A successful nuclear deal between Iran and the world's six major powers would allow Rouhani and other centrists to increase their influence in Iran’s political system, according to a new research paper by Hossein Bastani in the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House. But failure to reach a deal would empower hardliners in the judiciary and security establishment who disapprove of engagement with the West. Bastani warns that if Rouhani and others who favor improving ties with the outside world “again suffer failure in striking a face-saving deal, they will never be able to return to the sphere of foreign policy in Iran.” The following is a summary of the key findings of the research paper.
One of the key questions about the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme is how powerful President Hassan Rouhani really is within Iran’s unique political system, and whether he and his colleagues have the ability to implement an international nuclear agreement despite their powerful opponents. As the country’s chief nuclear negotiator in 2003–05, Rouhani agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and open nuclear facilities to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, but Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, unhappy with the attitude of the Western powers towards Iran, halted the implementation of these arrangements.
Rouhani and his associates emphasize that their objective is the resolution of the economic, administrative and international crises arising from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two presidential terms. In this context, they regard their highest priority as being the conclusion of an agreement with the international community over the nuclear dossier – which has been, in their view, the major source of Iran’s economic problems in the past few years.
However, the president is faced with opposition within the ranks of some of the most influential state institutions: the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Basij volunteer militias, the intelligence-security apparatus, the judiciary and the parliament.
There is no doubt that Ayatollah Khamenei expects Rouhani to strive to achieve the removal of the sanctions against Iran, but he does not seem interested in sharing responsibility for any retreat from the nuclear programme. If he comes to the conclusion that the political costs of nuclear talks far outweigh the economic benefits they can bring, he will once again put an end to them.
Should that happen, it will strengthen Ayatollah Khamenei’s convictions about the dangers of any rapprochement with the West and about the potential for moderation in foreign policy. This impact could be even stronger than that of the failure of the 2003–05 nuclear talks.
Ultimately, if those in Iran – such as President Rouhani – who favour interaction with the international community again fail in their efforts to strike a face-saving deal, they will never be able to return to the sphere of foreign policy in Iran. The departure of Rouhani’s team from the political scene during the most sensitive stage of the nuclear issue would lead to the return to Iran’s foreign policy apparatus of forces that oppose external engagement.
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