Iranian Perspectives on the Nuclear Deal

In the months following the interim nuclear deal it negotiated with the P5 + 1, the Iranian government has lost no time in adopting a simultaneously conciliatory and proud attitude on the international stage and in selling the nuclear deal at home.  Internationally, the government has emphasized the peaceful, civilian ends of its nuclear program and Iran’s right to nuclear energy, and has proclaimed Iran has not conceded on any principle.  On the home front, advocates of the deal have highlighted the interim deal’s mutability and high potential economic returns.

Hailed as an opportunity for improved relations by some and as a meaningless agreement by others, the vaunted “Joint Plan of Action”, or JPA, was negotiated in November 2013 and formally implemented in January 2014. The P5 + 1, or the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany and Iran, can extend the deal for an additional six months should the need arise.

Under the JPA, the Iranians arranged to halt uranium enrichment above 5 percent U-235. Uranium enriched to 20 percent, a level required for weapons grade material, will be diluted (bomb-useable uranium is typically enriched above 90%). Iran also agreed not to build new or begin operating additional centrifuges. In exchange, the Americans will provide between $ 6- 7 billion in sanctions relief.   According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has thus far held up its end of the bargain, reportedly stopping or pausing the installation of centrifuges, the construction of a heavy water reactor, and the enrichment of uranium above 5 percent.

The Iranian government’s attitude toward the deal on the international stage has proved simultaneously conciliatory and proud.  Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recently stated that he hoped the execution of the deal’s initial phase will yield “positive results for the country and stability in the region” and “provide a base for fundamental negotiations toward a final solution.”  At the recent Munich Security Conference, Zarif claimed that “Tehran was committed to a final nuclear deal”, and not reaching it would be a “disaster.”   Iran has contended that its nuclear program exists for “purely civilian, energy purposes” and “denies accusations it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.”

President Hassan Rouhani has echoed this sentiment, saying that “the Iranian government does not want nuclear weapons.”  The government has consistently stressed its rights to peaceful nuclear energy on several  fronts. Nuclear negotiator and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi has said “Not only do we have the right to nuclear energy but any entitlement which has been defined for us by international regulations is (also) our absolute right.”   Rouhani has used similar language, claiming that nuclear enrichment is “part and parcel of the inalienable rights of states.”

These hopeful and rights-oriented statements have been punctuated by a sense of pride, chiefly centered on the fact that many of Iranian centrifuges continue to run.  Salehi  remarked on state television that “The iceberg of sanctions is melting while our centrifuges are also still working… “[t]his is our greatest achievement.” Rouhani has also capitalized on the fact that Iran’s centrifuges are still running. He further claimed that “”not under any circumstances” would Iran destroy any of its existing centrifuges”.

On the home front, interim deal advocate and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghci has taken several approaches to selling the deal.  Araghchi defended the deal to hardliners by focusing on its mutability, arguing “These interconnections can be removed in a day and connected again in a day.” Araghchi has also focused on the trade and investment a final deal could bring, claiming that “the window for opportunity for Iran’s trade with Europe will increase tenfold” and “The private sector of Iran will have a great share of trade with the European Union.”

Support for the interim deal from elsewhere, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has certainly not translated to any interest in normalization of relations with the US.  Similarly, Khamenei’s rhetoric with respect to the United States has not changed; he continues to regard America as an “enemy” and accused it of hypocrisy during recent talks. Of Khamenei’s inflammatory remarks, Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, observed “Khamenei is signaling, primarily to his domestic audience, that the nuclear deal doesn’t change the larger picture – Iran still distrusts America.”  Following on the Supreme Leader’s support for the negotiations, the IRGC has also expressed its support for the interim deal.  In typical fashion, the IRGC has framed its statements of approval of the interim agreement as alignment with the Supreme Leader.

On the subject of the interim deal, Brigadier General Aziz Ja’fari commented that the “Supreme Leader’s comments in that and in every field are [the] Iranian nation’s guidelines.”   IRGC commanders, however, have used a particular language of strength and resistance in their support for the interim deal.  Annie Tracy Samuel of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs notes that  IRGC Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari’s casting Iran’s “diplomacy of resistance” as strengthening Iran’s positions in negotiations “reveal(s) the IRGC’s ability to characterize the nuclear negotiations in a way that aligns with their principles of strength and resistance.”

Hardliners have chosen mostly to stay mum on the topic of the interim deal, which Iranian journalist Farshad Ghorbanpour sees as potentially temporary. “When the opportunity arises they will strike back, searching for pretexts and playing into possible snags during the negotiations…. This is in no way a done deal.” A sentiment recently echoed by the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton–because Iranian opposition aside, there are many in the U.S., E.U and among their regional allies  who are also seeking to undermine and derail negotiations for various reasons. But it is far from a foregone conclusion that these cynics will prevail either.