February 24, 2015

Undivided Tehran


Over the weekend, another round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, known as the P5+1, began in Geneva. On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to kick-start the discussion. Having failed to reach a consensus during earlier talks that ended in November, Washington must not only avoid administering sanctions, which would sabotage its diplomatic efforts, but also correctly understand Iran’s motivations for coming to the negotiating table: maintaining unity among the ruling elite and deflecting responsibility for successful negotiations onto Washington.

Although many observers have pointed to rifts between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, Iranian leaders have made a concerted effort to appear united on policy issues—whether there is a nuclear deal or not. Neither Khamenei nor Rouhani wants disputes between them to go public because it would almost certainly encourage hard-line pressure groups, which have used violence and intimidation to fight the talks. These same groups were instrumental in digging the ditch that the Islamic Republic currently finds itself in. Between 2005 and 2013, they were responsible for propagating offensive rhetoric about the United States and Israel; launching cyberattacks against the West and Israel; supporting terrorist groups, like Hamas and Hezbollah; and advancing the technical aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. The fruits of their labor are clear: an Islamic Republic that was isolated diplomatically, severed from global financial institutions, and whose legitimacy was further eroded in the eyes of its own people. 

There are more practical reasons for the two men to cooperate as well. It is well understood that Rouhani needs Khamenei’s support to govern effectively, but Westerners drastically underestimate the degree to which Khamenei also needs Rouhani. 

After eight years of rule under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which caused unprecedented political and economic damage to the Islamic Republic, Khamenei is now faced with a dangerous mix of serious challenges: unemployment, inflation, and brain drain, as well as a weakened domestic industrial sector and low investor confidence. Sanctions exacerbated these economic problems, but they did not cause them. The effects of mismanagement, nepotism, and corruption plagued the Iranian economy long before America’s economic assault, and they will continue to plague the Iranian economy even after sanctions are lifted.

Khamenei cannot fix these problems alone because the only alternative to Rouhani and his coalition is the same cast of characters who were responsible for Iran’s strategic position during the Ahmadinejad years. Since the 2013 presidential election campaign, Rouhani has maintained arguably the most diverse, inclusive political coalition in the 36-year history of the Islamic Republic. So, although Khamenei may be a cunning ideologue, he is not suicidal: he will use Rouhani’s political consensus-building skills and his team of able, technocratic managers to help stabilize the economy and competently handle state affairs. Iran’s highly contentious political infighting will not go away anytime soon, but the majority of the political elite has recognized the need for a shift in Tehran’s stance toward nuclear negotiations, as domestic support for Rouhani and his team as they meet with the P5+1 demonstrates.

In addition to projecting unity within the governing system, Iranian leaders are seeking to deflect domestic political pressure by shifting the onus of the U.S.-Iranian conflict onto Washington. For over a decade, Iranians across the political spectrum have insisted that the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have demanded too many concessions when it came to nuclear talks, and have held out hope that Washington would soften its strategic stance. 

Rouhani and Khamenei must now reach a deal, whatever its outcome, that does not undermine the narrative they have carefully constructed to maintain domestic and political support for the negotiations themselves. Khamenei has reassured the Iranian people that the ruling power has left no stone unturned in pursuing an agreement that honors their rights and is in their interest. “We are satisfied with the progress that our government officials have begun… They are really making efforts and they are putting time and energy into it,” he said during a February 8 speech to Iran’s air force. “If they make a good agreement, it is fine by us. I myself agree with that and I am sure that the people of Iran are not opposed to an agreement which preserves their dignity, respect, and interests.” His emphasis on the Iranian people reflects his concern over who bears the responsibility for the conflict: Tehran or Washington. For Iranian decision-makers, it is more important to ensure that the Iranian people will not blame their leaders for the sanctions than it is to get the sanctions lifted. 

Rouhani and Zarif sold the nuclear talks to Khamenei by arguing that since Tehran is open to negotiations, the onus is on Washington to produce a feasible deal. “If because of excessive demands…we don’t get a result, then the world will understand that the Islamic Republic sought a solution, a compromise, and a constructive agreement and that it will not renounce its rights and the greatness of the nation,” Zarif told the Iranian media after a November 2014 session of negotiations in Vienna. In turn, Khamenei sold the nuclear talks inside and outside of the governing system by arguing that engagement with Washington means the onus will be on Iran’s rival to compromise. “The honorable President [Rouhani] raised a good point in a speech, which is: Negotiation means that the two sides should try to reach a common point,” he said in his February 8 speech. “Well, this means that one side should not try to achieve everything it wants and expects. However, the Americans are like this. They … say that everything they want should be achieved exactly as they want it. Well, this shows their greed and this is wrong. This is not a way to negotiate. The Iranian side has done whatever it could to reach an agreement.” If the talks fail, Khamenei will almost certainly say “I told you so,” but he will continue to offer public support for negotiations in order to show that it is Washington, not Tehran, that is unwilling to resolve the standoff.

In short, both Khamenei and Rouhani have positioned themselves so that they can not truly lose. If the nuclear talks fail to produce a deal, neither Khamenei nor the Iranian people will blame Rouhani and Zarif because they can accuse Washington for paralyzing the negotiations, and Rouhani and Zarif (and by extension, the Iranian people) will not blame Khamenei for the same reason. Not only will political unity appear largely intact but Iranian officials will also have shifted the blame for failed talks back onto the United States.

The hawks in Washington who are against any negotiations with Iran will most likely not relent in pursuing new sanctions. For them, a nuclear deal with Tehran is like Obamacare: they will continue their efforts to sabotage it long after it is signed, sealed, and delivered. With that in mind, it is important for Washington to remember Iran’s motivations to maintain unity and shift blame as it engages in nuclear negotiations. If American hawks get in the way of a deal, not only will Washington fail to coax Tehran into more concessions or capitulation—they just might help strengthen Iran’s position at home and abroad at the expense of America’s.

This piece originally appeared in Foreign Affairs.

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