What Khamenei’s approval of the nuclear deal means for Iran’s political future

What Khamenei’s approval of the nuclear deal means for Iran’s political future

The Iranian nuclear deal was not just a victory for Rouhani — it was a carefully calculated move by Ayatollah Khamenei. In approving the deal, he has opened the door for a more moderate Iranian public to expand its influence. A guest post by Tripp Williams.

There are a lot of words that can be used to describe the history of US-Iranian relations. “Stormy” just might be the best one. Over the last 40 years the two countries have operated as inseparable allies as well as bitter enemies, ranging from the US support of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to the Iran Hostage Crisis to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bellicose attitude towards the US.

But Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013, and the subsequent efforts of his foreign minister Javad Zarif, brought new life to the notion of a moderate Iran on good terms with the west. First on the agenda: Iran’s nuclear program.

Though Iran maintains it has a right to pursue nuclear technologies intended for civilian use, the world community has been skeptical of Iran’s intentions and fears that talk of civil applications of nuclear technology stand only as a front for military applications – including the manufacture of a nuclear bomb. In an effort to bring the Iranian nuclear program into check, multiple governments, as well as the UN, imposed increasingly crippling sanctions following IAEA findings of Iranian non-compliance in 2005.  The sanctions, which included a ban on purchasing oil extracted in Iran, had a measured effect, depleting the value of the Iranian currency (the rial) and throwing the Iranian markets in upheaval.

Eager to end the strangulating sanctions, Rouhani tasked Sharif with negotiating a deal with other countries that would exchange limitations to Iran’s nuclear program for a lift of the oil export bans and other economic strictures that had been levied against the country. Extended efforts from Sharif and his counterparts in the so-called P5+1, the chief parties to the Iranian nuclear negotiations, finally bore fruit in 2015 with the announcement that an agreement on nuclear requirements had been reached. Iran would limit its nuclear stockpile and nuclear enrichment and production capacity in exchange for removal of the economic sanctions long in place.

The announcement brought mixed reactions from around the world. In the US, critics argued that the nuclear limitations placed on Iran were too weak and did not eliminate the threat that a nuclear weapon could be produced. Proponents of the deal celebrated its fairness and cheered Iran’s reintroduction to the world community. Reactions in Iran were mixed as well, with hardliners feeling too much had been given up in the negotiations and more moderate Iranians feeling excited that Iran’s exile from the modern world community and economy had ended.

More important than the short-term benefits to be gained from the newly implemented deal, however, are the enhanced longer-term prospects for sustained peace between the west, including the United States, and Iran. These improved prospects do not come from reduced nuclear capability as much as they do from the signal that moderation and engagement with the West can be to Iran’s benefit – and that it is considered permissible by the highest authorities in Iran.

Keeping in mind that in Iran, no political decision is made or finalized without the approval of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, it is safe to assume that Khamenei approved of the nuclear deal before Iran agreed to its terms.  In doing so, Khamenei signaled to hardliners that engagement with the world economy, and with western powers, is permissible. It is difficult to overstate the gravity of this deal, for it shows that the Iranian political establishment can live with policies inclined toward moderation and cooperation. After all, if Khamenei approves of a deal, hardline supporters will have difficulty questioning the decision, which would equate to questioning Khamenei himself.

Make no mistake – Iran has not suddenly become a country where moderate influence outweighs hardline sway. In January, the Guardian Council, the body that reviews candidates for election to public office, rejected thousands of parliamentary election applicants for various reasons. Though the body reversed course and approved many of these candidates in early February, its final disqualification of moderate candidate Hassan Khomeini, grandson of former Ayatollah Khomeini, sent a clear message that the Council is still in control. 

Still, the space given to rapprochement with the West is a major step forward for Iranian moderates. By tacitly supporting re-engagement, Khamenei has made it known that there is room for moderation, softening the hardline that has been taken against the West for so many years. This, ultimately, is the true value of the deal: the message that moderates have a place in Iranian politics.

This advance may be the essential first step that leads to an even greater embrace of moderation. Furthermore, the timing is important. Considering Khamenei’s age, it is likely that a new Supreme Leader of Iran will be chosen within the next decade. When the time to make that decision comes, the moderate momentum picked up in the US-Iranian nuclear deal could well have an impact in the selection.

The fading anti-western drumbeat could become even fainter as Iran steps back into the international community, and core government officials will notice that the population consistently opts for international inclusion instead of pariah status. It will be sensible and expedient to tolerate moderation at the very least, and the election of a Supreme Leader that is both popular and in sync with general sentiment could be the best step to take when the need to choose Khamenei’s successor comes.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s strength and security rests on the support of the military and core supporters, yes. At the same time, it requires the support of the Iranian people, moderates included, lest the revolutionaries’ 1979 example inspires a new coup. Current officials know this; they will monitor sentiment over the coming months and years and select a new Supreme Leader that appeases the hardline without alienating the general public.

But don’t be surprised if moderation extends greater influence over time. The US-Iranian deal has opened the door for a more moderate Iranian public to expand its influence, making the selection of a more moderate Supreme Leader all the more likely – and making prospects for long-term, sustained peace between Iran and the west more promising than they’ve been in more than 35 years.

Tripp Williams works for a mid-sized management consulting firm based in Bellevue, Washington, with a current focus on developing modern marketing capabilities for large enterprises. His interest in international affairs extends to all regions, with a particular interest in the Middle East. He holds a Bachelors degree in Government and Law from Lafayette College and a Masters degree in the History of International Relations from the London School of Economics, where he wrote his thesis on anti-American sentiment in 1970s Iran.

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