Iran’s Shifting Politics

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mehdi Noorbaksh

Professor of International Affairs and Business, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology; Vice President, World Affairs Council, Harrisburg

Twelve years after Iran began negotiations with Europe on its nuclear program, and two years after the United States became directly involved in this process, an agreement has been reached, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).  The agreement was approved unanimously by the 15 members of the UN Security Council and the European Union, and it has the support of the international scientific community. Scientists from the P5+1 nations (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany) had worked on the deal, with U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and a team of scientists who had been in charge of it’s technical aspects.  Hans Blix, the former UN chief weapons inspector, strongly supports the agreement. Twenty-nine U.S. scientists sent a letter of support for the deal to President Obama indicating that it is “technically sound, stringent, and innovative” and confirmed that it would “provide the necessary assurance in the coming decade and more that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons.”

More than 100 former ambassadors, 60 US national-security experts, and 67 former Israeli military and intelligence officials support the agreement. In the Middle East, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain) endorse the deal.  However, there has been vehement opposition from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the US supporters of the Israeli right. These opponents have called for renegotiations with Iran for a “better deal.”  This deal may not be perfect, but as the Obama administration rightly argues, there is no better deal possible.

The fierce U.S. opposition against the deal began almost two years ago with the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, who, seeing an opportunity, based his campaign on ending Iran’s nuclear conflict with the West. Rouhani’s call for a deal resonated with moderates, women, reformers and young people.  He won in the first round of the election in June 2013 with over 50 percent of the votes, more than the combined total of his five hardline opponents. As soon as he was elected, he brought the idea of these negotiations under the control of his Foreign Ministry and approached the P5+1 nations.  Although he faced stiff opposition from radical conservatives, the Revolutionary Guard, and those who had benefitted from the West’s economic sanctions, he maintained his position.

Iran’s Approach to Resolving the Nuclear Conflict

In his State of the Union speech on January 29, 2002, President George W. Bush declared Iran part of an “axis of evil.” In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq with the intention of toppling Saddam Hussein, building a new Iraqi state, and moving on to adjacent countries, including Iran.  President Mohammad Khatami approached the United States soon after the American invasion of Iraq to resolve Iran’s conflict with Washington. He was rebuffed by President Bush, perhaps because the invasion of Iraq had given the United States the upper hand in the region, and Bush’s domestic approval rating was high. Recently disclosed documents in Iran have revealed that the former IAEA director, Mohammad ElBaradei, had approached the Bush administration with an offer to mediate between Iran and the United States on Iran’s nuclear program. President Bush conveyed to ElBaradei his willingness to negotiate on all issues with Iran, including its nuclear program.  This time, he was rebuffed by Iran. President Rouhani, at the time a member of the Iranian National Security Council, advised ElBaradei that, due to Iranian government policy, he could not talk directly with the United States. This policy had been created by Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. Until 2005, President Khatami had made every effort to convince the United Nations and the West that Iran’s nuclear program was peaceful. He had even stopped enriching uranium, for the purpose of building confidence in Iran.  He could not, however, violate Iran’s policy forbidding direct talks with the United States.

In August 2005, Mahmood Ahmadinejad became president of Iran in a suspicious election. Ayatullah Khamenei’s goal was to install a president who could put an end to the reformist movement’s increasingly effective activities. This movement had started under Mehdi Bazargan, the prime minister under the Provisional Government after the revolution.  President Khatami had energized the movement, prompting expectations for democratic reforms in government and the rule of law.  Khamenei expected a return to the revolutionary domestic and foreign policies favored by the radical fringe, and Ahmadinejad began to gradually dismantle what had been achieved under the reformist Khatami. He supported the development of Iran’s nuclear program in order to defy the West and satisfy the radicals. He informed the Iranian National Security Council that Iran’s nuclear program would never come under the scrutiny of the UN Security Council. When that body began to assess Iran’s nuclear program, he assured the Iranian National Security Council that if the UNSC proposed sanctions against Iran, Russia and China would veto the move.

In 2009, a fraudulent election backed by Ayatullah Khamenei guaranteed Ahmadinejad a second term. Iran’s foreign policies became more inconsistent and chaotic as Ahmadinejad stepped up his rhetoric against the West, Israel and other countries. By the end of his term, he began to lose the trust of even the radical conservatives and became discredited inside Iran.  In a recent interview, Akbar Salehi, the director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) since 2013 and its director from 2009 to 2010, and foreign minister from 2010 to 2013, made a surprising disclosure: while he was Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister, he had established a secret channel of direct communication with the United States without Ahmadinejad’s knowledge. Salehi, as a reputable diplomat, participated actively in talks between Iran and the P5+1 during the last two years with Muhammad Javad Zarif. Salehi, Rouhani and a few others had succeeded in convincing Khamenei, before Rouhani’s election as president, that it was crucially important for Iran to talk directly with the United States. Ahmadinejad had become isolated from all negotiations with the West.

