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The internal Iranian struggle in the aftermath of the Geneva Nuclear Agreement

By  Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
web posted January 20, 2014

The interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, and subsequent assessments both in the West and in Iran about "winners and losers," have become a focus of fierce domestic controversy in Iran between the conservatives and Revolutionary Guard on one side, and President Hassan Rouhani, the nuclear negotiating team, and those considered the reformist camp on the other. The criticism sometimes relates to the agreement's possible long-term effects on Iran's Islamic nature and the course of its Islamic Revolution. The conservative elements also emphasize that the agreement concentrates solely on the nuclear issue and is not connected to the issue of relations with the United States, which they continue to see as an enemy, or to the issue of human rights in Iran. These conservative elements assert that they will not allow the agreement to become a means of altering Iran's revolutionary nature.

The Revolutionary Guard vs. the Foreign Ministry

The controversy and criticism about the agreements and the conduct of the Iranian negotiating team began to emerge after a very short period of "unity of the Iranian camp" and congratulatory exchanges between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Rouhani upon the signing of the interim nuclear agreement in Geneva on November 24.

The harshest criticism of the agreement, and of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as head of Iran's negotiating team, was leveled by Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, who objected to statements Zarif made to students at the University of Tehran in which he strongly defended the nuclear negotiations and their achievements. Zarif asserted that:

the West does not fear the number [of Iran's] tanks and missiles, it fears the Iranian people....Do you really think the United States, which can easily wipe out all our military systems with its bombs, fears our military power, that because of this power the United States will not confront us?...I do not claim that the United States does not fear our weapons and that our military power is not important, as we are proud of those who have fallen, of the military and the Basij forces; I claim that this is not the reason the United States does not attack us, and say that you [the Iranian people who stand firm] are the reason the United States does not attack Iran.

Jafari, for his part, said Zarif was an experienced diplomat but lacked any qualifications in the defense field, and his remarks on that subject were inappropriate. "It is possible that if we are attacked from the air, 10 to 20 percent of our missiles will be destroyed at the most, but our capability is not based on missiles." Jafari emphasized Iran's asymmetrical warfare doctrine and cited as an example Israel's bombing of southern Lebanon in 2006, which did not lessen Hizbullah's ability to respond. He added (echoing Khamenei) that "if the Americans and their rabid dog in the region [Israel] had the ability to act militarily against Iran, the United States and its allies would never have sat down at the negotiating table with Iran."

Similarly, Yadollah Javani, adviser to the Supreme Leader's representative to the Revolutionary Guard, criticized Zarif's remarks as "unprofessional statements that apparently stem from a lack of familiarity with military and defense issues." Iran, Javani claimed, is strong enough that in the event of an attack by the United States and its allies on key facilities, Iran

would respond with crushing force that would cause regret....Our defensive and missile capabilities will enable us to hit back at the American and Zionist interests in the region within a considerable radius....The Americans and the Zionists are aware of the West Asian region's strategic importance and Iran's role in maintaining security in the region, and they are also aware of their vulnerability in the Persian Gulf [a reference to the American forces stationed there], in the Strait of Hormuz, and in the Indian Ocean.

Javani also referred to Khamenei's declaration that if Iran's enemies were to commit an error, Iran would turn Tel Aviv and Haifa into a heap of ashes. He added, "To understand how credible these words are, one need only look briefly at Iran's power in the region and the Zionist regime's Second Lebanon War and ‘Operation Cast Lead' against Hizbullah. Our words have proof in reality."

Jafari, while publicly expressing support for the "current and previous" negotiating teams, set very clear red lines:

Everyone must help the negotiating team and Iran's diplomatic corps so that they come to the talks with firm support and national unity and insist on the basic nuclear rights of the Iranian people including a full nuclear fuel cycle, a clear and complete acknowledgment of Iran's nuclear rights, [and] the complete removal of the sanctions....The officials must be wary of the violation of agreements and the sinister and evil intentions of the United States and some of the Western states. If the responsible parties see any sort of violation of Iran's natural nuclear rights or exploitation of the agreement by the West and the United States, they must resolutely declare the cancellation of the agreement.

