Rouhani moves to get Iran’s internal powers on side
DUBAI // Even before Iran’s envoys could pack their bags in Geneva after wrapping up a first-step nuclear deal with world powers, the president, Hassan Rouhani, was opening a potentially tougher diplomatic front: selling the give-and-take to his country’s powerful insider interests, led by the Revolutionary Guard.
Iran’s ability to fulfill its part of the six-month bargain – which includes greater access for UN inspectors and a cap on the level of uranium enrichment – will depend largely on the Guard and its network.
The Guard’s influence stretches from the missile batteries at key nuclear facilities to the production of the equipment within. It runs from companies making Iran’s long-range missiles to paramilitary units that cover every inch of the country.
Mr Rouhani’s praise for the deal announced on Sunday has sounded at times like snippets from the national anthem.
“The Iranian nation again displayed dignity and grandeur,” he said in a televised address. He went on to laud the “glorious” affirmation that Iran can continue uranium enrichment under the accord – at levels that can power Iran’s lone energy-producing reactor but well below what is needed to approach weapons-grade material.
Mr Rouhani ended the speech by trying to give the country’s nuclear efforts a sense of homespun honour. Borrowing from the political theatre playbook of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he surrounded himself with relatives of Iranian nuclear scientists killed in ambush-style attacks blamed by Iran on Israel and its allies.
But Mr Rouhani is also appealing to the more practical interests of the Guard, whose clout translates into cash. The Guard has a hand in some of the biggest money-generating enterprises in Iran, including import-export gatekeepers and property holdings. Its leaders probably recognise that easing western sanctions will help their bottom line.
What may be a harder point of persuasion is beyond the accord. The Revolutionary Guard must be comfortable that the deal is not a prelude to broader diplomatic overtures with Washington that could undermine its standing and reach, which include aiding Lebanon’s Hizbollah and forcs loyal to the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.
A veteran commentator on Iranian affairs, Ehsan Ahrari, said the “schizophrenic nature” of Iran’s domestic leadership – one side extolling the accord and the other side wary – stands as the biggest wild card in the Geneva deal.
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority, has the final word in all key matters and, for the moment, sides with Mr Rouhani on the nuclear talks and the parallel outreach to the US after more than three decades of diplomatic estrangement. The nuclear deal also appears to have widespread public support as a chance to ease Iran’s international isolation and perhaps open the way for serious rollbacks on sanctions if the initial six-month phase moves ahead as planned.
“It’s a strong victory for the policies of moderation in Iran,” said Sadeq Zibakalam, a prominent Tehran-based political analyst. “It will boost moderates.”
But there are other power centres that can shape policy. The Revolutionary Guard is the godfather of them all. Its commanders can open doors at the highest levels and help mold the views of even Ayatollah Khamenei.
Earlier this month, groups with the apparent backing of the Guard erected giant banners around Tehran, done in slick, ad-agency style, deriding the nuclear talks as a potential trap for Iran. American negotiators were portrayed as double dealers, wearing a tie and jacket on top and military camouflage trousers below. The banners also sent a secondary message to Ayatollah Khamenei, who had taken the unprecedented step of advising the Revolutionary Guard to stay out of Iran’s international initiatives with the West.
Virtually every Iranian views keeping uranium enrichment as a matter of national pride. Even liberal-minded Iranians who rarely support the Islamic establishment often find rare common ground with hardliners over the idea that the country must have self-sufficiency on all levels of its nuclear programme.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who helped to close the deal in Geneva, claimed on Tuesday that from “the first phase to the last phase ... enrichment on Iranian soil will continue”.
For the Revolutionary Guard, enrichment could well be the tipping-point issue.
It could find many reasons to back a long-range nuclear deal that keeps enrichment levels at the initial 5 per cent cap agreed in Geneva. But the Guard could easily become a major obstacle if the West presses for more enrichment concessions in the next round.
In a sign of how quickly views can pivot in Iran, Mr Ahmadinejad, the hard-line previous president, fell from the ruling system’s favoured son to political outcast in a matter of months after challenging Khamenei’s authority in 2011.
Mr Ahmadinejad became such a political target that the parliament speaker filed a criminal case over their feuds.
* Associated Press
Updated: November 27, 2013 04:00 AM