In the United States the nuclear deal with Iran has become a political football of historic proportions, but that hasn't been the case in Iran. Why not? Most likely it is because for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, there is no viable alternative to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It's a choice between a deal with the world community or more isolation and economic pain, as well as the social-political uncertainty at home that could come with it.
For Iran, the political football is likely to unfold further down the road as the JCPOA is implemented sometime in the first half of 2016 and as the country moves toward its 2017 presidential elections. And even then, the backlash in Tehran against the agreement will only depend on how the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, seeks to exploit the nuclear deal and how he interprets the mandate the diplomatic breakthrough has given him and his Western-centric government. The bid to reach out to Washington is ultimately a big gamble that rests on his shoulders.
Let’s look at the big picture. Unlike in the United States, for the Iranians there is not much of a fault line on the JCPOA. Reformists, moderates, intellectuals, most media and public opinion are hugely in favor of it. There are a few loud voices that call the agreement a sell-out, such as parliamentarians Mehdi Kouchakzadeh or Hamid Rasaee, but a handful of blowhards in the parliament matter little in the context of the political setup of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, is beholden to the goodwill of the supreme leader, and Ayatollah Khamenei’s support for the JCPOA is unmistakable. Sure, he has not publicly endorsed it, but Khamenei has rarely in his 26 years as Iran’s top political voice stuck his neck out for any policy issue that can backfire on him personally.
Instead, listen to some of his closest confidants, such as former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, Hassan Firouzabadi, the chief of the staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, or Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s atomic agency and a highly trusted foot-soldier of the leader. They have made it clear that the Office of the Supreme Leader stands by the deal. No doubt, Khamenei is keeping his options open and might resort to the parliament if circumstances call for it, but that will be his call. In other words, the parliament in Tehran cannot unilaterally block the JCPOA as is potentially the case with the U.S. Congress.
Another indicator of the strength of the support for the JCPOA in Tehran is the relatively mute reaction of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), the third pillar of power in Iran after the supreme leader and the presidency. The IRGC has recently been so silent that a number of hardline parliamentarians had to plea for some of the customary IRGC missile drills just to demonstrate Iranian prowess in the face of making concessions as part of the JCPOA.
Firouzabadi quickly shot the idea down and there was no peep from top IRGC commanders. Evidently, it is not deemed to be the right time for military bravado. Make no mistakes, the IRGC still loudly touts itself as the defender of Iranian national interests and claims a military aptitude to rise to any occasion. But that is basically an attempt to keep itself relevant at a moment when Iran might soon experience a major transformation of its international standing and a diminishing of the IRGC’s relevance.
In that sense, Iran’s ability to stick to the JCPOA during its 15-year life span will depend on whether the Rouhani-Khamenei consensus, and the IRGC’s tacit endorsement, will last. On the one hand there is the Rouhani government, packed with Western-educated technocrats but with unmistakable reformist political sympathies. They want to bring Iran closer to the West, and if possible, the United States. The former is acceptable to all major Iranian political stakeholders, and is already happening. Witness the visit of three leading EU ministers from Germany, France and Italy in the last few weeks, and no pushback from Ayatollah Khamenei’s circles or the IRGC for that matter.
The U.S. question, however, is far more delicate. It requires plenty more caution and skill before the Rouhani team can approach Ayatollah Khamenei and make the case for deeper détente with the United States. The leader is clearly not sold on the idea just yet and his public reservations are a testimony to that stance. However, Khamenei has repeatedly said that “if the nuclear negotiations prove to be a success, repeating cooperation [with the United States] on other matters is a possibility.” In such a scenario, it is a no-brainer that additional cooperation and compromise with Washington most definitely needs to focus on common interests in the Middle East and particularly the critical fight against the Islamic State. Further cooperation with the United States is therefore not impossible and Rouhani and his team, most notably Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, look to have kept Khamenei’s interest on this front.
But domestic politics and factional rivalry outweigh even the dangers of how to handle the American question. In Tehran, the wild card tied to the nuclear deal is how Rouhani sets out to prepare for his re-election in 2017. Will he capitalize on the JCPOA and go on to expand on his agenda of change to include political reform at home? In his 2013 election, he hinted at pushing for the release of key opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi from the Green Movement.
In his first two years in office he did nothing for the opposition, but should be forgiven for adopting a strategy of choosing his political battles carefully and keeping Ayatollah Khamenei on his side to the greatest extent possible. So far this strategy has produced results for Rouhani. But he will have to tread very carefully as he attempts to spend the political capital he has harvested from the nuclear agreement. The same players that have so far acquiesced to his agenda of change could quickly turn on him should he turn his sights to transformation at home.