Jafari said the talks between Iran and the Western states, including the United States, were restricted to the nuclear issue. He added that the Iranian people's struggle with the American leaders was fundamental, and that "so long as the United States clings to its wicked and imperialist nature that harms the Iranian people and the nations of the world, we will not be able to reach a solution of our problems with it." Khamenei's representative to the Revolutionary Guard told the negotiating team to act with caution and wait to see if the West kept its promises. "In the past they gave verbal promises but repeatedly violated them and acted in contradiction to them. In general, the Westerners and particularly the United States do not uphold their promises; they promise many things but break their promises."

A "Poisoned Chalice"

The Geneva agreement has also drawn severe criticism in the Majlis (parliament). During a Majlis session broadcast on Iranian television, conservative parliamentarian Hamid Rasaei denounced the agreement and even used a loaded term in Iran: "poisoned chalice." He accused the government of presenting the agreement to the Iranian people as a "sugared drink" and raising popular expectations, while actually serving a "poisoned chalice." Rasaei also characterized the transfer of the nuclear portfolio from the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) as an error and called for restoring it to the SNSC so as to prevent a further blow to the nuclear effort. In its first one hundred days, he charged, the government had caused a strengthening of the sanctions along with "damage to the honor of the Iranian people....Under Zarif, Iran has made a concession of 100 percent and received a minimum of concessions." Rasaei also criticized the MFA's conduct in other areas.8 Majlis member Hojjat al-Eslam Seyyed Mohammad Nabavian, a member of Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi's radical faction, said Iran "doesn't aspire to obtain a nuclear bomb, but it is necessary so we can put Israel in its place."

In reaction to the U.S. imposition of sanctions on seventeen Iranian companies, Ala'eddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Majlis, called "for speeding up the pace of the Iranian nuclear program for purposes of peace." In addition, the Majlis discussed a proposed law that, if approved, would require the government to enrich uranium to the 60-percent level "for nuclear fuel" for Iranian ships and submarines. It was reported that two-thirds (200) of the (290) Majlis members have cosponsored the bill. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), chilled the Majlis' tough nuclear line, saying: "If one day we plan to use this nuclear energy to fuel ships or submarines, it is better to use nuclear reactors...[but] if the Majlis deems it expedient that 60-percent enriched uranium is in Iran's interests and votes it into law, we will have no option but to obey."

"Inappropriate Behavior"

In a series of articles, the conservative newspaper Kayhan, which usually reflects Khamenei's views, criticized the nuclear negotiating team while trying to avoid criticizing the Supreme Leader himself, who expressed cautious support for the nuclear agreement. This criticism intensified when, after the signing of the Geneva agreement, the U.S. Treasury Department decided to impose sanctions on additional Iranian individuals and companies. Excerpts:

  • A short time after the agreement was reached, contradictory statements were heard about its nature! The Iranian foreign minister called the achievements good and successful and claimed that Iran's nuclear rights had been safeguarded, whereas John Kerry within less than an hour called the agreement an American victory that ensures the security of America's allies in the region and particularly Israel, and added that the agreement does not include recognition of Iran's right to enrich!...The negative statements of the United States less than a few hours after the signing of the agreement bear out Khamenei's words about the nature of the United States and his characterization of it as arrogant and a violator of pacts....The path is still long and the agreement must not, amid the media enthusiasm, be portrayed as a victory for the citizens, since this will likely encourage vain expectations whose eventual fulfillment is not certain given the nature of the agreement that was reached.

