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Where Iran's hard-liners diverge from the moderates

- April 8, 2015

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is also Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, pays respect to well-wishers upon arrival at the Mehrabad Airport in Tehran on April 3. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)
This post is part of the “Iran and the Nuclear Deal” symposium.
Like so many Iranians before him, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived to a hero’s welcome at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport after Iran and the P5+1 announced a nuclear deal last week. Olympic wrestlers, the national soccer team, filmmakers returning in triumph from Cannes, a brother or an aunt coming home after many years living in the United States or Germany — the famous and ordinary alike are made extraordinary upon their return to Iran, overseas travelers forced to endure a loving if chaotic and crowded embrace by family and friends.
Though it is widely assumed that economic pressures are driving Iranian negotiations with the P5+1, Zarif’s partisans at the terminal gates had something other than sanctions relief on their minds. The crowds hailed their man as a patriot willing to stand up to Western powers, a new Mohammed Mossadegh: “Vazir e ahl e manteq, yadavar e mossadeq! Vazir e ahl e manteq, yadavar e mossadeq!” “Minister who follows logic, we remember Mossadegh! Minister who follows logic, we remember Mossadegh!” The comparison of Zarif to Iran’s most famous nationalist hero delivered the unmistakable message that nuclear technology, like the oil industry before it, was the birthright of all Iranians.
Zarif is unlikely to be received quite so enthusiastically by the conservative-held Majles or by the editors of Keyhan, redoubtable purveyors of the hard line. There are already rumblings from the opposition to the deal that the final outcome of nuclear negotiations must be brought before the parliament for an up-or-down vote on its ratification. All eyes are on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, presumed to be the only force in Iran that can bend the conservative line to consensus.
Where do the “hard-liners” diverge from the moderates in Iran? Where might domestic conciliation around the politics of nuclear energy begin among Iranian elites and decision makers? Despite a growing recognition among U.S. policymakers that politics actually exists in Iran — that the country’s political and social elites are not all fingers on the same clenched fist — analysts have done little to interrogate what constitutes the Iranian hard-line position in the context of nuclear negotiations. Conventionally understood to be reflexively anti-American, driven exclusively by an implacable faith in political Islam and ideological commitment to world revolution, the hard-line provides a conservative base for Khamenei that some analysts have suggested opposes any rapprochement with the United States simply for its own sake. Deployed in this way, the figure of the hard-liner acts as a convenient foil, one that explains the intransigence, if not irredeemability, of the current leadership in Tehran.
The Iranian hard-liner however does not look to the United States for self-definition nor does he consider himself to be hard-line. Rather, he measures his politics against the same standard used by his more moderate rivals at home, specifically the imperative to preserve the sovereign independence of Iran. This is the fixed belief, the dogmatic consensus from which politics is made possible in Iran, rendered domestically as a politics of who, or which faction, is most loyal — or most treasonous — to the state.
The domestic politics of nuclear energy plays out in this context. Nuclear negotiations are viewed as the latest front in an ongoing defensive war over Iranian sovereignty, one that makes reference to loss of the Caucuses to the Russians in the treaties of Gulistan and Turkmenchai during the 19th century, a trauma replicated in the 1908 shelling of the first Majles by the Russian-led Cossack Brigade, the British and American-led 1953 coup and the 1980 Iraqi invasion of Iran. The call back to Mossadegh at the airport, the constant reminders to American audiences that Iran “has not invaded another country in 250 years” and the overbearing demands that Iran be treated with “dignity” by its adversaries all speak to a shared trauma of foreign interventions and local betrayals, a collective memory that is as much a source of strength as it is a trap. When Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani proclaim to foreign journalists and state media that they came away from the negotiations with a great deal, they are not simply playing to their constituencies at home. They are reassuring their audience, and perhaps themselves, that Iran’s integrity was not undermined in the meeting rooms of Lausanne, Switzerland.
The hard line in Iran, then, spools out at the point of capitulation to American demands. Opponents of negotiations simply do not believe that it is possible to engage honestly with the United States. From their perspective, it is the American regime that is intransigent, reflexively anti-Iranian and anti-Muslim, driven exclusively by an implacable faith in its own exceptionalism and ideological commitment to world domination.
Disputes between conservatives and reformists about exactly where the point of capitulation lies have been a source of contentious politics that stretches back at least as far as the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. In interviews just days before the 2009 presidential election, supporters of hard-line candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described to me how the 2002 revelation of the secret nuclear site at Natanz had constituted a national “betrayal” by then-President Mohammad Khatami. Although they respected reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi for his unimpeachable service as prime minister during the worst years of the war with Iraq, these conservative voters expressed that they viewed the reformists as little more than a stalking horse for forces bent on destroying Iran through “un-Islamic” reforms and making the country weak before its enemies.
