Of Course “the Ayatollah Thinks He Won”

by Ali Gharib

In the Wall Street Journal last weekend, the paper’s chief foreign affairs reporter, Jay Solomon, unloaded a 2,500-word essay looking back at the Iran nuclear deal a little more than year after the accord was signed. Solomon, a measured and well-sourced reporter, examined how the deal had, after this short period of time, affected Iranian politics. The piece bore the online headline: “Why the Ayatollah Thinks He Won.” It lays out a laundry list of reasons why the nuclear accord does not appear—or at least does not yet appear—to be tipping Iran’s political balance of power in favor of moderates and reformists.

There have, however, been some benefits for Iranian moderates. Solomon doesn’t mention—or even hint at—the victory last winter of Iranian moderates in parliamentary elections, a possible first step toward a longer term opening up. But there is of course a large degree of truth to his contention: “the Ayatollah” of the headline—Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—retains the same ultimate control he exercised over Iranian political, economic, military and social life he did in 2015, before the deal was signed; as he did in 2013, before an interim accord was struck; as he did in 2012, before secret talks began; as he did in 2011, before any of this was even a possibility; as he did in— well, you get the point. Iranian political dynamics are, to a degree, holding steady even after the nuclear deal.

Figures like President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and their allies—key moderate leaders of what Iranians refer to as “the government” rather than Khamenei’s role as head of “the system”—have so far gained less than some proponents of the deal hoped. As Solomon acknowledges, many of the nuclear deal’s more sober supporters had said just that: they hoped the accord would strengthen moderates, not that they expected it to immediately rearrange the Iranian political order. Reform, then, was merely regarded as a potential secondary benefit of diplomacy, not a sine qua non of striking a deal.

Compromise Was the Key

And yet it seems obvious that “it is Mr. Khamenei, not his more moderate rivals, who are acting as if they have been strengthened by the nuclear deal,” as Solomon put it. Many supporters of a deal have said all along that both sides would need to take home a compromise to their constituencies that they could present as a victory. That is the very nature of a compromise. For Khamenei, taking home a victory did not mean giving a leg-up to moderates; it meant strengthening the regime and his hardline allies, who dominate so many aspects of its security apparatuses and its economy. Thus Khamenei regards the deal as having “produced significant benefits for their hobbled theocracy and may serve to further entrench the regime brought to power in the 1979 revolution,” as Solomon writes, and his thinking in such a manner was essential to diplomacy in the first place.

Though the deal was negotiated at the table by Rouhani’s government, such a move was only possible because of the early steps toward secret talks taken by the previous hardline government. That either the past administration or Rouhani were allowed to talk seriously at all—let alone finally strike an accord—was the result of the Supreme Leader giving his blessing to the talks, shaping their contours by issuing private and  public instructions and conditions, and ultimately agreeing to the deal getting inked. Had Khamenei viewed diplomacy as a threat to his and his allies’ position, one can be sure that talks would never have advanced as far as they could. In other words, there would never have been a deal if Khamenei could not have brought it home “acting as if [he] have been strengthened by the nuclear deal.” Indeed, allowing Khamenei that posture—that, in the Journal’s parlance, the Ayatollah thinks he won—was a sine qua non of striking a deal.

Benefits Will Take Time to Develop

What’s more, as Solomon also acknowledges, we are only a year into a deal, and the economic benefits it brings to Iran—which many proponents of a deal think will help usher in a political and social opening—are only yet trickling in. That an economic boom did not immediately materialize aids Khamenei and his hardline allies in staving off the sort of reforms that would see their power diminished, and in this sense serves their interests: an infusion of foreign investment, for example, could cut into the dominance of the economy by the Khamenei-controlled Revolutionary Guard.

The Guards’ primacy in Iran’s economy was never something that would be easily relinquished; the praetorian force cemented its position in the lean, tightened-belt era of tough sanctions, when its leadership and their families and allies established themselves as the gatekeepers of what limited economic activity was still taking place. (In sieges, the army inside the city walls is the last to starve; ordinary citizens are always hit hardest at the outset.) To the Guard, then, the lifting of sanctions provides them with another opportunity: to control a large share of a bigger pie. But this aspiration has come with requisite actions to ensure that this share remained dominant: the Guard and their hardline allies have been busy cracking down on dual-nationals, especially businesspeople, seeking to invest in Iran as it opened up. One such arrest, of the Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, stands as a prime example. “Friends and family of Mr. Namazi,” Solomon writes, “say that his arrest was a warning to Iranian expatriates not to return home to pursue business dealings. Many Iranian-Americans have heeded the message.” These sorts of actions, along with other forms of oppression aimed at the political opposition and at civil society activists, shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise: some supporters of a deal, while still holding hope for the social and political benefits the accord might bring to ordinary Iranians, recognized that the rights situation in the country was likely to get worse before it gets better.

Then there is the hope—again, not the prime aim—of the deal’s proponents that Iran’s foreign policy might become more moderate as well. As Solomon points out in his bill of particulars, that has not been the case: the Iranian government has used the financial benefits brought by the accord to beef up its military spending, and still involves itself in nefarious ways in the Middle East, continuing its support to unsavory groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis and, especially, its robust assistance to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. And yet again none of this should stand as a huge surprise. Take, for example, military spending. Some neoconservative opponents of the deal were displeased that Iran used a repayment of monies owed by the U.S. to boost its military budget. But that money was initially put in U.S. hands for weapons purchases during the era of the Shah; it was, in other words, already part of Iran’s military budget. Now it has returned to the Iranian military’s coffers—and, neocon outrage aside, there was little the U.S. could do about it.

Don’t Forget the Point of the Deal

Solomon, to his credit, makes room in his essay for the argument made by supporters of the deal, and not least the Obama administration itself, about the benefits the deal brings to the U.S. itself: constraining Iran’s nuclear program. Then he brings some true and necessary caveats: the constraints on Iran’s program are time limited. Some restrictions last for five years, but the bulk of them will be in place for 10 to 15 years. Others constraints still will be in place for 25 years and some conditions, like the incredibly important implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocols for heightened inspections, will remain perpetually in force. Nonetheless, the gradual relaxation of some of the deal’s strictures means Iran will eventually be able to expand its nuclear program beyond what it was left with in the immediate aftermath of implementing the deal.

It bears noting here that, because Khamenei had to bring home what looked like a victory, the deal was not going to limit the scope of Iran’s nuclear program forever. (For their part, neoconservatives crowed throughout diplomacy for just this unrealistic condition to be imposed. As they always do, they were basically demanding a total surrender from Iran—compromise is anathema to their ideological commitments.) But what the deal will do, not least because of the heightened inspections, is make it less likely that Iran will be able to move toward production of a nuclear weapon any time in the foreseeable future.

And this brings us to the main benefit of the deal, for the Iranian regime as well as the American one, and for the people of both countries. As Secretary of State John Kerry told Solomon, “I have no doubt that we avoided a war. None.” There can of course be a debate about this point—counterfactuals are impossible to prove—but I, for one, ascribe to this thinking. With Iran’s nuclear program growing unchecked before the deal, it seemed obvious that the U.S. and Iran were on the path toward confrontation—with little in the way of available off-ramps. Kerry, and of course his boss Barack Obama, saw an opportunity to take one of the few exits on this dangerous highway and took it. The sideroads at the other end of this exit will continue to be tricky to navigate, but are far less likely to lead to a potentially catastrophic confrontation. From this perspective, “the Ayatollah” may think he and he alone won in the nuclear accord—certainly an angle worth exploring—but the truth is that everybody won.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.