  • The Foreign Ministry published an announcement confirming the telephone conversation between Dr. Zarif and John Kerry. The announcement stated that the Iranian foreign minister expressed Iran's dissatisfaction [with the additional American sanctions on Iranian individuals]. This announcement is so vague and unclear that it does not even explain which issue Iran expressed dissatisfaction about! The U.S. administration violated the Geneva agreement and imposed sanctions on seventeen Iranian and non-Iranian companies. Dr. Araghchi, the deputy foreign minister, said the measure ran counter to the spirit of the Geneva agreement, but Dr. Zarif, who indeed previously warned in an interview to EMIT that the imposition of new sanctions would mean the death of the Geneva agreement, now said in an interview to the Washington Post that the Geneva agreement had not yet died. What is amazing in all this is the repeatedly inappropriate behavior in the telephone conversations and meetings with the U.S. secretary of state. In the recent instance as well, the telephone conversation in question did not really lead to any compensation for the breaching of the agreement. Such behavior does not benefit the national interest, and most certainly boosts the optimistic stream that wants to cross the red lines! This inappropriate behavior during the trip to New York, instead of leading to a change in the American positions, only intensified Obama's audacity in making military threats against Iran. One must ask his honor the foreign minister whether the proclamation of Iran's dissatisfaction is anything more than a further instance of inappropriate behavior? What did we gain from this?

  • [From an editorial by Kayhan's editor in chief Hossein Shriatmadari, headlined "Why Not Be Serious?!"] One must say first of all that there is no doubting the fact that Iran's negotiating team is comprised of sons of the revolution and trustworthy and reliable people who have been assigned a complex and fateful mission, which has made support for them a religious and national duty. But even the sons of one family [a quote from Khamenei] who are trustworthy can, despite their pure desire and positive motivation, make mistakes, without detracting from the trust that the public feels toward them....There are many testimonies and documents pointing to the fact that the heads of the American-Israeli fitna 88 [opposition figures who led the protests after the June 2009 presidential elections], after having failed in their plot, now seek to damage the Islamic regime under a false pretense of supporting the government of Mr. Rouhani and false claims of support for the nuclear negotiating team. Precisely for this reason, they insist on creating the impression that all constructive criticism stemming from a desire to help the negotiating team is hostile and opposed to the current government and the negotiating team.

Kayhan also criticized Zarif's statements to the students belittling Iran's military capability compared to the United States, calling it a "message of surrender" and a "very harmful error that must not be repeated....In dialogue and particularly in the diplomatic arena, when one says something, what counts is what the other side understands and not this or that intention of the speaker."

An Ice Breaker

On the other hand, former president and head of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom the West has long regarded as a "savior" working to promote Western-Iranian relations, called the agreement an "ice breaker" that had overcome the taboo on relations with the United States. The conservative camp has been attacking Rafsanjani for this stance and trying to disassociate, as much as possible, the issue of the nuclear talks from the issue of relations with the United States, which still, despite the "Rouhani effect," is a loaded, almost taboo subject in Iran. Rafsanjani expressed gratitude to the nuclear negotiating team and said the signing of the agreement had "rescued us from great distress....Now we feel a letup. Our international status will improve, though much time remains until the final agreement takes shape."

The newspaper Jomhouri-e Islami, which is affiliated with Rafsanjani, wrote in that vein under the headline "The Victory of Logic":

The signing of the nuclear agreement is beyond doubt a victory for the Iranian people that was achieved through the rise to power of the moderate stream. Therefore, the victory should be called the victory of logic. Such an agreement could also have been reached in previous years, but because the previous government lacked logic and because the senior officials of the previous government, and particularly the president himself [Ahmadinejad], adopted harsh, violent language, not only was there no progress in talks but hardship and distress mounted and the wall of distrust grew higher and thicker. The agreement will not only benefit Iran but also the region and the whole world. The important aspects of the agreement are that enrichment will continue in Iran, new sanctions will not be imposed, and the previous sanctions will be gradually reduced and eventually lifted....The Iranian negotiating team achieved all this without crossing the red lines that have been laid down [by the Supreme Leader] and without at all forgoing Iran's nuclear rights or closing a single nuclear facility.

