by Farideh Farhi
I am pretty sure it was not planned. But the Implementation Day for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—January 16—was also the anniversary of the day Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left Iran in 1979. This coincidence is sure to give some Iranians, who earnestly believe that the Shah’s departure was made possible by Washington’s loss of U.S. confidence in him or even by its support for the revolutionary forces, another reason to be convinced that the United States is responsible for the Islamic Republic of Iran’s survival and even maintenance over the years.
This conspiratorial perspective aside, the JCPOA’s implementation certainly signifies yet another turning point for Iran, even if the Implementation Day couldn’t have happened without a certain amount of luck.
At least since the US invasion of Afghanistan, many observers of US-Iran relations have noted the mutuality of interests and/or deeper geopolitical changes that should eventually open the way for some sort of sustained dialogue and even rapprochement between the two countries. But escalating rhetoric and hostile policies overshadowed any easing of tensions even during the first term of the Obama administration.
The tipping factor in making Implementation Day possible was not deeper geopolitical trends but politicians and diplomats on both sides who, in the face of complicated domestic politics, were willing and capable of interacting and negotiating for mutually acceptable solutions, at times even in secret. Nothing exemplifies this dynamic better than the recent prisoner exchange that took almost everyone by surprise. Notwithstanding the Republican Party’s criticism of anything that he does, Obama managed through this exchange to address the accusation that his administration was ready to abandon US citizens for the sake of a nuclear agreement. Meanwhile, the Rouhani administration was able to make the point that the US also imprisons people on the basis of laws that another country considers unfair, even erratic. The prisoner exchange also revealed that the US and Iran dialogue has already become broader than the nuclear issue despite public protestations to the contrary, particularly in Iran.
To be sure, the domestic context within which these politicians and diplomats operate also mattered. Despite all the anti-Iran bluster and criticism coming from the Republicans and even some well-known Democrats, Obama knew that the majority of Americans are tired of war and unnecessary belligerence. Probably more importantly, he knew that his Democratic Party base would welcome, perhaps even expect, conciliatory politics towards Iran.
Meanwhile in Tehran, as Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has repeatedly pointed out, the high participation rate in the 2013 presidential election provided the Iranian negotiators the confidence to conduct themselves the way they did. True, the secret talks between the US and Iran began during the tenure of previous foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi (with the then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili sidelined presumably at the order of Ayatollah Khamenei). But the negotiations could not have ended successfully without a nuclear team that was deemed capable as well as representative of the view of a good part of the Iranian population.
The fortuitous pairing of decision-makers does not suggest that the political dynamics are the same in the two countries. There are significant differences, as well as a fundamental imbalance, in the relationship.
At the most basic level, the JCPOA implementation means different things for the two countries. For the United States—a global power that routinely crows about imposing sanctions and demanding good behavior from other countries without any self-reflection about how its own conduct contributes to regional violence—the question of how to deal with Iran is a matter of policy. During the presidential election season, it is also a stand-in for deeper fights over the US role in the world and the extent of its military muscle. Moreover, given the decades of non-recognition, Iran is an easy target for demonization.
For the Islamic Republic—a regional power with a history of being manipulated by global powers—the policy debate over how to neutralize the US-led sanctions regime combines with the conservative establishment’s fear of losing control as Iran increases its economic interactions with Western powers.
Almost immediately after the JCPOA Adoption Day, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei expressed his deep fear of the economic and cultural “infiltration” of Iran once the agreement is implemented. Infiltration has now become a ubiquitous word in Iran’s public discourse. For instance, in an organizational meeting this week, intended to bring together various conservative wings in order to create a common slate for the upcoming parliamentary elections, “infiltration” was even charged with sowing discord among conservatives and preventing them from uniting their bickering wings.
This fear-laden approach also set the stage on the JCPOA Implementation Day for the announcement that the provincial supervisory committees qualified only 45 percent of registrants for the parliamentary elections. Such a low qualification rate is unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic. According to Hossein Marashi, a reformist leader, only 30 reformists and supporters of the government out of the total of 3,000 who registered were deemed qualified throughout the country. Usually the qualification rate at the provincial level is relatively high, leaving the stricter disqualification rate for the Guardian Council. So yet again Iran’s electoral politics is in an uncharted territory awaiting an unpredictable outcome. In the next 20 days much effort will go into trying to undo the provincial committees’ results, which reportedly include the failure of dozens of current MPs to qualify.
Rouhani has already expressed his unhappiness, stating that he will engage with the Guardian Council in the hope that it can resolve the problem in ways that would realize “the esteemed Leader’s recommendation regarding extensive participation of the people, even critics of the state.” Rouhani is clever to point to Khamenei’s call for those who reject the Islamic Republic or are even critics of the Leader himself to participate in the election. Khamenei has done this twice, once before the 2013 elections and once just last week. But he has focused so far on voter participation in the election to enhance the Islamic Republic’s security and legitimacy on the global stage. He has said nothing about allowing the critics to run for office, and his constant refrain regarding infiltration through the use of domestic actors has provided ammunition for not only arrests of political opponents but also exclusion from political office of even mild critics.
If this sounds like the Leader wanting to have his cake and eat it too, it does. But in the next 20 days, efforts will be made to convince him and the rest of the conservative establishment that this is a shortsighted approach that does not serve the Islamic Republic, in much the same way as the bombastic approach to Iran’s nuclear dossier proved counter-productive during Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
In his press conference on Sunday, Rouhani already hinted at his argument for pushing for a different approach. “We have to implement the JCPOA model domestically as well,” he said. On Monday, his vice president for legal affairs, Elham Aminzadeh stated that Rouhani would begin talks with the Guardian Council “to restore the reputation of those disqualified if mistakes were made.”
Photo: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei voting in the 2013 elections.