Those who oppose JCPOA and hope for a better deal have not considered the exceptional opportunity that exists at the present moment. Iran will not return to the table for renegotiations. In a recent interview, Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian Majlis and a semi-moderate conservative, stated that, had Iran voluntarily stopped enriching uranium for ten years, it would not have been forced to accept this deal. Iranians know that they could have gotten a much better deal years ago and that this deal compromises their sovereignty. They claim that there has never been a nonproliferation deal as restrictive as JCPOA. Radical Iranian conservatives are looking for political opportunities if the ratification of the agreement fails in the United States. They hope to blame Washington for a failed deal, reestablish their ties with Europe, and press for continued antagonism toward the United States in the region. 

The Nexus Between JCPOA and Democracy

The nuclear agreement is crucial for the development of democracy in Iran. For the first time, Iranians can see a defeat for the Islamist Nationalism of Ayatullah Khamenei and his radical conservative supporters. Iranians have witnessed two catastrophic events under this brand of nationalism: the American hostage-taking crisis (November 1979 to January 1981) and the Iran-Iraq War (September 1980 to August 1988). In June 2013, Iranians elected a president whom they hoped would bring the nuclear standoff between Iran and the West to an end. That election was restricted, but not fraudulent.  The Iranian public voted against radical conservatism and for a new dialogue with the West. There was a precedent: Prime Minister Mohammad Musaddiq, whose government was toppled in 1953 by a British and American coup, had advocated a secular nationalism that embraced democracy and Iran’s right to control its own resources.

Not only does JCPOA strongly question the legitimacy and credibility of Islamist nationalism; it has the potential to help reformers initiate a meaningful dialogue with Western nations. Iran’s intellectuals and educated middle classes know how Musaddiq’s brand of nationalism planted the seed of democracy and the desire to interact with the outside world for the development of Iran’s economy. Even when he nationalized Iranian oil, Musaddiq intended to maintain good relations with the West, especially the United States.  Islamist nationalism supports isolation, confrontation and the negation of democratic norms. JCPOA questions these tenets and offers Iran a new opportunity to stabilize relations with the West.

As a promoter of Islamist nationalism, Ayatullah Khamenei has become discredited as a leader. He is considered responsible for the devastation of the nation’s economy, due to his installation of Ahmadinejad as his puppet and due to his hostility to a nuclear agreement under Khatami, who had international credibility. The election of Rouhani was perhaps an indicator of Khamenei’s diminished standing: none of the candidates close to him received more than four million votes. In an election in which 72 percent of the eligible voters participated,  Rouhani received more than 50 percent of the votes (18.5 million) compared to Saeed Jalili, with a little over four million, and Ali Akbar Velayat, with about two million. Jalili had been Ayatullah Khamenei’s confidant in negotiations with the West under Ahmadinejad; Velayati has been his long-serving adviser on foreign affairs. The most votes in the conservative camp went to Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, who received a little more than seven million votes. In Tehran, with over 10 million people, he could muster less than one million votes.

The failure of JCPOA would give ample opportunity to the radical conservatives, who still control the state’s means of coercion and violence, to crush the democratic movement and pursue a confrontational foreign policy. Under the radical conservatives, Iran’s foreign policy, mostly devised by the Revolutionary Guard, was futile in bringing stability to Iraq and Syria. If ratified, JCPOA will encourage moderate and democratic forces inside the country to be more assertive in their opposition to those who contributed to the failed policies of the past.

Three decades after the revolution, Iran has a renewed opportunity to encourage democracy. In the past century, Iranians have lived through the constitutional revolution of 1905-07, Musaddiq’s bid for democracy and the nationalization of Iranian resources in 1950s, and finally the revolution of 1979, a middle-class movement aimed at ending authoritarianism. The authoritarianism of the Pahlavi monarchy did end, but a theocratic regime emerged in its aftermath. Fortunately, civil society remained intact and has continued pursuing democracy.

