In Tehran, there is intense debate over whether parliament or the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) should review the nuclear deal with six world powers. The government and some of its supporters argue that the latter falls under the purview of the SNSC. Meanwhile, Principlists believe that parliament should be given priority.
In general, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei makes policies and decisions regarding major issues. However, there appear to be differences about Khamenei’s description of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name of the nuclear deal. He has referred to the document as a “text” and not an “agreement.” On at least two occasions, he has stressed that the JCPOA should be approved “through a legal path.” He said this first in response to a letter from President Hassan Rouhani regarding the negotiations, and then in his recent speech at the Eid al-Fitr prayers.
In Khamenei’s telling, there is a legal path “to approve this text” that has been foreseen, and should, and will, be taken. However, he has not clarified what this path is.
Reza Alijani, a Paris-based political activist, told Al-Monitor that it’s not odd that Khamenei has assumed such a position, considering that he has continuously adopted an equivocal approach toward the negotiations. However, Alijani believes that Iran’s leader has been a “supporter of the talks in practice” and that his equivocal stance is due to his positioning, adding that Khamenei’s words “leave the door open for sidelining parliament.” In this vein, Alijani predicts that the SNSC will ultimately do the latter.
Alijani further argues that Khamenei has already approved the deal: “There has been some talk that the leader’s abode was following the negotiations minute by minute. The text of the final agreement was also shown to Khamenei, through a special channel, before it was signed and considering that he had been in the process beforehand, he reviewed the document with the help of some of his advisers.”
According to Iran’s constitution, the government has a duty to present all “international treaties, contracts and agreements” to parliament for final approval. After being voted on and confirmed by the Guardian Council, international documents may go into effect.
However, since the nuclear negotiations first began in 2003 under Reformist President Mohammad Khatami, the SNSC has assumed this responsibility.
The SNSC’s task is to determine the country’s security and defense policies within a framework defined by Khamenei. Its decisions only go into effect once the leader approves them. Organizationally, the SNSC’s head is the president, while other key members include the speaker of parliament, the head of the judiciary, commanders of both the regular forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as well as the ministers of interior, foreign affairs and intelligence. Additionally, Khamenei appoints two representatives, one of which is usually elected as the SNSC’s secretary.
The Principlists opposed to the Rouhani administration — and who are critical of the nuclear negotiations — believe that the government should present the JCPOA to parliament to give lawmakers the chance to amend it. However, government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht said last week that “parliament is not meant to vote on this agreement.” According to Nobakht, the SNSC should review the JCPOA and it has already begun doing so.
Alijani said a previous parliamentary bill has in practice cut off lawmakers’ power to make decisions or influence the JCPOA.
SNSC Secretary Ali Shamkhani, a former defense minister seen as close to Rouhani, has confirmed Nobakht’s statement and said July 30 that the nuclear file “is related to national security” and therefore has been on the SNSC’s agenda “from the beginning” and will continue to be so in the future.
The matter of the SNSC being put in charge of reviewing the JCPOA has support among some influential lawmakers. Among them is the speaker, Ali Larijani. When ratifying the aforementioned bill, titled “The necessity of the government to protect the country’s nuclear achievements,” which obliges the administration to present reports of the negotiations to parliament, Larijani objected to some initial elements of the bill and argued that some matters lie within the SNSC’s responsibilities. Ultimately, amendments were made to the bill, which, according to Larijani, took into account the considerations of Khamenei and the SNSC.
Indeed, last week, in connection with a meeting with the visiting EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, who is formally charged with convening the nuclear negotiations, Larijani told reporters that it is possible that parliament will abstain from giving an opinion on the JCPOA, just as it did in the case of UN Security Council Resolution 598, which helped end Iran’s 1980-1988 war with Iraq.
Of note, the SNSC did not exist at that time. However, negotiations and decisions regarding Resolution 598 were not made by parliament, but by the heads of the three branches of government. Interestingly, UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which contains language on the removal of nuclear-related sanctions against Iran, was adopted on the anniversary of the adoption of Resolution 598.
Unlike the SNSC, whose members are relatively in favor of the government, the parliament has many critics who may seek amendments to the JCPOA if lawmakers are granted review powers. Indeed, Principlists believe that in the process of reaching this agreement, at least 19 red lines previously defined by Khamenei were crossed. However, if the JCPOA is to be put to a vote before lawmakers, it will ultimately need the approval of the Guardian Council, an organization where the balance is more in favor of hard-liners. Some members of the Guardian Council were supporters of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the disputed 2009 presidential vote.
Despite the many and heated debates about who will ultimately get to review and ratify the JCPOA, the one thing that really matters is Khamenei’s stance. Until he clarifies it in public, debate will likely continue.