Political stakes high as moderate Iranian president tries to forge nuclear deal with West,

14.02.2015 15:14

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) —
Throughout the long negotiations over the
fate of Iran's nuclear program, President
Hassan Rouhani has withstood scathing
criticism from hard-liners at home by
sticking to his case that a deal with his
country's longtime enemies will bring
peace and prosperity.
So the political stakes are high for the
moderate president as talks enter their
homestretch toward a June deadline.
If he succeeds in sealing an agreement,
Iran could see much-hoped-for relief from
withering sanctions that are dragging
down the economy at a time when the
OPEC producer is trying to ride out a
severe slump in oil prices.
An improvement in the economy could
translate into a broader boost in domestic
support for Rouhani and strengthen the
moderate camp gain in parliamentary
elections next year. Moderates are pushing
for a less confrontational relationship with
the West — a break from the eight-year
tenure of predecessor Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad — and seek more freedoms
at home, including greater freedom of
expression and easing of social
Failure, however, only will bolster his hard-
line opponents who are against that entire
"Rouhani was elected on, promoted and
supported the idea that he would help the
Iranian economy recover. And of course
the nuclear agreement is tied to that
because of the sanctions," said Dubai-
based political analyst Theodore Karasik.
"If there is no nuclear deal, the presidency
will go back to a more ultraconservative
leader — under a nuclear Iran."
The U.S. and other world powers reached
an interim deal with Iran in November
2013 that involved some sanctions relief in
exchange for Tehran freezing its nuclear
program. Talks have now been extended
until the end of June, though negotiators
aim to reach a framework for a deal by the
end of next month.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
sounded a hopeful tone earlier this week,
saying a further extension of the talks
wouldn't be in anyone's interest. President
Barack Obama seems to agree, saying
Monday that "we're at a point where they
need to make a decision."
Zarif has borne the brunt of the hard-
liners' most recent criticism, particularly
over a walk he took with U.S. Secretary of
State John Kerry during negotiations in
Geneva last month.
Comments by Mohammad Reza Naghdi,
the head of the Basij organization, the
paramilitary wing of the powerful
Revolutionary Guards, were typical of the
outrage. He blasted the envoy for
"showing intimacy with the enemy of
humanity" and "trampling on the blood of
Rouhani's team can afford to weather the
criticism for now. They still have the
crucial backing of Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final
say on all major decisions in the Islamic
"Without Khamenei's consent, the
negotiating team couldn't survive more
than 10 minutes," said Tehran-based
political analyst Saeed Leilaz.
Leilaz said many in the hard-line
establishment are still struggling to accept
what he called the "changing the tone of
conversation" by Iran's leadership in its
dealings with Washington. "It was a very
severe and sudden change," he said.
Khamenei this week reiterated support for
the negotiators, telling members of the air
force in a speech that they are doing their
best to "take away the option of sanctions
from the enemy."
He chose his words carefully though.
"We think that no deal is better than a bad
deal that is against our national interests,"
he said, adding pointedly that his country
is not "desperate" on the nuclear issue.
Khamenei has kept his stance vague from
the start. When talks began, he said he
would not oppose them but did not expect
success. Last month, he said the U.S. can't
be trusted to lift sanctions and that Iran
must develop an "economy of resistance."
"He basically wants credit if there is a
deal, and doesn't want to be blamed if it
doesn't work," said Michael Singh,
managing director at The Washington
In an address Wednesday before
thousands gathered in Tehran's Azadi
Square to mark the 36th anniversary of the
Islamic Revolution, Rouhani sought to
minimize the role that sanctions played in
driving the nuclear negotiations forward.
He said Iran instead came to the table "for
the sake of logic and for creating peace
and stability in the region and world."
Haleh Esfandiari, who directs the Middle
East program at the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars, said
many Iranians will be disappointed if
negotiators fail to reach a lasting deal.
"No deal means ratcheting up sanctions,
more hardship," she said. "If there is no
deal, it means Rouhani has lost and has
lost big."
Leilaz, the Tehran analyst, agreed that
Rouhani's political fortunes are ties to a
"If Rouhani wants to win more seats in
next parliamentary election ... then he
really needs the deal," he said.
A lasting agreement would go a long way
in improving Iran's relations with the
United States, which along with Israel
ranks as the hard-liners' top foe. But other
points of contention remain.
Iran has detained Iranian-American
Washington Post correspondent Jason
Rezaian since July and he is expected to be
tried soon before Iran's Revolutionary
Court. The charges have not been publicly
announced, but the court mostly hears
cases involving security offenses.
A judge known for his tough sentencing,
Abolghassem Salavati, has been assigned
to hear the case, according to Rezaian's
family. They called the selection "very
disturbing" given European Union
sanctions against the jurist, who has
presided over several politically charged
cases, including those of protesters
arrested in connection with
demonstrations that followed the 2009
presidential elections.
Key opposition leaders in those
contentious elections, Mir Hossein
Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, remain under
house arrest — a reminder of the limits
the establishment is willing to tolerate.
Analysts outside Iran say the journalist's
detention could be the work of hard-liners
who want to send a message.