by Farideh Farhi
Earlier this week Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif appointed Abbas Araghchi, the deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs and chief nuclear negotiator, to oversee the implementation phase of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The appointment came after Secretary of State John Kerry designated Ambassador Stephen Mull as lead coordinator for JCPOA’s implementation on the US side.
As the daily Aftab-e Yazd pointed out, Kerry’s move made sense after the US Congress failed to derail the nuclear agreement. But in Iran the parliamentary committee established to review the agreement has yet to deliver an opinion. There is in fact confusion about what the committee and eventually the entire Parliament will do.
Araghchi’s appointment, however, essentially confirms that no matter what the Parliament does, the JCPOA will go into the implementation phase. The Rouhani government has maintained from the beginning that the JCPOA is not an international treaty and hence refused to submit legislation for approval. So far, neither has the Majles itself.
Horse out of the Barn
In his latest announcement, the spokesman for the JCPOA review committee, Hossein Taqavi Hosseini, said that the committee will “neither affirm nor reject” but to give a “conditional approval.” In the report that will be given to the entire Majles next week, he stated, “frameworks will be delineated within which the government will be obligated to implemented the JCPOA.” Some sort of legislation written by committee members may or may not happen. The key though is that the horse has already left the barn. At this point the decision about the Majles’ handling of the JCPOA is more about how not to look bad after a series of publicly televised meetings that severely criticized every aspect of the agreement.
The JCPOA review committee was established in Iran to do two things. Its first task was to offer a procedural approximation to what was happening in the US Congress. Mimicking a similar move by the US Senate, for instance, the committee went as far as inviting IAEA chief Yukio Amano to its closed hearings when he visited Iran last week. And Amano obliged, shepherded by members of the foreign ministry. “Do as the US does” was probably the reason the Majles leadership, which supports the JCPOA and Rouhani, agreed to the establishment of the committee and its majority membership of hardliners whose opposition to the JCPOA was already a matter of public record.
For the hardline MPs, though, there was a second reason: to use the committee hearings, large parts of which were broadcast on national television, to increase their national profile. But in doing so they ended up playing a lose-lose game by overreaching in their criticism of the agreement and then apparently not being able or willing to reject the agreement outright. On one hand, their sharp attacks against the JCPOA and the nuclear negotiating team’s conduct put them at odds with the majority of the Iranian population, which supports the agreement despite Iran’s compromises. On the other, their eventual support, even if conditional, for the agreement places them at odds with their own political base, which genuinely sees the agreement as a travesty and sellout.
The committee’s biggest mistake occurred when it invited the previous nuclear negotiating team, headed by former presidential candidate Saeed Jalili, to give testimony against the JCPOA. Jalili had never appeared in front of a Majles committee when he was the nuclear negotiator. Perhaps a desire to run in the February 2016 Majles election might have been the reason for his appearance. If so, he must have forgotten that many inside Iran deemed his last-minute entry in the 2013 presidential election as one of the reasons voters ended up voting for Rouhani (out of fear of electing another Ahmadinejad-like person).
Jalili’s testimony was also jolting. He criticized the agreement for a hundred violations of Iran’s rights and undermining the country’s sovereignty through an over-zealous inspection regime while also claiming that the US had accepted Iran’s right to enrichment when he was the chief nuclear negotiator. The latter could easily be disproven, and he ended up as the butt of jokes. Seda Weekly ran a front cover of him as Superman, in effect poking fun at the claims he made. Seda’s chief editor, Mohammad Quchani, wrote an almost joyous editorial explaining why Jalili’s opposition to the agreement will benefit the reformists and harm the so-called principlists. The current chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and former foreign minister Ali-Akbar Salehi’s riposte was a simple one-liner: Ask Jalili for documentation.
But the real reason for the hardline committee members apparent overreach was the arguments made by the current nuclear negotiating team. Repeatedly appearing in front of the committee, various members of the nuclear team acknowledged that the agreement had flaws and weaknesses, as any compromise would, but it was the best possible for the welfare of the Iranian population. The language used was blunt. For instance, in one reported testy exchange regarding the Arak heavy water plant, Salehi mocked anyone who sees courage as “putting into place the heart of a reactor and living there with his wife and children. And for what end? … They want to put the lives of 80 million people in danger in order to say they are brave… You have seen accidents such as Chernobyl.”
Given that kind of positioning, even the hardline delineation of the flaws could be countered with the benefits that the agreement could accrue if the Iranian leadership remained diligent and united during the implementation phase. At the end of the day, the current nuclear team showed that it could also play the nationalist card by suggesting that at this juncture divisions and disunity among the elite will prevent Iran from making the best of the JCPOA.
The hardliners will not disappear in Iran and will have plenty of opportunity to question the JCPOA during the implementation phase, particularly if steps are taken in the US Congress to undercut the agreement. But their arguments have taken a beating. Initially they questioned whether there would be an agreement at all given US unwillingness to come to terms with Iran’s bottom lines. Once the agreement was reached, they failed to muster a convincing argument for an alternative approach even when given ample opportunity. And now they will have to find a way to explain to their own base their inability to stage a more effective fight.