by Farideh Farhi
What a day it was and on sizdeh bedar no less, the thirteenth and last day of the Nowruz holidays! It is without a doubt the most joyous of the country’s new year celebrations, when almost all Iranian families go outside their homes presumably to reconnect with nature (in reality, thanks to their cosmopolitan consumerism, they do a lot of damage to it). Most Iranians I know, even in the diaspora, try to go for an outing and make a wish for the coming year.
So, whether planned or not, for the “government of hope and prudence,” the name used to distinguish Rouhani’s government from the Islamic Republic’s previous administrations, it was an especially auspicious day to announce an agreed framework. After eight grueling days, which, unlike in the United States, was covered in detail and monitored intently inside Iran, a framework was produced that I think can be defended and sold inside Iran.
No doubt, as in the United States, naysayers abound. The editor of the hard-line Kayhan daily, the grumpy Hossein Shariatmadari—who, like New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, has an annoying fondness for cute and thoroughly slighting one-liners—has already announced that Iran gave away “an all saddled-up horse in exchange for a torn bridle.” The two differing fact sheets—with the US one emphasizing limitation and the Iranian one emphasizing sanctions relief—will give opponents enough ammunition to continue their mutually reinforcing barrage of criticism.
But by acknowledging Iran’s significant compromises in concrete terms (e.g., reduction of the number of working centrifuges in spite of previously stated red lines) and yet maintaining and even potentially expanding Iran’s peaceful nuclear program in other areas, the framework opens the way for a final agreement that a good part of the Iranian population will support as decent and respectable.
We will have to wait for the coming days to see how the center and conservative parts of the political spectrum will react, but Iranian politicians are not totally immune to popular sentiments and have in the past been swayed by them. In 2009, after an agreement was reached for Iran to ship its stockpile of less than 5 percent enriched uranium (Iran had yet to produce 20 percent enriched uranium), it was the negative reaction in the aftermath of the contested election that led to various politicians (including Mir Hossein Mussavi, the presidential candidate who had challenged the election results) to oppose the agreement. My assessment at the time was that the general fear that a deal abroad was the ticket for repression at home was the main reason for people who normally would be supportive to oppose the agreement.
With the 2013 presidential election, the state-society dynamic has changed. Gone is the inhibition in support of an agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program and yet creates other opportunities. In this regard, the discussion around the fate of Fordo will be very interesting. By transforming Fordo from an enrichment plant into a research and development center with a focus on the medical, agricultural, and other uses of nuclear technology (in interaction with the international expertise in these areas), the question of whether the suspension of enrichment at this facility is really a loss will come to the fore. It is in this regard that the presence of the chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, in the negotiations was important.
Whether by design or in order to resist the pressures imposed and enhance Iran’s bargaining position, Iran now has a nuclear industry with a strong institutional interest in its continuation and growth and thousands of people working in it. With the help of US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, Salehi, as the representative of that interest, has now opened a path for its redirection away from uranium enrichment, which is at worst useless and at best currently unnecessary, toward a different kind of nuclear program and technology. He will be the one that will defend the agreement on Fordo against hardliners who have already declared that it effectively idles the facility and is a “calamity.”
In some ways, the conversation in Iran will not be that different from the one that will be carried out in the United States. Hardliners in the US will be shouting treason and appeasement while in Iran treason and surrender will be their roar. And at the end of the day, these shouts may end up being seen as principled opposition. But their weakness in both countries lies in their inability to offer viable and sensible alternatives. As such, like in the United States, it is the level-headed voices in the middle or even on the conservative side that have to step up to defend the agreement as the best available option.
Meanwhile, the grueling negotiations between the Iranian delegation of a few men facing the great powers of the world have already earned kudos and appreciation for the dignified prudence Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had promised the Iranian pubic.
None of this is to suggest that Iran’s many angsts and conflicts—foreign or domestic—will wither away. This is an election year in Iran, and, in any case, a nuclear agreement will not wish away the unhappy events of 2009; not with some of the advocates of the path that Iran has now taken still in prison or marginalized. But the significance of what just happened for Iranian politics should not be underestimated.