Sadegh Zibakalam, a senior professor at the University of Tehran and a well-known political analyst, asserted that the Geneva agreement is not restricted to the nuclear issue and called it

a historic turning point because the policy of struggle [that was promoted by radical elements in Iran] against the West [mainly the United States] was breached. The details of the agreement are not important, nor is what Iran or the West will do during these six months [of the implementation of the interim agreement]. What is important is that for the first time since the Islamic Revolution an agreement was reached between Iran and the West, an agreement that the extremists [inside and outside of Iran] are trying to subvert.

Ziva Kalam claimed that the Supreme Leader's support for the agreement prevents the extremists from characterizing it as a failure. "What is important is the rift that was created among the extremists regarding their anti-Western stance." Rouhani's Twitter account quoted parts of Kalam's article.

"The Elements That Engage in Petty Criticism"

Foreign Minister Zarif did not passively countenance the Revolutionary Guard's attacks on him and the negotiating team. He used his Facebook and Twitter accounts (ordinary Iranian citizens are not allowed to use these networks) to contend with his critics, particularly among the Revolutionary Guard and including Jafari. While apparently showing restraint because of his mother's illness (meanwhile she died), Zarif wrote on his Facebook page:

In recent days the Americans acted inappropriately, and we will respond as necessary while taking all aspects into consideration. Of course, some elements [that is, of the Revolutionary Guard, along with other domestic critics], who from the start were not happy about what occurred in Geneva, reported on the early death [of the agreement], which is more of a wish than the truth. We are seriously continuing the Geneva talks, though of course we will react in a way that is appropriate, calculated, effective, and wise to any inappropriate and unconstructive step (even if it does not entail a violation of the agreement). In addition, the elements that engage in petty criticism of us, while exploiting our inevitable silence, certainly know that we have a fitting response to everything they say. But the negotiating team has a more important mission, namely, the national interest, and at the moment does not see fit to respond on some of the issues. The team is prepared to hold its peace amid unfair and unjust accusations out of consideration of the national interest, but we will respond to all these assertions at the right time.

Meanwhile, in a series of interviews to the Western and domestic media, the foreign minister emphasized that he upholds the Supreme Leader's red lines regarding Iran's right to enrich uranium and maintain its nuclear program, despite the claims of the United States and of the White House "fact sheet" that was posted on the White House's website. As Zarif told the University of Tehran students,

They [the West] claim that the word "enrichment" does not exist in the text of the agreement. True, the word "enrichment" does not exist in the White House "fact sheet," but if that is one's point of reference instead of the text of the agreement that [the nuclear negotiating team] signed...then do as you wish....Enrichment is mentioned in two places in the document and it is stated that there is no solution to the nuclear dossier without acknowledging [Iran's inalienable right] to enrich....[Rest assured that] not an iota was missing from this people's rights....[Even] the Washington Post claimed that the White House lied in publishing the "fact sheet."

In the same speech Zarif underlined the fact that the building of the Arak heavy-water (IR-40) reactor would continue and, moreover: "Who has said that we cannot produce 20 percent [enriched] uranium anymore....Today, we are only unscrewing two taps between a cascade and if we decide to enrich uranium to 20 percent we will do it in a period of 21 hours."

The foreign minister made similar remarks in a speech to the Majlis in which he described Iran's achievements and improved international status:

The deal will also see Iran maintain its enrichment program and have access to financial resources....UNSC sanctions would be lifted at the beginning of the final phase, and at the end of that phase, Iran's nuclear dossier would be normalized like that of other countries such as Japan, Australia, and Germany.

My Dear Friend, Jafari

Zarif also responded to the attack on him by the Revolutionary Guard commander. He said he respected Jafari's view, but "I do not share his opinions and belief system and think what we [the negotiating team] achieved is noteworthy....Some claim that I lack all security-military qualifications; I claim that I taught national-security studies for decades and read numerous documents related to American national security." Zarif again explained, in response to Jafari, that:

the main fear of the United States is not of Iranian weapons but of the power of the Iranian nation....If we do not understand the rationale of the government, we will not be able to deal with our enemies....The main obstacle the United States has encountered in dealing with Iran is our culture of resistance and self-sacrifice [martyrdom]...[and] we cannot replace this capital with weapons.