The belief of Iran’s conservatives that their rivals can only act in bad faith appears to have changed little in the intervening years. If anything, their skepticism has only become worse with the loss of executive power, etched in the screeds of the conservative press, who regularly accuse the Rouhani administration of malfeasance and cravenly seeking the approval and acceptance of the enemy. “The winner of any deal will be the Islamic Republic not reformists who wanted to surrender to western powers and give up the whole nuclear programme,” Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a conservative politician, recently stated to the Financial Times. He added, “Even Western powers know that any nuclear agreement can happen only thanks to the guidance of the supreme leader.”
Like their counterparts in Iran, members of the Obama administration have faced an “unusual coalition” of criticism by certain members of Congress, including members of the president’s own party. Opponents of the diplomatic path level all manner of hand-wringing accusations, including claims that the strategy of unconditional engagement has weakened American standing in the world, that the president harbors a secret desire for popularity, of wanting to be a star more than a statesman and of wanting to produce a diplomatic legacy, even if it comes at the cost of national security. “We need to make clear to Iran,” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) asserted on a recent radio talk show, “you can play silly games with our president that buys into them and our secretary of state, but the American people aren’t buying it and you’re going to pay a price.”
The problem for Gohmert and his allies on Capitol Hill is that the American people are in fact buying into diplomacy as a viable alternative to war. Legislative leaders in the United States currently run behind their respective populations by overwhelming margins on the question of Iran. It is one of the great ironies that democratically elected members of Congress have so far been better insulated from public opinion than their counterparts in the Iranian Majles. It is not lost on Iranian audiences that foreign policy and statecraft in the United States are increasingly driven by partisan concerns for the security of America’s key regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, instead of bipartisan consensus around the national defense.
As the process of diplomacy has moved forward over the past two years, there are signs that the gap between elite and public opinion may be easier to reconcile in Tehran than in Washington. The dynamics of Iranian politics — in which the absence of democratic institutions compels leaders to cast a wary eye on an unhappy populace lest they take to the streets, coupled with the presence of a supreme leader who so far appears committed to seeing negotiations through — makes consensus a real possibility. There is, of course, no such leader in the American context, no possibility for intercession by a unifying figure. Nor is there pressure from below. Though popular, reconciliation with Iran is not a priority for a majority of U.S. citizens. There were no parallel celebrations in the streets last week, nor is there likely to be even if a final deal is reached in June.
Iran presents a curious case of a state constituted by a “sacred” ideology but whose ideology regularly provides cover for the profane politics of statecraft. Permanence and consistency have hardly been features of the Islamic Republic over its 36 years, as foreign and domestic policies have been refashioned, repeatedly, to serve the contingent interests of the revolution, not least of all by its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. Mehdi Bazargan once observed that Khomeini sought control of Iran in order to reach Islam. Khomeini reversed course in the final days of his life, declaring just months before his death in 1989 that the state “has priority over prayers, fasting, and haj” and that it was empowered to “unilaterally revoke any sharia agreement that it has conducted with the people when those agreements are contrary to the interests of the country or of Islam,” even if it meant the suspension of the very pillars of Islam. With this single decree the state replaced the mosque as the “fortress” of Islam, forever. As Texas A&M political scientist Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar explained to me, whereas the revolutionary state had once served the interests of Islam, Islam would now and forever serve the interests of the state. Internalized by then-President Khamenei, it is this edict that provides cover for the current supreme leader as he presses forward with the nuclear negotiations.
Understanding and accepting that hard-liners in Iran are motivated by social forces other than ideology or an unexamined hostility to the United States is an important step on the path to détente and provides a way forward to the sort of rapprochement now deemed to be improbable because of the hard line. It is true that for some, no deal will ever prove satisfactory. There is no conciliation possible with the likes of Hossein Shariatmadari, nor with his counterparts in the United States. But it is also true that for many so-called hard-liners, anti-Americanism constitutes — but does not transcend — a fundamental concern and love for their homeland. Iran has made deals with countries less pious and, in a strange way, less “Iranian” than the United States. There is far more ground for consensus than the difficulties of the past 36 years would indicate.
State authorities several years ago moved international flights from Mehrabad to Imam Khomeini International Airport. The new airport, like Iran’s nuclear industry, was originally proposed by the Shah’s regime, designed to present a more modern face to the world. Located in a rural province some 37 miles past the southern outskirts of Tehran, the great distance, combined with the late night arrival of international flights, have greatly diminished the ritual of going to airport in a large group. The old traditions of greeting returning travelers have become, as the Iranians say, kamrang, literally, they have “lost their color.”
Mehrabad too was once located on the outskirts of Tehran. As the city expanded westward, it enveloped the old airport completely, pulling it closer to the capital’s center. Its convenience keeps it in use for domestic flights as well as for diplomats returning from official business overseas, including the negotiating team recently returned from Switzerland. Mehrabad — whose name means “limitless love,” where on the first day of school in 1980 the Iraqi Air Force dropped the bombs that began the Iran-Iraq War, and where the 444-day ordeal came to an end for 52 American hostages — would be an apt setting for a gathering of Iranians, waiting at the terminal gates to welcome back old friends from the United States, to restore color to the relationships that have been lost.
Shervin Malekzadeh is a visiting assistant professor of political science at Swarthmore College.