The Nuclear Deal and Expunging Iran’s Historical Ghosts

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by Farideh Farhi

Yesterday’s historic agreement between Iran and the world powers over Iran’s nuclear program will be hailed (or trashed) for many reasons. Much will be debated—the deal’s impact on the future of the Middle East, the potential re-direction of US foreign policy in the region, Iran’s domestic’s equation of power in the wake of parliamentary and Council of Experts elections in February, the presidential election in the US, and the rule of international law—but, in all likelihood and ironically, without much reference to the content of the agreement itself.

Amid the cacophony regarding what’s next or what the nuclear agreement will or will not do, however, it is also important to reflect on the negotiations themselves and what they have already accomplished for Iran, a country besieged by the ghosts of many problem-ridden negotiations with the outside world in the past.

In the Iranian political discourse, hardliners (along with some diehard opponents of the Islamic Republic outside of Iran) have alternately relied on the analogy of 1828 Turkamanchai Treaty (because of which Iran lost most of the Caucasus to tsarist Russia), the 1919 agreement with Britain (deemed a capitulation), and the 1933 oil agreement with Britain (which extended Britain’s control over Iran’s oil).

As the negotiations dragged on, other analogies entered the discussion. Notwithstanding the 1953 CIA-supported coup that followed the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and the failure to negotiate a settlement, after the April Lausanne agreement, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been compared to former Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, another Western-educated “true patriot” adept at using international law to challenge Western “arrogance.” A minority disagreed, depicting Zarif, along with his boss President Hassan Rouhani, as yet another traitor to the cause of resistance intent on pressuring Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to drink from the poison chalice in the same way some hardliners believe Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was convinced to do so in 1988 when he declared an end to the Iran-Iraq War. A recent issue of Andisheye Pouya, a monthly journal of history and political thought in Iran, hinted at yet another comparison: Prime Minister Ahmad Qavam, a crafty and pragmatic politician who convinced Stalin to leave Iran after World War II with a promise of oil concessions in northern Iran that he knew the Majles would reject.

With the exception of the last encounter, which is less discussed and not as evocative as the others, Iran’s historical memory of the last 150 years is about loss, being outmaneuvered by stronger and manipulative external foes, and ultimately humiliation. In this plaintive context, negotiations have generally been viewed with suspicion and deemed an exercise by externally beholden or naïve negotiators in giving concessions to or colluding with outsiders. To be sure, politicians like Mossadeq who have stood up to outsiders­—albeit at a high cost to their own power—have been revered in popular memory. But that reverence has merely confirmed the futility of negotiations and compromise in the hope of dignified results.

As such, Iran’s nuclear diplomatic team has already accomplished remarkable results. Not only has it challenged the domestic stigma attached to negotiation head-on, it has done so in the most unlikely way through talks with all the great powers at the highest level. By managing to elevate the structure of the negotiation to an unprecedented multi-ministerial setting—of course with John Kerry’s help—it has also unabashedly given the Iranian public a lesson in the value and necessity of compromise while ignoring the charge that compromise is necessarily about collusion.

To understand my point, just listen to Zarif’s modestly phrased words in his announcement of a “good deal” that is not based on the maximalist positions of either side. On his Twitter feed, he called the agreement “not a ceiling but a solid foundation” to build on. No need for bombastic statements of Iran’s victory in order to cover a popularly perceived loss. Everyone won. And, through hard work by all, an unnecessary crisis was overcome. He spoke with the confidence of a person who knows that the way Iran’s nuclear team had conducted itself had already led to the domestic perception that a compromise was respectable and not at all like a sip from the poison chalice. Frankly, I happen to think that the public perception that the deal was not a poison chalice was the only real red line that the nuclear team could not afford to cross.

No doubt there will be naysayers inside Iran who will question what Iran has given up. But perceptions at this point are as important as the content of the agreement, including whether Iran conceded more on certain issues than it should have.

This is not to say that the standing the nuclear team has brought Iran and the value of compromises made will not be tested by the ability of the government to translate foreign-policy achievements into domestic ones. Although nuclear talks have framed Iranian politics since Rouhani’s election, debates regarding the direction of Iran’s economy, distribution of the expanding economic pie in the “post-sanctions era,” and how the government can manage the political dynamics of the country in ways that better reflect the diverse aspirations and cultural choices of the people of Iran have been overshadowed but have not disappeared.

Nor have discussions gone away regarding how to reconcile the deep rifts that almost broke the country apart in 2009. Even in the celebrations of the nuclear deal last night, occasional chants of “the nuclear deal is over; it is Mir Hossein’s turn” or “tonight is the night of joy; Mussavi’s place is empty” were gentle reminders that the release of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mussavi and other political prisoners was also one of Rouhani’s campaign promises. After all, if the Rouhani government can successfully lead the Islamic Republic’s effort at reconciliation and compromise with hostile external powers, surely it can be expected to do the same domestically. I would go so far as to venture that the continued perception of the agreement as a “good deal” will depend on it.

In the past two years or so, Zarif has repeatedly said that he would not have been able to lead his negotiating team with confidence had the people of Iran not participated in the 2013 election in the numbers they did. Because of the high participation rates, the 2013 election was probably the likely source of unprecedented consensus among the Iranian elites in support of a nuclear compromise as well. The marginalized hardliners, after two years of exhorting the futility of talks, now have to figure out other ways to assert their political relevance. But it is precisely because of the political confidence gained in expunging ghosts generated by Iran’s lamentable encounters with world powers in the past that there are now expectations that the country has the wherewithal to address some of its internal ghosts.

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Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua (University of Illinois Press) and numerous articles and book chapters on compartative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and was most recently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.

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