“Nuclear holocaust,” declares the hardline conservative newspaper Vatan-e Emrouz in its black-and-white front page (left) on January 20th, the date set for the implementation of the interim Geneva nuclear agreement. The January 21st edition (right) declares that centrifuges are “Sealed”.
Without a doubt, they were prepared for it. On January 20th, the interim nuclear deal with Iran took effect and the hardline conservative media greeted the momentous occasion with typical hyperbole. On its front page, Vatan-e Emrouz newspaper announced that the implementation amounted to a “Nuclear holocaust”, printing in black-and- white as a sign of mourning. Siasat-e Rooz, a kindred newspaper, used a much-quoted sentence from an earlier time: “We gave away the crown jewel for a lollypop.”
Not long after the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France and Germany – was reached in Geneva in late November 2013, a group of hardliner parliament representatives sharply attacked both the deal and the Iranian negotiators. When asked about it, Mohammad- Reza Bahonar, deputy speaker of parliament, gave a sarcastic answer: “Maybe some of these things come from a division of labor,” he said, referring to his belief that each person involved in negotiations played his own particular role. Can we, however, follow the same logic to understand the recent positions taken by hardliners and their associated media outlets? Are they just playing their assigned roles?
In the past few days, hardliner politicians have taken some notable steps. In addition to the media blitz mentioned above, an audio clip of hardliner MP Karimi Ghoddousi emerged. In it, he declared that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is opposed to the Geneva accord. Shortly after, another clip from a like-minded representative, Mahmoud Nabavian, was released, stating that Khamenei believes the agreement has endangered Iranian independence.
There was no denial from Khamenei. In fact, Khamenei’s office has shown no reaction to these statements at all. In recent months, Khamenei has issued general statements in support of the nuclear team. Yet these statements have often included double meanings, sentences that could be read in two ways and which could provide a context for attacks from hardliners.
“We gave away the crown jewel for a lollypop” came from Ali Larijani, current speaker of parliament, in 2004, in response to the previous round of nuclear negotiations under the reformist President Khatami. In 2007, Larijani reiterated this opinion. Cyrus Naseri, a member of the negotiating team, said last week that many of Larijani’s criticisms were “coordinated” so the voices of opposition in Iran would be heard by the West. But he added that the lollypop comment had not been part of this coordinated plan.
Another parliamentarian, Hamid Resai, used the same “lollypop” metaphor last year to characterize the phone conversation between President Obama and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.
Having said this, it does not appear that at this particular moment the hardliners have any need to “coordinate” with President Rouhani behind closed doors. They have declared that the supreme leader is against the current process. Commanders of the Revolutionary Guards and the military are grumbling, and there are enough hardliners in parliament to start a movement. They regard the nuclear team as defeatists and appeasers and believe that “supervisory teams” must be formed to control the process. They are not going to relent.
“Not even a cab driver”
The distrust is not, of course, one-sided. Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, have had some unkind words for their critics. Some of their supporters have called the opponents of the nuclear deal “neo-revolutionaries” and “extremists” and have compared them to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who opposes the Geneva accord.
Such words and comparisons have prompted angry reactions from hardline fundamentalists. The front page of the January 21st edition of Vatan- e Emrouz was dominated by a photograph of a closed nuclear facility and the word “Sealed” in big letters. In the editorial, entitled “Our Mouths Are Not Sealed”, the author, Hossein Ghadiani, accuses the Rouhani government of surrendering to the world’s evil powers. Referring to Rouhani’s comments about President Obama’s polite manner during their phone conversation in late September and his criticism of his domestic opponents, Ghadiani sarcastically added: “Some men readily accept to be beaten by the bully on the street, but then go home and beat their wives.”
Not all critics of the Rouhani administration take the same position. On January 20, Vatan-e Emrouz, which has in recent days become a symbol of opposition to Rouhani's government, claimed that even a cab driver and a street vendor would refuse to implement such an agreement, stating that the suspension of 20 per cent of the country’s nuclear enrichment is the same as a “nuclear holocaust”.
In another recent edition, a member of the previous nuclear team, Mehdi Mohammadi, wrote: “If the gentleman had accepted the earlier German proposal and had a little bit of self-confidence, the story would be completely different. That proposal would have suspended the 20 per cent enrichment and would have required certain technical changes in the Fordo nuclear facility, but would have left alone [other facilities], the centrifuges, the inspections.” This shows that the previous negotiating team, under Saeed Jalili, was in fact ready to suspend the 20 per cent enrichment, but intended to show off and behave as an angry bully at the same time.
Can the hardliners paralyze the Rouhani government with this propaganda offensive? It does not seem that such an outcome would follow, but there is another important factor to what they are doing: the hardliners are trying to add political weight to their opposition. Murmurs about creating a “supervisory board” for dealing with the nuclear case was part of this effort. This week, parliament declared that it has formed a “specialist” committee to oversee the implementation of the Geneva accord, chaired by Alaeddin Boroujerdi, a strong supporter of Khamenei who is already the chairman of the committee for foreign policy and national security.
The creation of this committee is mostly showmanship, but another letter to the speaker, signed by 150 MPs, requesting further investigations, shows that the hardliners are moving forward. On the day that the agreement was to take effect, Ahmad Tavakoli, an influential MP, stated that “the text of the accord has many problems and it is difficult to believe that it would serve our national interests”.
A Coalition Takes Shape
It seems that a coalition against Rouhani’s government is taking shape. This group will make trouble for Rouhani and his government, but it is likely to be welcomed by the supreme leader. Khamenei, who tries hard to present his decisions as based on the views of the majority, the people or the experts, will potentially have more room to maneuver among the hubbub of hardliners in parliament and in the media.
“I had to come forward myself,” said Khamenei about a year and a half ago, referring to the time that Rouhani was running the nuclear negotiations under President Khatami. “As a result of collaboration with Westerners and retreats that took place, they had advanced too far.” Such memories and experiences give hope to hardliners, who would like the leader to “come forward” again. They know very well that that the international and domestic situation is very different from 10 years ago. But they would prefer a reversal of what happened when Ayatollah Khomeini famously said that accepting a truce with Iraq was “worse than drinking poison”. In that case, Khomeini took the poison anyway. Now the hardliners want to prevent others from giving Khamenei the “poison of compromise”. Instead, they want to offer him the “hemlock of war”.