive issues in Iran with competing political factions exercising extreme skepticism against each other.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is (and has always been) trying to cover all his bases: those backing the Rouhani government’s path towards constructive engagement, and those for whom rapprochement with the US is a red line.
Last week, an infographic published on the ayatollah’s website illustrated why talks with the US in the past 12 months have been harmful to Iran. Two days later, a compilation of quotes by the Supreme Leader supporting the negotiations was published on the same site.
Critics Seek Center Stage
Some of the Rouhani government’s most outspoken opponents convened on Monday for yet another press conference in Tehran to voice their concerns about Iran’s foreign policy. Since May this year, these hard-line conservative MPs, clerics and think tankers—also known as “the concerned” (delvaapasaan)—have routinely set up meetings whenever a new round of nuclear talks is taking place between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1).
Through lectures and a Q&A session with journalists, the panelists of the “Path and Pit” meeting outlined the “dos and don’ts” for Rouhani’s trip and warned against yet another “inappropriate action”—their reference to Rouhani’s last-minute telephone conversation with US President Barack Obama during last year’s UNGA.
The concerns identified by the delvaapasaan are based on a variety of issues that extend far beyond the nuclear negotiations. The group mainly criticizes the Rouhani government for:
- Abandoning resistance as the main theme defining foreign affairs
- Leaning towards appeasement vis-à-vis Washington
- Selling out Iran’s right to scientific progress in the nuclear talks
- Falling short of informing the parliament about the nuclear talks
- Not allowing a critical debate about their foreign policy in the media
- Not following the path outlined by the supreme leader
Panelist Mohammad Hassan Asafari, a member of the parliamentary Committee for National Security and Foreign Affairs, credited Iran’s “strong” position in the region to its policies of resistance and expressed worries about Rouhani’s approach to ending the sanctions regime. “We should not show the enemy that we are eager for the sanctions to be lifted,” he said. “It would pave the way for the enemy’s benefit if Iran looks too keen.”
Hamid Rasai, a MP and leading member of the hard-line Endurance Front who got one of Rouhani’s ministers impeached, argued that direct talks with the United States have not only resulted in no benefit but also been followed by harsher rhetoric from Washington and additional unilateral sanctions.
Rasai also stressed that “Rouhani should know he is the president of the Islamic Republic, not just the president of the people of Iran.” He must therefore seize the opportunity provided by the UNGA “to spread our message to the world”—which former President Ahmadinejad managed to do, according to Rasai.
Mohammad Ali Ramin, a former deputy minister under Ahmadinejad, argued that the group is not only concerned about the nuclear issue but also about the broader picture in which the supreme leader is the Imam of the global umma (community) and not just the Iranian nation. Rouhani should therefore recognize that he is “administering just a corner of that umma” and consider the leader’s viewpoints, said Ramin.
The last speaker in the group, University of Tehran Professor Saeed Zibakalam, said he expects the Rouhani government to whitewash Washington’s position towards Iran, and criticized the negotiating team for substantially exaggerating the benefits of the Joint Plan of Action reached in Geneva last year. The plan does not acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich uranium and no sanctions were lifted, argued Zibakalam.
Asked by journalists to identify the difference between the current and previous administration on Iran’s nuclear file, Rasai said that under Ahmadinejad, the nuclear issue was taken care of by the Supreme National Security Council, whereas now it is processed in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where it is under the scrutiny of “no one but Rouhani”.
Rasai further complained about state media being controlled by a government that he said prevents critical debate and criticized other media for promoting rapprochement with the United States. Rasai even asked a journalist from the reformist daily Etemad why his paper is “waiting for Rouhani to have a meeting with the Satan.”
Rasai and Zibakalam both agreed that the Iranian people would not accept bowing down to the US and would oust any president who attempted to do so.
The meeting was yet another indicator that criticism of Iran’s foreign policy goals has reached a new peak on the home front.
In recent days, far-right conservative outlets like Fars News, Kayhan, Vatan-e Emrouz and Raja News ran features and op-eds warning against the acceptance of a nuclear deal limiting Iran’s uranium enrichment and any rapprochement with the United States.
Indeed, almost immediately after it was reported by the New York Times, public opposition was voiced in Iran to a “face-saving” proposal that would allow Iran to keep its centrifuges in place but suspend operations. “This proposal is ridiculous…If such a proposal is formally presented by American officials, it indicates their childish outlook on the negotiations or the stupid assumptions of the Iranian side,” said Hossein Sheikholeslam, a deputy to the speaker of parliament, according to Fars News.
As I wrote two months ago, the Rouhani administration is not desperate for a deal—especially not one that would be difficult to sell at home.
A recent poll suggests that more than 70% of the Iranian public would not accept a deal that forces Iran to dismantle up to half of its operating centrifuges and limit its nuclear research capacities. A large majority of Iranians also believe that their nuclear program is just an excuse for foreign powers to exert pressure on Iran, according to the poll.
Regardless of whether or not the survey’s methodology is reliable (accurate polling is hard to come by when it comes to Iran), the overall results reflect what one would hear and read in Iran.
While hope persists, we should not expect another big step with regards to US-Iran relations during Rouhani’s trip to New York this year—no phonecall, no handshake, and no joint press conference.
Even if there were a political breakthrough—which seems unlikely at this point—the timing isn’t right. Such political staging would result in harsh political blowback in Washington and Tehran for both presidents.
We should therefore expect the nuclear talks as well as any debate on fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq to be conducted in a private and prudent fashion.
Meanwhile, Iran has been making history with other world powers. The meeting today between Rouhani and French President Francois Hollande was widely publicized by both countries. The expected meeting between Rouhani and British Prime Minister David Cameron would be the first of its kind in 35 years.
Iran’s international outreach should not be interpreted as solely bent on rapprochement with the United States. In this light, Rouhani has a lot to gain from his second visit to New York deal or no deal.
— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) September 23, 2014