The Iranian Debate on the Iranian Nuke Deal

To hear most critics of the Iranian Nuclear Deal, it will strengthen Iran’s conservative, Israel-hating regime and crush the aspirations of those who want to modernize, democratize, or demilitarize that country. But this optic does not accord with the debate on the deal within Iran and in the (mostly) regime-hating Iranian Diaspora, as explained in some detail at the Atlantic by Abbas Milani and Michael McFaul.

Those supporting the deal include moderates inside the government, many opposition leaders, a majority of Iranian citizens, and many in the Iranian American diaspora—a disparate group that has rarely agreed on anything until now.

First and most obviously, the moderates within the regime, including Rouhani and his close friend and political ally, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, negotiated the agreement, and are now the most vocal in defending it against Iranian hawks. Rouhani crushed his conservative opponents in the last presidential election in 2013 in part because he advocated for a nuclear deal. This agreement is his Obamacare—his major campaign promise now delivered. Former Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, as well as moderates in the parliament and elsewhere in government, have also vigorously endorsed the accord. During the negotiations, Rafsanjani, for example, celebrated the fact that Iran’s leaders had “broken a taboo” in talking directly to the United States. Since the agreement was signed, he has said that those within Iran who oppose it are “making a mistake.”

Second and somewhat surprisingly, many prominent opposition leaders also support the support. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a popular presidential candidate in 2009 who is now under house arrest for his leadership of the Green Movement protests against Ahmadinejad’s reelection, backed the pursuit of the agreement, albeit with some qualifications. He’s joined by other government critics, some only recently released from Iran’s prisons. Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human-rights activist and Nobel Laureate now living in exile, expressed the hope after an interim agreement was reached in April that “negotiations come to a conclusion, because the sanctions have made the people poorer”; she labeled as “extremists” those who opposed the agreement in Iran and America. Akbar Ganji, an Iranian journalist who spent more than six years in prison in Iran, also praised the agreement, writing that “step-by-step nuclear accords, the lifting of economic sanctions and the improvement of the relations between Iran and Western powers will gradually remove the warlike and securitized environment from Iran.”

Meanwhile, the Iranian opposition to the deal is strongest precisely among those elements of the Iranian power structure U.S. opponents to the deal cite as its beneficiaries:

This coalition is formidable, and includes former President Ahmadinejad, the Iranian leader who denied the Holocaust and called for the elimination of Israel. Fereydoon Abbasi, who directed Iran’s nuclear program under Ahmadinejad, and Saeed Jalili, the former nuclear negotiator, have repeatedly sniped at the deal. In a biting interview, Abbasi ripped into every facet of the talks, saying that the negotiators, “especially Mr. Rouhani … have accepted the premise that [Iran] is guilty.” Several conservative clerics and IRGC commanders have expressed similar sentiments. One prominent critic of the deal claimed that of the 19 redlines stipulated by the supreme leader, 18 and a half had been compromised in the current agreement. Many publications considered close to Khamenei—including most noticeably the daily paper Kayhan—have been unsparing in their criticism.

Conservative opponents of the deal tend to emphasize its near-term negative security consequences. They point out that the agreement will roll back Iran’s nuclear program, which was intended to deter an American or Israeli attack, and thereby increase Iran’s vulnerability. They have denounced the system for inspecting Iranian nuclear facilities as an intelligence bonanza for the CIA. And they have issued blistering attacks on the incompetence of Iran’s negotiating team, claiming that negotiators caved on many key issues and were outmaneuvered by more clever and sinister American diplomats.

So who’s a better judge of the impact of this deal for bad elements in Tehran? Americans and Israelis or Iranians? Are we supposed to believe Iranians are carrying on a national charade in which supporters of the deal pretend to be opponents and vice versa?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.