Ayatullah Khamenei and his radical conservatives have failed to unify the political elite, especially the clerical ranks. Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mousavi Ardebil, two close associates of Khamenei, broke with him and aligned themselves with democratic forces. Many other top clerics with the title of ayatullah, the highest position in Islamic seminaries, function outside the government and the rule of the established religion. The late Ayatullah Montazeri, who died in December 2009, questioned the legitimacy of the theocratic regime; he was one of the harshest critics of the government’s policies, including those related to the nuclear program.  During the years that radical conservatives used the nuclear program to fuel their anti-American rhetoric, they coined the slogan, “It is our right to have a nuclear program.”  Ayatullah Montazeri responded by saying that Iranians have many other rights as well, especially to social justice and freedom, which had been curtailed under the Khamenei regime.  Montazeri is still highly respected today for his opposition to theocratic rule.

The political theory of Velayat-e Faqih (rule by an Islamic jurist) had served as the foundation of the Iranian government since the time of Ayatullah Khomeini. His thinking paved the way to arbitrary rule and increasing reliance on security forces to silence political dissent. The Faqih theory is now widely held in disrepute. When Khamenei failed to unify the clerical establishment behind his rule, he was compelled to rely on clerics with little credibility among the public or the clerical establishment. He, therefore, increasingly relied on security forces to maintain his control. The autocratic nature of the regime and the increasing reliance on security forces to preserve the government’s immunity from scrutiny and criticism has delegitimized theocratic rule.  Khomeini’s authority has also suffered from his miscalculation in engineering Ahmadinejad’s election in 2009. This type of election rigging had not been seen before in Iran.

From the early days of the revolution, reformist voices raised concerns about the path the country was taking. Mehdi Bazargan, as the prime minster of the provisional government in 1980 and later the general secretary of the Freedom Movement of Iran, an opposition political party established in the 1960s by religious nationalists to oppose the authoritarianism of the shah, began to criticize the radicalism of Iranian theocratic rule. He insisted on the rule of law and democratic norms in government when the charismatic Khamenei defied them. Bazargan and his government resigned in protest of the American hostage taking, and later a few members elected to the first Majlis formed the nucleus of an opposition within the parliament. Bazargan was forceful in his opposition to radicalism, taking every opportunity in the Majlis and elsewhere to criticize the regime and Ayatullah Khamenei.  This movement planted the seed of reform on which Khatami was elected president from 1997 to 2005. Later, the election of 2009 brought all the forces together to establish reform and the Green Movement.

The Green Movement started with the slogan, “Where Is My Vote?” and extended its reach to various parts of the country among those disenchanted with the government’s policies. Movement leaders Mir Hossein Musavi, his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karoubi were quickly placed under house arrest in February 2011.  Since that time, the regime has tried relentlessly to mute public demand for their freedom, but to no avail. The regime’s attempt to push this issue to the margin has failed, and the continuation of these leaders’ imprisonment in the security forces’ homes has created a crisis for theocratic rule.  The regime can afford neither to release them nor keep them under house arrest. Reform in the domestic security of the country, the release of the leaders of the Green Movement, and an end to the standoff with the West over the nuclear program of Iran became planks in Rouhani’s campaign platform. The county became mobilized to vote for him.

Not only is the influence of civil society intact in Iran; the authority of political society is also strong. Forces from the secular and religious sectors openly and directly communicate and unify for common causes. Iranians’ maturity in this context has prevented the regime from using rifts among the opposition to its advantage. Dedication to democracy has broken through the barrier of religious ideology, and religious reformists are on the forefront of the struggle.

In Iran, two readings of Islam are battling each other.  The puritanical Islam of the clerical establishment inside the government claims that Islam and democracy are not compatible, that the rule of one man at the helm of government is religiously mandated, and that a theocratic government is justified in using force to impose its will. In contrast, the advocates of Reformist Islam, in Locke’s tradition of natural rights, hold to the legitimacy of the social contract, freedom and democratic rule. Puritanical Islam has failed to offer a viable model of government that could benefit the country and its citizens. Not only has this model of government failed in politics; under its radical rule, Iran has also suffered economically and socially. Those who took hostages from the American embassy and many clerics have abandoned a puritanical reading of their religion and begun advocating an Islam that respects human dignity, freedom and choice. This tradition is rooted in the teachings of Islamic reformers since the 1940s.

More than 70 percent of the Iranian population is under thirty-five. Born after the revolution and lacking sentimental attachment to it, they only want economic prosperity and a chance for higher education in the United States. This population is eager to reestablish productive ties. They also know how devastating the war with Iraq was and how painful the years of sanctions have been.

The international community has voiced its support for JCPOA. The European Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and Turkey support this agreement. The scientific community is unanimous in its decision that the verification mechanism is strong and there is no possibility that Iran can evade it. The agreement will offer a victory to the reformists in Iran and an opportunity to pursue additional political reform. The failure to understand the international context of such a historical deal and its domestic ramifications for Iran can have enormous repercussions for global peace.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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