Iran’s Rouhani, Zarif Not Desperate for Nuclear Deal

by Adnan Tabatabai

The negotiations in Vienna between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program are in the home stretch even if the July 20 deadline to reach a final deal set by last year’s interim accord will not be met.

Few expected a deal to be reached so quickly, less than one year after last year’s historic agreement, the Joint Plan of Action. Experts argued early on that there would be an extension. Even Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Seyyed Abbas Araqchi said on July 12 that “there is a possibility of extending the talks for a few days or a few weeks if progress is made.”

While the possibility of a final deal being reached any time soon is far from guaranteed, one thing is certain: the Rouhani government’s most important task will be effectively framing the outcome of these talks at home.

Zarif Makes Iran’s Case

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his team made two significant moves in presenting Iran’s position more clearly than ever before during this marathon round of talks, which began on July 2.

First, Zarif offered details, for the first time, about Iran’s proposal in an interview with the New York Times.

Second, Zarif’s team published a document clearly outlining Iran’s view of its practical needs for its nuclear program in English, which it distributed through social media.

Prior to this latest round of talks, Zarif also again emphasized his country’s willingness to reach a comprehensive agreement with world powers in a video message released by the Foreign Ministry.

This commitment is based on a number of domestic incentives.

In order to gain more strength in his critical second year in office, President Hassan Rouhani needs a policy success story. Solving the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program was among his top campaign promises, and so far he has yet to achieve any of them.

A nuclear deal would embolden him to push for ambitious policy decisions to pursue his other campaign promises.

Rouhani — to use his own words — has to “break” the devastating sanctions imposed on Iran before any meaningful economic reconstruction and development can be implemented.

With a nuclear deal in his pocket, Rouhani could begin to counter Iranian hard-liners’ and conservatives’ deep-rooted scepticism towards the West. Indeed, a nuclear deal would fly in the face of those who argue that the West cannot be trusted. Rouhani could prove that moderation and reconciliation, when strategically applied, can be extremely beneficial.

A no-deal scenario, one could therefore conclude, would considerably weaken Rouhani while strengthening his opponents at home. But this train of thought is highly simplistic.

Framing the Outcome

Regardless of what these negotiations lead to, more than half the battle will involve controlling how the outcome is framed and perceived at home.

Rouhani and Zarif will have to respond to two forms of criticism: factual and ideological.

The factual criticism will be concerned with the actual details of the negotiations — particularly those determining the scope and future prospects of Iran’s nuclear program.

The ideological criticism will be related to Zarif’s negotiating strategy. For Iran’s far-right principlist faction, Zarif’s reconciliatory approach toward world powers is not in line with Iran’s revolutionary ideals.

Many of them former supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, these parliamentarians and archconservative clerics prefer a more confrontational foreign policy approach through which Iran maintains its position of resistance, is the main regional powerhouse and pursues its nuclear program without seeking approval from the international community.

The latter dimension was stressed in a follow-up meeting of the “We’re concerned” conference in Tehran, which I discussed in May. The very same figures who launched the first event gathered again in a “Red lines” session July 15 to set clear limits on what is and is not negotiable.

In many ways, these hard-liners resemble hawks in the US Congress. Both groups are trying hard to impose themselves into the negotiating process and express their discontent at being side-lined through emphatic opposition to reconciliation and prospects for normalized relations.

In fact, deal or no deal, Rouhani and Zarif will have to convince critics at home that they safeguarded Iran’s national interests — especially in terms of scientific progress and security — and maintained Iran’s position as an important regional actor.

Successfully framing the post-negotiations environment will mean that neither Rouhani nor Zarif will be able to maintain their considerable political capital even in a no-deal scenario.

A “Win-Win” for the Supreme Leader

Rouhani and Zarif have not only proven themselves as adept negotiators (Rouhani was Iran’s chief negotiator from 2003-05), they have also been skilfully manoeuvring Iran’s domestic political scene in the following ways:

