Whether by design or because of conflict within the system, Iran’s officials put out a mix of defiant and conciliatory messages to the US last week.
Between the fourth and fifth set of talks on a comprehensive nuclear deal, the Supreme Leader denounced the US and its allies as “bullying and arrogant powers” and said any compromise with them was “treachery”.
Ayatollah Khamenei also reiterated the need for a “resistance economy” to end Iran’s dependence on others, raising the possibility that he is preparing for the failure to get a nuclear agreement and end the US-led sanctions.
President Rouhani offered a sharp contrast to the Leader’s comments. At a summit in China, Rouhani said, “If the US, in practice, abandons its hostile policy toward the Iranian nation and compensates for its past, a new situation can be envisaged for the future of both nations.” He called on Washington to “take steps in the direction of respecting the rights of the Iranian nation” and to compensate it for past losses.
Despite Khamenei’s rhetoric — or possibly because his hard line offered cover — the Rouhani Government won notable victories for its continued negotiations with the 5+1 Powers. The head of Iran’s military, General Hassan Firouzabadi, told critics to be quiet. One of those critics, former lead nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, shifted to offer his support to Iran’s negotiating team: “The nuclear discussions are above and beyond narrow political and factional debates.”
The developments were an effective rebuke for the Revolutionary Guards, which up to last Monday was continuing to snipe at the Government for not taking a tougher line with the US and its partners.
The Government was further buttressed by another agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency on inspections and supervision of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
On the domestic front, signs continued of a retreat from the Rouhani Government’s promise to open up the cultural sphere. Six participants in a YouTube video celebrating their lives and communities, by dancing to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”, were arrested — they were soon released on bail, but the video’s director is still in prison. Leading actress Leila Hatami was forced to apologize for the “crime” of greeting the President of the Cannes Film Festival with a kiss on the cheek.
Leading clerics and MP Ali Motahari called for the release of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi from their 39-month house arrests, giving them a public trial for any “crimes”. However, there was no sign of a response by the regime.
The Supreme Leader’s harsh words for the US — and “those who want to promote compromise and submission” to Washington — appear to be giving cover for the continuing nuclear negotiations at this point.
Hardline resistance to the talks, which had reached the point of the “We Are Worried” campaign, appears to have been quelled — possibly on orders from Ayatollah Khamenei’s office. Saeed Jalili has not given up his opposition, the Revolutionary Guards have been muted for days, and even the Endurance Front, the leading political bloc challenging Rouhani, has said little.
However, even as he is endorsing the talks for now, Khamenei is preparing for a breakdown of discussions later. In particular, his emphasis on a “resistance economy” is saying that Iran will risk the wrath of sanctions and economic crisis if its fundamental requirements are not met in a deal.
Beyond the nuclear talks, prospects for significant action by the Rouhani Government at home are now slim. The President and his advisors have had to expend most of their political capital on “engagement”, and they now have little to counter the combination of an Iranian bureaucracy and the clerics, officials, and media resisting — and even rolling back — any initiative for cultural “openness”.
The judiciary also flexed its muscle on the economic front. Billionaire businessman Mahafarid Amir Khosravi was executed for his role in the $2.6 billion bank fraud that has rocked Iranian politics since it was exposed in September 2011.