Debate Heats up in Iran over Leaving the Nuclear Deal

Since President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear agreement on May 8, political debates in Tehran over leaving or remaining a party to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have become increasingly tense.

The twelve steep demands outlined by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on May 21 as supposed ingredients for a “better” deal have further fueled what is shaping up as a revival of the power struggle within Iran’s complex and opaque political structure.

For Iranian pragmatists, it is still in Iran’s interest to continue to comply with a “JCPOA without America” that seeks to enlist Europeans – as well as Russians, Chinese, Indians and others — not to follow Washington in waging financial war against Iran. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been traveling the globe to secure guarantees for continued investment and purchase of Iranian oil. At this moment, the chances for Europeans to resist American pressure looks doubtful, although added anger over just-imposed aluminum and steel tariffs may strengthen Europe’s spine.

Iranian hardliners, boosted by Trump’s hostile policies, are calling on the government to pull out of the JCPOA and immediately accelerate the nuclear program. They are downplaying the ability of European countries to stand up to Washington and accusing President Hassan Rouhani of weakness and naivete.

Kayhan, a newspaper that is considered the mouthpiece of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, quoted French President Emmanuel Macron as stating that “France will not get into a trade war against the United States over Iran.” The editorial also  mocked Rouhani for once saying that the French President told him that one of his objectives in ties with Iran was “to guarantee the employment of Iranian youth.” Kayhan attacked those who say that the Islamic Republic should distinguish between Europeans and the United States with regard to the nuclear agreement, a view that is against the “accurate and pessimistic” viewpoint of the Supreme Leader.

Khamenei, himself, has said that a decision on whether to stay or leave the JCPOA will depend on Europe’s ability to compensate Iran and to withstand American secondary sanctions. The leader has issued a devastating commentary on social media over US duplicity and noted that he has consistently warned that it is foolish for Iran to trust the United States.

Khamenei’s foreign policy representative, former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, has been even harsher. Velayati called the JCPOA humiliating and one-sided, even worse than the Treaty of Turkmenchay, a 1828 agreement with Russia under which Iran relinquished control of Armenia, part of Azerbaijan and much of the southern Caucasus.

Velayati also strongly rejected any suggestion that Iran would curtail its missile production – one of Pompeo’s twelve demands – or negotiate over its regional policies. According to Velayati, Iran should restart the nuclear program with full force by using more advanced IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges – capable of producing 16 kg of enriched uranium annually — manufacture nuclear engines and use carbon fiber, a sensitive dual-used technology that can be used in ballistic missile components.

During a recent conference entitled “The Supreme Leader’s Nuclear Discourse” in the religious city of Qom, Saeed Jalili, the conservative member of the JCPOA Monitoring Board, a committee inside the Supreme National Security Council appointed by Khamenei, called on the government to stop implementing its JCPOA obligations. Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator, noted  that “according to Article 36 of the JCPOA, in case the other party reneges on its commitments, Iran preserves the right to partially or completely stop implementing its obligations. This right should be secured.” With regard to the European Union’s criticism of Iran’s regional role and ballistic missile development, Jalili stressed that Europe has no right to tell Iran what to do or not to do, especially when one party (the United States) has defaulted on its obligations.

Using an auto dealership metaphor, Jalili sarcastically wrote in his Twitter account that “the JCPOA was as if we were to buy ‘a million-worth vehicle’ for a billion [tomans] and after paying some part of the money, the other side refuses to deliver the vehicle and runs away. And then his partners tell you to pay the rest of the price.”

Supporters of the Rouhani government have countered by saying that the problems Iran currently is facing are the result of the hardliners’ mistakes when they were in charge under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Hamid Aboutalebi, an advisor to Rouhani, responded to Jalili by saying “you were sitting behind the steering wheel for six years; you ran red lights, entered no admittance areas, stopped at no waiting points…. to the extent that the fines exceeded thousands of times the price of the vehicle itself. Then, you drove the vehicle into Chapter Seven of the UN Security Council [which allows the imposition of severe sanctions], and you called the resolutions a piece of ‘torn paper.’ This is the legacy of the ominous era of your driving practices.”

The newspaper Iran, which is close to Rouhani, published a graphic on the negative impact of Jalili’s tenure.

Despite major differences over whether Iran should leave or stay within the JCPOA, the Pompeo demands have had the effect of unifying Iran’s political elite against compromise over the missile program or regional policies.

Both sides agree that Iran lives in a “dangerous neighborhood” and needs strong deterrence against its adversaries. This has been the rationale since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and has been bolstered as the United States has increased arms sales, including anti-missile systems, to Arab countries across the Persian Gulf.

Iran’s Syria policy follows the same logic. In Iran’s security doctrine, Syria serves as strategic depth to deflect attacks on Iran from Israel or a Saudi-led Sunni Muslim alliance. However, compared to Syria, Yemen is less important for Iran and a potential area for concessions.

Blanketing Iran with renewed sanctions is likely to tip the balance in the debate in favor of hardliners who have always sought to limit Rouhani’s ability to open up to the West. They would make  “vanishing” economic benefits a major issue in their campaign against the Rouhani government. A return to hardline control would also doom non-proliferation efforts in the region and increase tensions in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Farhad Rezaei is an Iran analyst and the co-author of the forthcoming “Iran, Israel, and the United States: The Politics of Counter-Proliferation Intelligence,” Rowman and Littlefield. He tweets at @Farhadrezaeii

Image: Meeting of authorities and officials with Supreme Leader (Source: