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Why does Rouhani want a second JCPOA?

Talk of a second, domestic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or "Barjam 2," among rival Iranian factions is stirring heated debate in the Islamic Republic.

TEHRAN, Iran — The Iranian supreme leader’s Nowruz speech in the northeastern city of Mashhad on March 20 centered on one subject: negative reactions to talk of Barjam 2. "Barjam" is the Persian acronym for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed last year. Prior to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s speech, President Hassan Rouhani and other Iranian government officials had referred to the plan as Barjam 2. Indeed, one day before the speech in Mashhad, Rouhani had once again brought up the controversial term in his own Nowruz message. Rouhani said, "Barjam 2 is the same National Joint Plan of Action in the country, which will start with unity, reconciliation and empathy — a Barjam that will start with morality before the economy."

Rouhani first started using the term in early February. At that time, Masoud Nili, the president’s senior adviser for economic affairs, told this author in an interview published by Iran Newspaper that there is a need for a second JCPOA in the economic arena. In the Feb. 2 interview, Nili said, “We need consensus internally. We need an internal JCPOA. Political consensus is a necessity for development and making progress and also for getting the economy out of its recession.” Nili said he thought that the economic situation in the country is such that there is a strong need for a kind of a Loya Jirga, in which political and economic elders from different factions would talk about the requirements for achieving development.

Subsequently, Rouhani used the term in a Feb. 3 speech, saying, “It’s now time for us to implement Barjam 2, or the National Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. We must all show up to the scene in unity and solidarity toward implementation of Barjam 2.” Notably, Rouhani did not specify what he meant. He did not say anything about what Barjam 2 requires, nor whether it is political or economic in nature.

However, Momammad Nahavandian, the president's chief of staff, has clarified what Rouhani meant by Barjam 2. Nahavandian described the term as economic, saying, “Barjam 2 is a National Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It means we all must join hands together, and the public and private sector need to join forces and mobilize all resources.”

In this vein, one can argue that the president and his government believe that the Iranian economy is in need of fundamental change. They believe that not taking full advantage of the recently achieved consensus in the country will be a huge loss for all.

Ali Tayebnia, the minister of economic affairs and finance, has a similar perspective on this matter. He has described the JCPOA as a favorable example of successful negotiations, saying, “We should follow the example of the [JCPOA] in the economic arena.”

These remarks by senior members of Rouhani’s government suggest several features of Barjam 2. First, it is primarily economic in nature. Second, as with the negotiations that led to the JCPOA, talks between government officials and institutions should be held at a senior level. Third, there are differences between different political groups over how to achieve economic development in the post-sanctions era, though economic development requires consensus.

In his Feb. 2 interview, Nili, the senior presidential adviser for economic affairs, explained Barjam 2 in detail. He touched on the success of the nuclear negotiations, saying that Iranians have been proven able to sit around a single table with their enemies and negotiate and come to a conclusion; hence, Iranians can also sit at a table among themselves and reach consensus on how to address their country’s economic problems.

Nili gave a more clear definition of Rouhani’s conception of Barjam 2, saying, "To achieve economic development and get out of this economic recession, we need to stand in unity and solidarity to solve economic problems. Because given the country’s situation, confrontation with the world is really dangerous.”

But what are the political differences in regard to Iran’s economic situation and how to best utilize economic opportunities in the post-sanctions era? Of note, the main difference continues to be the matter of Iran’s relations with the world. As Nili put it, “If we don’t reach a consensus among ourselves about how to interact with the world, we might fail to benefit from the economic opportunities in the post-sanctions era.”

In Nili’s telling, Iranians have arrived at a turning point and need to make brave decisions on economic issues and the nature of their relations with the outside world. If they don’t take action in this regard, he argued, the country will face hard conditions. Indeed, Nili said that there are nearly 7 million working-age Iranians who the government must pay attention to, noting that some of them are either university graduates or still students who will graduate in the coming years. He argued that Iran will face a huge challenge if the government does not pay attention to their situation.

Clearly, the internal debate on Iran’s relations with the world won’t be limited to the economic arena. When it comes to interaction with the outside world, political issues will certainly arise, such as which countries Iran should have relations with and how Iran will relate to unfriendly countries.

In Nili's view, these kinds of discussions may have a political conclusion — but their introduction and their main body are purely economic. Moreover, when asked about the level of dialogue on Barjam 2, he replied that it will be held at a high level of decision-making and government policymaking. He added, somewhat ominously, “Barjam 2 is more difficult than the nuclear JCPOA.”