Iranian Hardliners vs. Reformists: The Future of the JCPOA

by Pupak Mohebali

Three years after reformer Hassan Rouhani became president of the Islamic Republic of Iran and eight months after signing the historic nuclear deal by Iran and the P5+1, Shahin Dadkhah left Iran for good and moved to Turkey. Dadkhah is a former advisor to the Supreme National Security Council and a former member of the nuclear negotiating team.

In a conversation with Dadkhah, I asked him about his reasons for leaving the country, whether he had support from President Rouhani, and why he didn’t feel secure enough to stay. We also talked about his opinion about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and where the hardliners and reformists line up on this issue.

Iranian Politics

Generally the political elite in Iran is grouped into four political factions: principalists, traditional conservatives, pragmatic conservatives, and reformists. Principalists and traditional conservatives believe in the ideological principles of the Islamic Revolution. Pragmatic conservatives are conservative, but they are more willing to prioritize pragmatic social and cultural policies over ideological enthusiasms. They are also supporters of economic liberalization. The reformists are the representatives of the ideological left in Iranian political system. They support economic openness and liberalization and rapprochement with the West.

After the parliamentary elections in February 2016, reformists took the majority of seats. So, the question is whether President Rouhani can take this opportunity to use the nuclear deal to strengthen his political position in Iran and push through domestic reforms.

According to Dadkhah, although Hassan Rouhani is a reformist politician, political rivalries continue and hardliners will try hard to preserve the remarkable amount of power they still possess. “During the eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the opponents of reform gained more power bolstered by newer hardline groups that emerged within Iran’s political system,” Dadkhah observes. “During that period, these hardline groups believed it was the best time to weaken Ahmadinejad’s rivals; Rouhani was one of their targets. The hardliners resorted to making cases against those close to Rouhani, including me.”

Dadkhah adds, “Rouhani is aware of the situation, but he is worried about the hardliners’ reaction.” He believes that Rouhani could have supported him, but political realities prevent him from offering direct support. The opponents of the current government are more powerful compared to a decade ago. “Thus, in order to achieve the main political objectives for the country, President Rouhani should not interfere in these issues and I understand that,” Dadkhah says.

“Criticizing and opposing the Islamic Republic is not an unreasonable fantasy for people who believe the regime is very close to falling,” Dadkhah declares. “This is a mistake that some opposition groups in Iran and Europe make when claiming that the regime is going to fall in the near future.” The current political regime is still powerful enough to imprison its own former prime minister and former chairman of the parliament or cope with crises such as the protests associated with the 2009 elections.

On the other hand, the Iranian people are not ready to pay the price of regime change. Dadkhah observes, “Yesterday’s revolutionaries are very much interested in business and money. They are experiencing their own Thermidor. This means, as Barrington Moore says, that revolutionary ideologies are weakening and revolutionary leaders are shifting toward conservatism.” Women are fighting for their own rights and a part of the regime supports them. Dadkhah does not see any clear or convincing signs of regime change.


The global nuclear order is first and foremost a creation of the nuclear powers, and they are never happy about welcoming another nuclear power into the world. Dadkhah points out, however, that “there are some paradoxes in this order that threaten its stability. For example, the U.S. recognizes India as a nuclear power and is silent about Israel’s nuclear weapons activities. Nevertheless, it punishes Iran for uranium enrichment activities.” At the moment, this double standard survives through the use of force. But as soon as this power starts to diminish, the nuclear order will become unstable. This was evident at the end of the Cold War, when North Korea and Iraq decided to extend their nuclear activities. “Undoubtedly, Iran’s nuclear agreement will have a positive influence on the region’s stability,” Dadkhah observes. “But the important issue is to deal with the origins of insecurity in the region and make sure that none of the governments looks for non-conventional deterrence.”

The JCPOA is not flawless, Dadkhah points out, but it is the product of protracted bargaining and negotiations. All parties to the agreement were seeking to gain more, but considering the current mistrust between Iran and the West, this was the best deal they could achieve. Both sides believe that the nuclear agreement will meet their requirements. The West is assured that Iran is no longer seeking to build nuclear weapons, and Iran gained the right to enrich uranium domestically. In this way, Dadkhah says, both sides avoid having to go back to the starting point of negotiations in 2003.

Differences of opinion about the JCPOA certainly exist in Iran. As Dadkhah argues, , nuclear activities have been an opportunity for hardliners to put pressure on the West to force them to recognize the Islamic Republic. For them, the nuclear agreement is a disadvantage that weakens Iran’s bargaining power against the West. Saeed Jalili, who played a direct role in arresting Dadkhah and his friends, is one of the opponents to any limitation of nuclear activities. Hardliners opposed to the JCPOA still have a strong presence in various governmental institutions, and they should not be underestimated. But at the same time, proponents of the nuclear deal have the support of a public that has suffered from inflation, unemployment, and disinvestment over the past few years. The public expects that economic improvement will be a direct result of the nuclear deal.

Preserving revolutionary values has been a priority for Iranian officials, but a set of domestic needs caused the government to accept the nuclear deal. Although composed of a majority of hardliners, the parliament approved the deal. Dadkhah concludes that the West underestimated these political complexities in its dealings with Iran. Hardliners, both in Iran and the West, will have great difficulty undoing the agreement because it has been approved and ratified by the United Nations Security Council and turned into an international document.

Photo: Shahin Dadkhah

Pupak Mohebali is a PhD Candidate in international security and teaching assistant in the Department of Politics, University of York, UK. She earned her M.A. in international relations at Allameh Tabatabaei University, Iran. Currently, she’s conducting doctoral research on the impact of Iranian élite conceptions of national identity on decisions affecting Iran’s nuclear program and P5+1 nuclear negotiations. 

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One Comment

  1. The stupidity of Washington in its reluctance fully to release the thumbscrews of sanctions – which, at the very least, will allow the EU to resume economic relations with Iran without fear – is going to deep-six the JCPOA. That should make the Iranian hardliners happy. It’ll probably also please a future President Hillary, since it will go a long way to appease America’s (most unworthy) “allies”, Israel and Saudi Arabia. But it won’t do much to repair the damage to American “leadership”. Maybe it will even hand her Iran as the venue for her first war.

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