  1. They know how to address criticism. Be it in media appearances, public speeches or during parliamentary questioning sessions, both of these men have demonstrated the perfect mix of responding to some concerns while strongly making their own cases. They have not allowed their critics to intimidate them.
  2. Whenever criticism has taken over, influential actors including former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, or Chief of staff of the Armed Forces, General Hassan Firouzabadi threw their political weight behind Rouhani and his foreign minister. This was only possible through Rouhani’s connections with various political factions prior to his presidential election and his approach to the presidency thus far. These key figures’ public approval of Zarif’s negotiating strategy has often been voiced with reference to the words of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
  3. Iran’s foreign minister has become one of the most popular politicians in Iran. Allowing him to go alone into the firing line of hard-line criticism — especially in the case of a no-deal scenario — could be too costly for the overall political atmosphere The Supreme Leader has therefore not allowed Zarif or Rouhani to be openly criticized too harshly.
  4. Finally, and most importantly, even in the case of a no-deal scenario, the Supreme Leader may, in the end, achieve one major goal: proving to the Iranian public that the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, and Russia plus Germany) stood in the way of a final agreement, and not him. While he has thus far supported Iran’s negotiating team, he has consistently decried the other side’s sincerity, which enables him to be right, deal or no deal.

“Khamenei’s personal win-win,” as a Tehran-based political analyst recently told me, would also eliminate a lot of pressure from the Supreme Leader’s shoulders, which — as the past 25 years have shown — has always led to less domestic turmoil.

Indeed, when under pressure, Supreme Leader Khamenei approves tighter security measures. Not only was this the case during the 2009 post-election crisis when crackdowns on protests and the arrests of prominent critics escalated, but also during the final year of the Ahmadinejad presidency when some of his aides were verbally and, in the case of Ali Akbar Javanfekr, even physically attacked.

Thus, Iran’s negotiating partners should keep in mind that while Zarif’s negotiating team is committed to achieving a comprehensive agreement, and Rouhani would gain considerable political clout in the event of one, it would be wrong to operate on the assumption that they are desperate for it. Their careers do not depend on the outcome of the talks.

Photo: The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi (left), and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif with President Hassan Rouhani. Credit: Ho, AFP/Getty Images

Adnan Tabatabai

Adnan Tabatabai is co-founder and CEO of the Germany based think tank CARPO – Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient. As an Iranian affairs analyst, he is consulted by European policy-makers and businesses, as well as by research institutions and political foundations. Tabatabai holds an assigned lectureship at the University of Dusseldorf, and is the author of the book "Morgen in Iran“ (2016, Edition Korber Stiftung). Twitter: @A_Tabatabai



  1. I think Iran’s wealth and power will grow considerably, fairly quickly, if Iran can achieve a deal with the P5+1. Great piece.

  2. I’d like to, in my lifetime, see decades of using sanctions as weapons of devastation against Cuba and Iran reversed. There is no question both of those countries are run by tyrants but so are just about all of our so-called “staunch allies” in many parts of the world so that’s not the real reason behind our overzealous foreign policy decisions. I’d like to see cooperation and contact as tools of behavior modification instead of threats of military action (which so often do come to pass). I think most of my fellow Americans agree with me that we need to end these sanctions regimes. If we have opened our doors to a much bigger country (and potential menace) in China and allowed huge trade deficits favoring them, why are our policies on Cuba and China the opposite? While certain interest groups (such as those representing the “defense” industry and certain dubious foreign countries) consider the end of sanctions as damaging to their interests, the vast majority of Americans and industries look forward to the economic benefits (lower oil prices, resumption of sales of many goods and services leading to more American jobs and profits, opening new markets in places eager to see an American presence, more investment opportunities, etc.) What have 50+ years of sanctions on Cuba brought us? What have 30+ years of sanctions on Iran brought us other than lost sales of Boeing aircraft, oil drilling equipment, foodstuff, IT and high tech equipment, etc.? We know what terrible toll those sanctions have taken on the average citizens of Cuba and Iran. The leaders from 1959 are still ruling Cuba so obviously our sanctions had no effect on them. Same for the original leaders of the Islamic Republic. Sanctions don’t work, unless their goal is to impoverish citizens and empower the tyrannical leaders.

  3. Well if they’re not desperate, obviously the sanctions aren’t severe enough! Iran sells much of its oil on the black market and evades foreign currency blocks. It didn’t even come to the negotiating table until it was finally blocked from use of the ACH system which finally inflicted some real consequences on them. But clearly Iran has dug in its heels, especially on not giving away its enrichment capacity which is why these talks failed. So Iran will muddle along and continue without any real incentive to do a deal and wait until the political winds in the West turn so that it can get the sanctions lifted and keep its refining capacity and give nothing away to the West. No one ever said the mullahs were dumb.

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