Iran’s cryptic hard-liners are once again on the minds of US policymakers. Suspicion has most recently fallen on these nameless individuals following last week’s arrest of a number of American journalists in Tehran. The arrests, which came two days after negotiators in Vienna agreed to extend the nuclear talks with the UN Security Council, are being interpreted as a deliberate attempt to undermine President Hassan Rouhani’s overture to the United States. Responding in her congressional testimony on July 29, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman warned hawkish senators not to act in a way that might further push the hard-liners in Tehran “to the wall.”
Tehran and Washington have both expressed optimism that the next round of nuclear talks, to be completed by Nov. 24, might just be conclusive — if, that is, a give-and-take bargain acceptable to both sides can be reached. But as Sherman pointed out, not all American observers or policymakers in the US Congress share that view.
Some seem gripped by a perennial fear that the much-trumpeted hawks in Tehran will derail the diplomatic process. Months before the July arrests, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., cautioned that Washington should not put too much hope in moderates like Rouhani and Javad Zarif, his smooth foreign minister.
In fact, nothing about this nuclear stalemate has been straightforward since Iran’s nuclear program was first exposed in 2002. Intensive multilateral talks spanned more than a decade and memories remain of demands, promises and high drama on both sides. Who can forget former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasting that Iran’s nuclear program was “a locomotive without breaks” or Washington’s frequent threat that “all options are on the table” to prevent a potential Iranian nuclear weapon?
The moderate Rouhani replaced the hard-line Ahmadinejad, leading to the signing of an interim deal, the Joint Plan of Action, in November 2013. But the distance between the negotiating parties — from how many centrifuges Iran should have to the time needed to consider its nuclear program peaceful — is still great and needs to be bridged before a permanent deal can be struck. In other words, the skeptics in Washington have reason to worry. But to point the finger at spoilers in Tehran is to misunderstand or misrepresent Iran’s nuclear policy machine.
Hard-liners? What hard-liners?
On the nuclear question, Iran’s hard-liners carry little weight these days. Domestically, critics accuse Rouhani of making too many concessions for too little reward. But such voices are few, and did not determine Iranian policy or the strategy of Iran’s nuclear negotiators during the latest round of talks in Vienna.
Most significantly, Rouhani’s critics are not in a position to shift the trajectory of Tehran’s overall nuclear policy. Iran’s ultimate authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly endorsed Rouhani’s nuclear negotiations record. Khamenei is the barometer to watch, and the hard-liners in Tehran do so meticulously.
When the hawkish condemnations of Rouhani become too unruly, the regime machinery brings them down a peg or two. During this month’s round of nuclear talks, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior foreign policy adviser to Khamenei, explicitly said that the talks were supervised by him and had his blessing. That left no room to discuss their merits.
This is not to say, however, that hard-liners in Iran’s political setup are figments of the US policymakers’ imaginations. But can they really act independently in the context of the nuclear issue, or do they function only as part of Ayatollah Khamenei’s broader policy agenda? The evidence strongly suggests that they are a “stick” that Khamenei wields to extort the best nuclear deal possible.
Just as Washington has its anti-Iran hawks in the US Congress who constantly threaten Tehran with more sanctions — Menendez and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., come to mind — Khamenei has a few select hard-liner voices to invoke during negotiating sessions. Unlike President Barack Obama, however, Khamenei has a tight grip over these players and unleashes them only when he sees fit. On the nuclear issue, no hard-line base in Tehran can outflank Khamenei.
Why hard-liners don’t have a say
At least on the nuclear question, Rouhani and Khamenei are in the same boat because of some hard political and economic realities. As the Obama administration appraoches its last two years in office, officials in Tehran are worried that the next American president might choose to deprioritize the diplomatic track in favor of a more muscular approach. There is broad consensus that the Obama administration offers the safest window of opportunity. This explains Iran’s insistence on substantial sanctions relief as part of a deal with the Obama White House, and on provisions that make it hard for future US administrations to reverse.
And while Iran might have learned to live with the international sanctions imposed in the last few years, no serious political faction in Tehran dismisses the dangers of long-term sanctions. Hard-line voices that preach intransigence in the nuclear talks (such as the raucous Ayatollah Mohammad Mesbah Yazdi) have very little popular support.
Khamenei and Rouhani — the only voices that matter on the nuclear issue — genuinely want a deal. The stakes are too high for Khamenei to let anyone wreck a diplomatic deal that he sees as beneficial to his regime and its political survival.
This article has been updated since its initial publication