Sara Bazoobandi
Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
Though Tehran has moved closer to a deal with the P5+1, Ayatollah Khamenei is hedging his bets, and hard-line politics could still win the day.
An Iranian woman poses with a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a mass rally to mark the 35th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution on 11 February 2014 in Tehran. Photo by Getty Images.An Iranian woman poses with a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a mass rally to mark the 35th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution on 11 February 2014 in Tehran. Photo by Getty Images.

The nuclear negotiation deadline between Iran and P5+1 has been extended to the end of June 2015 after the last round of talks in Vienna failed to reach a comprehensive agreement. While both sides have emphasized the achievements made throughout the last round of negotiations, neither side was ready to sign a final deal.

The nuclear programme has become a matter of dispute among the moderate and hard-line factions of the Iranian political elite. The Islamic Republic’s 10th parliamentary election in 2016 is the next important domestic political event in Iran. At the moment, the parliament is dominated by hardliners for whom keeping this position in the next election will be important. Gholamali Haddad Adel, the head of Osoul-garayan, the fundamentalist fraction of the Majlis, told MPs in a keynote on 30 November,  that ‘the people will not be fooled by the West to vote against its revolutionary principles in the upcoming elections’, a warning against electing more moderate Majlis.

The Iranian government has invested a lot in its nuclear programme both financially and politically. Multiple economic sanctions have been imposed on Iran, which have exacerbated the structural difficulties of the economy and led to additional problems, including a sharp decline in the value of the national currency, outflow of capital and a drop in hydrocarbon revenue (to name only a few of the difficulties). Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s strategy of denying the negative pressure of the sanctions did not succeed − the pressure of the sanctions increased. As a result, the popularity of the Ahmadinejad administration declined towards the end of his term. The public support for a moderate candidate, Hassan Rouhani, in the last election was in part due to a desire for a change from the hard-line approach of the previous administration, which pushed the country into one of the worst economic crises of the past decades. The economic pressure and the lifting of it have become an important political and social concern. As a result, throughout the negotiations Iran has insisted on demanding a full lift of economic sanctions (combined with maintaining some enrichment capacity).

From the political point of view, the Iranian government has so far paid a very high price for their nuclear ambitions. Various power centres within the Iranian political system have openly criticized the country’s nuclear strategy at various periods. Prior to the election of President Rouhani, the moderates and reformists disapproved of the aggressive stand of the government in handling the nuclear file. Since the last presidential election, when the responsibility of the nuclear negotiations was delegated to a new team headed by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, known to be a more constructive and cooperative negotiator, hard-liners have frequently attacked the nuclear strategy as ‘comprising the revolution’s dignity’. Some hardliner figures, including Hojjatoleslam Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday prayer leader of Mashhad and the city’s representative in the Assembly of Experts, recently expressed concerns over the current administration’s nuclear strategy, saying it was moving towards ‘forcing the Supreme Leader to drink the poison cup’ (referring to Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous phrase at the end of the war with Iraq).

The current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has played an important role in the recent nuclear negotiations. Although, he has never taken part in any official processes, the supreme leader has been using various channels to express his views on the nuclear negotiations to both domestic and international audiences. While Ayatollah Khamenei’s stand throughout the first months of the latest round of the negotiations was very pessimistic, his Twitter account and official website are now frequently used to show his support for the negotiation team, as well as reiterating the so-called ‘red lines’. What is becoming more obvious from these remarks is that the supreme leader is now positioning himself so that, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, there will be no damage to his reputation or vision. He offers enough support so that if the negotiations succeed, the vision and support of the supreme leader will be considered as a key factor for success. At the same time, he also expresses a great deal of pessimism, so, if the talks fail, he will be the one who foresaw the absence of good will and warned of the danger of trusting the West.

For President Rouhani, the outcome of the negotiations is also of particular significance. The economic and political pressure caused by the previous government’s nuclear strategy, and the promises of President Rouhani to save the country from such pressures, have indeed been key to his electoral success. President Rouhani’s voters in the last presidential election, a majority of Iranians, are watching the future of the talks with a great degree of hope. Failure of the talks will not only damage his reputation, but also will take Iranian society and most importantly the economy into a deeper depression.

As noted above, the controversy over the nuclear programme has been a source of internal political crisis in Iran. Iranian officials have, on various occasions, insisted on the importance of the programme to Iran’s dignity and Iranians’ national pride, which is not surprising given the cost of the nuclear programme. Moreover, the cost of a U-turn would be even bigger, as it would bring into question the basic legitimacy of the government’s nuclear aspirations. So the government has invested heavily in the recent round of the negotiations. Breaking the taboo of directly negotiating with the US, which started in Oman, before the election of President Rouhani, has been perhaps one of the biggest compromises made by Ayatollah Khamenei over the past decades.

Yet despite the immense economic pressure on Iran, the hard-line politics can survive using ‘resistance economic measures’ and with the assistance that China and Russia can offer Iran economically to bypass the Western-imposed measures.

Should there be a complete collapse of the negotiations in July 2015, the nuclear crisis will either further divide Iranian political elite or weaken the reformist and moderate camps while pushing the country’s politics towards much more hard-line approach domestically, regionally and internationally. 

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