The foreign minister also asserted that:

in any case the final adjudicator when it comes to continuing or ending the nuclear negotiations is the Leader, Khamenei....I am only a negotiator....I too am not optimistic [an allusion to Khamenei's speech in which he said he was not optimistic about the outcomes of the negotiations] about the negotiations and we put our trust in God.

In an interview to the Washington Post, Zarif addressed Jafari's criticism of him and said, "I respect Gen. Jafari's remarks, his views, and I expect him to have differences of views with me." He also said Iranian opponents of a deal with the West had "asked for my removal."

A Fitting Ally

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), supported the foreign minister and the negotiating team and stressed in a series of interviews that Iran's nuclear program continues to advance, Iran has joined the countries that have a complete nuclear fuel cycle, and that Iran has installed one thousand advanced centrifuges of the IR-2M kind but, in line with the Geneva agreement, has not fed them with UF6 gas. On another occasion Salehi said his organization aims to make Iran a center of uranium enrichment for West Asian countries.

Conversely, Salehi's predecessor in the post, Fereydoun Abbasi, said Iran had unnecessarily accepted the conditions the West had dictated on curbing its level of uranium enrichment. "A hero is the one who does not surrender to the conditions of his powerful opponent." He asserted that suspending 20-percent enrichment would "prevent Iran from reaching its developmental goals on the time schedule it had set for itself." Abbasi also criticized "Rouhani's vague and passive stance that undermines the will and resolve of the Iranian people."

Leveraging the Geneva Agreement to Enhance Ties with Regional States

Iran is also trying to leverage the nuclear agreement to improve its relations with the states of the region, particularly Saudi Arabia. But here, too, some amiable statements by the foreign minister (on attempting to resolve a dispute over certain islands with the United Arab Emirates, and on improving ties with Saudi Arabia) have prompted sharp criticism by conservatives. In the Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Alawsat, Zarif published an opinion article, "Our Neighbors Are Our Priority," in which he tried to use the nuclear agreement to court Iran's neighbors. He also visited the Gulf states bearing such messages.

President Rouhani, for his part, published an article in the Saudi daily Al-Eqtisadiah in which he touted the agreement's importance and again denied that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons, mentioning Khamenei's fatwa against such weapons – a fatwa from which no direct quotation can be found, not even on Khamenei's own website.

In response to these initiatives, Kayhan wrote that "the statement by Mr. Zarif that it is possible to converse with the UAE about its claim to possession of the island of Abu Musa [a strategic island overlooking the Strait of Hormuz] was ill-considered" and "a statement one does not expect to hear from an experienced diplomat."

Alraf Ala'eddin Borujerdi, head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, has termed Arab states' request to attend the nuclear talks as irrelevant. "I wonder why countries with no nuclear capability and with no leverage in negotiations would demand such a thing....[I]t is not even worthy of consideration." Borujerdi's deputy said the announcement that the security of Arab states was connected to the security of Iran is a true and real announcement. For years we wanted the Arab states to acknowledge this reality." He added:

It is very impudent of them to demand to participate in the talks between Iran and the P5+1, because not a single one of them wields any significant weight. They can only watch from the side as Iran takes strategic steps to ensure the security of the region. We will talk with the Foreign Ministry so that we can officially clarify Iran's position on these pointless demands.

No Real Change

The domestic debate in Iran on advancing the nuclear program concurrently with the negotiations with the West will likely continue and intensify, if the negotiations progress. It is only at the end of January that the implementation of the interim agreement is supposed to begin. But criticism related to the nuclear negotiations by elements in Iran – some of them close to the Supreme Leader – is mounting.

