The immense domestic political obstacles facing President Barack Obama as he tries to reach a nuclear deal with Iran by the Nov. 24 negotiating deadline are well documented. Less reported—but no less formidable—are the domestic political challenges facing the players on the other side of the table: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Understanding these challenges—and the related nuances of Iran’s complex political discourse—is the key to understanding Tehran’s position on the remaining sticking points in the talks, ranging from the timing of the sanctions relief Iran would get to the number of centrifuges it would be allowed to keep.
Speaking at the Council of Foreign Relations last September, Zarif painted a sobering picture of the impact that failure of the current nuclear talks would have on Tehran’s foreign policy. “We started a process with the aim of changing the foreign policy environment of the country,” he said. “Now if in spite of our efforts to be accommodating, we fail, then the Iranian people have an opportunity to respond to our failure in about a year’s time.” He was referring to Iran’s parliamentary election scheduled for early 2016, and warning his New York audience that “another rebuff” to Iran’s attempt “to be open and forward-looking” could undermine political support for the redirection of the country’s foreign policy.
Zarif’s remarks prompted instant condemnation from Iranian hardliners, who accused him of inviting foreign interference in the country’s electoral politics to boost support for his and Rouhani’s allies who hope to repeat their 2013 presidential election success in the parliamentary election. A daily newspaper published by a supporter of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denounced Zarif’s remarks as a “plea to politicians of a foreign country” in pursuit of factional advantage—essentially an accusation of treason.
Like Obama, Rouhani is working in a domestic environment where adversaries see nuclear compromise as a cudgel with which to wage political war. He and Foreign Minister Zarif remain protected by considerable domestic support for nuclear talks, but the protection has limits. And these limits are not merely imposed by hard-line forces, or institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards, or key individuals such as the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—as simplistic portrayals of Iran’s political system often suggest.
Those forces, institutions, and individuals draw strength, more deeply, from the powerful and conflicted legacy of Iran’s ideological revolution of 1979. Key shared principles in Iran’s political system are repudiation of the pre-1979 order, a strong insistence on sovereignty and “national honor,” and a refusal to acquiesce to the demands of “arrogant” and “meddling” powers. Iranians’ historical memory is littered with governments either installed by or vanquished by outsiders who—whether British, Russian, or American—reserved the right to intervene in the country’s politics. Much has been made of the CIA-sponsored coup of 1953 that resurrected the autocratic rule of the Shah for 25 years. But in the collective memory of modern Iran, there is also the massive loss of territory to czarist Russia, the Cossack shelling of the newly established Parliament in 1908, and various coerced economic concessions at the hands of the British.
Hence the anti-imperialist response that insists Tehran’s leaders must prevent the “usurpers” from extracting resources and concessions through manipulation of domestic cleavages—the very reflex that fueled attacks on Zarif after his remarks in New York.
Iran has never been a victim of imperialism in the direct sense of being a colony. But the absence of a colonial experience—the fact that outside powers have exerted their influence less conspicuously—has arguably made the country’s political discourse only more sensitive about the potential manipulation by hidden hands. Hence the hardliners’ habit of casting reformist political movements—and even former presidents and presidential candidates—as agents of foreign-inspired “sedition.” The “paranoid style,” described by the historian Richard Hofstadter in the early 1960s to explain the recurring invocation of subversion, sedition, and fifth columns in American politics, is a comfortable fit in today’s Iran.
The Islamic Revolution may be 35 years old, but it has failed to resolve basic domestic political cleavages or even create institutions that could enforce consensus on key policy issues. Indeed, Iran’s revolution was the only one in the 20th century that was unable to establish a single ruling party to provide ideological guidance. As in the immediate aftermath of the American and French revolutions, Iran’s political system continues to operate through—and is often hobbled by—competing power centers and factions. The Islamic Republican Party was established in the hope that it would play the steering role often played by ruling parties after revolutions, but it failed amid internal conflicts and was dissolved by the Revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1987.
Factional differences within Iran’s leadership continue to rage over issues such as the economy, the role of the state in promoting social justice, the extent to which the state should enforce “proper” Islamic values, and the country’s relations with the international community. Meanwhile, there are public disagreements within a multivoiced clerical elite about Islamic values in a changing world.
Despite these differences, Iran’s political space—as in other countries locked into protracted political competition—has boundaries created by shared principles and phobias, boundaries beyond which the players cannot step if they wish to remain politically effective. Rouhani and Zarif, while seeking accommodation with the global order, walk a fine line between being seen as stewards of the national interest and being accused of collusion with or capitulation to global powers.
Rouhani and Zarif seized the initiative after coming to power last summer, acting swiftly to achieve an unexpected interim nuclear agreement with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (P5+1). But the way Iran’s main interlocutor, the United States, chose to spin that agreement in its own highly contested political terrain may have reinforced limits on the concessions the Iranian side could make, while fueling the paranoia that persists within a substantial sector of Iran’s political class.
Rather than publish the text of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) negotiated with Iran, the Obama administration instead published a “Fact Sheet” that touted the limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for very little sanctions relief. The fact sheet made the agreement look much more lopsided than it appeared in the text of the JPOA. As a result, the Iranian negotiating team faced a storm of criticism that they had not only given away too much for too little, but that they had sought to conceal their concessions from the public.
Similarly, the U.S. call for “dismantling” key parts of the existing nuclear program created inflexibility on the part of an Iran that “will not be bullied.” The term “dismantle” did not appear in the JPOA, but was used in the fact sheet to refer to “the technical connections required to enrich [uranium] above 5%” and was used by Secretary of State John Kerry in subsequent interviews. That eventually led to the public announcement by Zarif that Iran will not “dismantle” anything. The net effect was to raise tensions over an issue that did not, in fact, involve much disagreement between the negotiating teams.
Given the flexibility shown by Iran on many issues (such as shipping some its enriched uranium stockpile abroad, modifying its heavy water plant, accepting a robust inspection regime, and limiting levels of enrichment as well as the quantity of uranium enriched), it may seem hard to understand Tehran’s inflexibility regarding, for example, the number of centrifuges it can maintain. But such inflexibility makes more sense when placed in the context of Iranian history as it plays out in Tehran’s present politics.
It may well be, as some contend, that the thousands of people now said to be working for Iran’s nuclear industry have become an important interest group lobbying against limitations on the enrichment program. But a more important restraint on Rouhani and Zarif is that being seen to buckle under foreign pressure is as poisonous for the political career of any official in the Islamic Republic as is the charge of appeasement for a U.S. official. And that holds even for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has to give final approval to any deal.
These domestic political limits on compromise do not mean that Iran’s attempt at accommodation with the international community is doomed to fail. Zarif has made what are viewed in Iran as considerable concessions, going well beyond what is required by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty for a defined period of time, and has said that much will now depend on the response of the West. Between now and Nov. 24 we’ll find out what that response will be.
This article was published in collaboration with the American Foreign Policy Project.