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How Iran’s hardliners still threaten the nuclear deal

The new era begins in earnest. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

How Iran’s hardliners still threaten the nuclear deal

The new era begins in earnest. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

After 13 years of tension and negotiations, Iran and the international community have celebrated “Implementation Day” – the confirmation that Iran has made good on its promises to accept the nuclear deal struck in July 2015.

The Islamic Republic has now given up any programme that could potentially yield a nuclear weapon. It has shipped almost all enriched uranium outside Iran, reduced uranium centrifuges by 70%, and re-designed a heavy-water nuclear reactor to prevent the production of plutonium by-product, which could be used for a bomb. It has also acceded to the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, meaning it will allow more extensive supervision and inspection of its nuclear facilities.

In return, the US and the EU will begin lifting the sanctions which crippled the Iranian economy and drastically cut its oil exports. An estimated $100 billion of Iran’s assets will be unfrozen. Foreign investment will be allowed to return.

Some worry that the American right, which loathes the deal, could try to scupper it. But for all the inevitable sniping from Republican presidential candidates, some hostile legislators, and conservative think tanks, its survival doesn’t depend on Washington, where the Obama Administration has managed to embed the agreement as a political reality. Instead, any serious challenge will come from Tehran.

Winning the fight

As far as any serious-minded critics are concerned, the Obama administration has won the argument for now. The proof of a real diplomatic shift came when Iran detained 10 US Navy personnel after an incursion by two boats into Iranian waters. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif urgently conferred in a series of phone calls, and the Revolutionary Guards released the sailors in less than 24 hours. Both Kerry and Zarif proclaimed that calm diplomacy had triumphed.

Instead of turning into a major crisis, the episode was resolved with admirable calm. And it was quickly upstaged by the surprise announcement that after 15 months of secret negotiations, five US detainees in Iran would be swapped for seven Iranians convicted or indicted in America.

There are worries that a Republican President and a GOP majority in Congress could try to unravel the deal if elected in 2017. But even if Donald Trump or Ted Cruz takes the White House, the implications of pulling back will only get more complicated as the deal’s measures are rolled out.

America’s European allies will be increasingly invested in the Iranian market, and will take a dim view of any attempt to close it off again. The agreement will be seen as a guarantor of some stability in a fractious Middle East, especially given the worsening Saudi-Iranian relationship. And even though it will take some time, the Obama Administration is starting to dismantle much of the American sanctions infrastructure that took so long to build.

Even as the Obama Administration is still cultivating an image of steely resolve, most recently by declaring its opposition to Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles and adding 11 Iranian entities to the US sanctions blacklist because of links to the missile program, the diplomatic dance is being carefully choreographed. These new sanctions were to be announced at the end of December, but Zarif warned that they would sabotage the prisoner-swap discussions if announced too soon.

So far, so good. But the deal still has to endure a nasty political dispute that’s been brewing within Iran for some time.

Delicate balance

Iran’s regime is beset by some of the most serious infighting since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Hardliners and some conservatives were unsettled by the surprise election of “centrist” President Hassan Rouhani in 2013; now they fear that a centrist bloc – allied with reformists, who have been suppressed within Iran for more than a decade – could gain influence in February’s elections for Parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the body which chooses the Supreme Leader.

Since autumn 2015, the Revolutionary Guards, senior clerics, and hardline MPs have been warning that the centrists and reformists are pursuing a foreign-backed “sedition” to undermine the Islamic Republic. They have accused the Rouhani government of appeasing the campaign, and have even named former president Hashemi Rafsanjani as a leader of the effort.

Trying to counter the challenge, the Guardian Council — 12 men appointed by the Supreme Leader and the judiciary who have claimed the power to vet candidates — is effectively rigging the election. As Iran and the world watched Implementation Day, the Council disqualified hundreds of centrist and reformist candidates, including 50 of Iran’s 290 MPs.

The Guards are also wary about reopening the Iranian economy to foreign investment, which they fear could threaten their leading and sometimes dominant role in Iran’s infrastructure, including its oil and gas sector.

Then there is the cultural battle, with the continuing repercussions of the mass protests after the disputed 2009 presidential election. The Rouhani government has long wanted to open up more political and social space, but hardliners have blocked the efforts. The internet is still restricted, and Iranians are punished harshly for “inappropriate” social behaviour.

The leading candidate in the 2009 Presidential election, Mir Hossein Mousavi, has been under house arrest since February 2011; other reformists and activists are serving long prison terms. And the situation is getting worse, with the guards detaining more and more journalists, artists, and activists.

Always watching. Reuters

The nuclear deal was insulated from this infighting only because the Supreme Leader reluctantly supported the negotiations, following Rouhani’s explanation that the alternative was the collapse of the Iranian economy.

For now, the Supreme Leader has struck a balance, supporting the nuclear agreement while denouncing Washington and Riyadh both. But that balance could easily be thrown. If the hardliners are dissatisfied with the outcome of the elections, they could press the Supreme Leader to pursue his “resistance economy”, favouring autarchy rather than links with the West.

If the Guards and their allies believe that Iran must be more aggressive in regional contests, they could still stymie the deal’s key provisions. Ballistic missile testing could be used as a continued taunt to the West, forcing the US to swallow its opposition or step up sanctions — which in turn would feed Iranian critics of the agreement.

On January 17, President Rouhani tried to hold the high ground with a nationally-televised announcement of an “exceptional and historic day”.

“Today, we have reached a turning point,” he said. But as exceptional and historic as the deal may be, another turning point might not be far away.