The optimism, almost to the point of euphoria, that accompanied that signing focuses particularly on a possible improvement of relations with the United States. Meanwhile, amid ongoing revelations about secret U.S.-Iranian contacts that led up to the negotiations, the optimism is gradually giving way to the anti-American discourse that Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard promote. Central to this discourse is the denigration of the United States as an untrustworthy partner and breaker of promises. Khameni said in this regard that "One of the blessings of the [nuclear] negotiations was that America's hostility towards Iran, Iranians, and Islam became clear to everyone." In adding Iranian organizations and individuals to its blacklist following the signing of the agreement, Washington provided ammunition to opponents of ties with the United States. At the same time, issues such as human rights, freedom of expression, women's rights, and executions keep rising to the surface, partly on the initiative of the Iranian opposition.

All this has led to the current crackdown by the regime's security establishment, particularly the Revolutionary Guard and the Intelligence Ministry, on social-network activists, an increase in executions since Rouhani was elected, attacks on writers, bloggers, and poets, the blocking of websites and SMS networks, the ongoing house arrest of Mir-Hossein Musawi, one of the heads of the Green opposition, and the intensifying extremist discourse that calls the Green opposition "the greatest anti-Iranian conspiracy." These extremist elements want to make clear that they will not countenance any linkage between the nuclear talks and the path Iran takes.

Rouhani, for his part, was included in Foreign Policy's list of one hundred "leading global thinkers" for 2043,37 and the "Rouhani effect" is continuing to revitalize his camp with its goals of a nuclear agreement and better relations with the West. (Recent visitors to Iran have included the Italian foreign minister and parliamentary delegations from Britain and the European Union.) At the same time, Zarif, Rouhani, and the rest who seek to leverage the nuclear agreement to improve Iran's international status are well aware of the power of their opponents, especially among the Revolutionary Guard, who want to obstruct this trend and particularly its ramifications regarding the United States and human rights. Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guard leaders keep affirming that they will do whatever is necessary to protect Iran's values and revolutionary Islamic nature. When, during Khatami's presidency, they perceived a sharp deviation from the revolutionary values as they understand them – including the anti-Western struggle – they sent Khatami a letter of warning and were able to make him tone down the reform process.

The Revolutionary Guard commanders learned the lesson, and in the short time Rouhani has been in office they have had considerable success in constraining his hesitant efforts toward a domestic transformation, while repeatedly warning that they will not accept the use of the nuclear agreement to facilitate far-reaching domestic, regional, and international changes that would divert Iran from the path they have ordained for it.

In any case, Rouhani is part of the establishment, and his room to maneuver in effecting major domestic changes is limited to begin with. Although Rouhani is still basking in the glow of the elections and his charm offensive in the West, his actions do not add up to a real change in Iran, given the strong status of the Revolutionary Guard.

The intensity of public support for Rouhani (which "moderate, reformist" former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani also enjoyed), or the lack of it, is of no significance when it comes to Iran's nuclear progress and status. It is already clear that the interim agreement allows Iran to maintain its capabilities regarding the full nuclear fuel cycle as well as enrichment, even to high percentages "within twenty-four hours," as Zarif said. Nor is the public support for Rouhani likely to have substantial implications for the state of civil society and human rights in Iran.

In sum, the Revolutionary Guard and the Supreme Leader will keep steering the president and the foreign minister along a clear-cut path of seeking to extract maximal concessions from the West. Such concessions would entail, on the one hand, Iran's preservation of its nuclear capability, and ability to "break out" to nuclear weapons, and, on the other, an easing of the economic pressure.

We are still in the midst of the drama of Rouhani's election as president, ostensibly despite Khamenei's stance and auguring a "strategic change in Iran." The Iranian reality has proved time after time, however, that the Revolutionary Guard's hold on power and influence on the Supreme Leader is only growing. From the Revolutionary Guard's standpoint, the nuclear negotiations are of diplomatic importance and may be of some economic benefit to Iran. The Revolutionary Guard, however, will obstruct any attempt, by means of the negotiations, to effectuate the transformation that the reformist camp and the Iranian people desire.

If necessary, Rouhani, too, will receive a letter of warning from Revolutionary Guard commanders, as the "reformist" president Khatami once did. ESR

IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Terrogence Company.





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