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How 'almost nothing' in DC turned into something in Tehran

In Iran, the remarks by the head of the Central Bank during his recent US visit that Tehran has gotten "almost nothing" from the JCPOA has become a rallying cry for hard-liners.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., April 22, 2016.  REUTERS/Brendan McDermid - RTX2B9VC

TEHRAN, Iran — When Central Bank of Iran (CBI) Governor Valiollah Seif got on a plane to the United States, he could not have imagined that his efforts to help facilitate the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would result in Iranian hard-liners taking advantage of his remarks.

On April 15, Seif visited Washington to attend a summit jointly hosted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Seizing the opportunity, Seif discussed with US Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew the issue of Iran’s lack of access to the US banking system, and participated at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He also gave a few interviews to US-based media outlets, including Al-Monitor.

Speaking at the CFR, Seif said, “Let me also give you a snapshot of what has happened over the last three months — the date of implementation of the JCPOA: almost nothing.” He reiterated the same words in another interview with Bloomberg.

“Almost nothing” quickly turned into the hard-liners' new rallying cry for their attacks on the JCPOA, leading four prominent hard-line dailies to simultaneously question the nuclear deal’s success. In this vein, they all ran the same headline: “Almost nothing.”

Ever since President Hassan Rouhani first took office in August 2013, hard-liners have opposed his foreign policy, including the nuclear negotiations with six world powers that led to the JCPOA.

Hossein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of the hard-line Kayhan newspaper, wrote, “The Central Bank governor’s remark is a tangible and concrete reality that shows the useless three-year-long nuclear negotiations of the government and the steep cost it inflicted on the country. However, Seif didn’t completely confess: He only mentioned a part of a bitter reality. So far, the JCPOA has led to ‘almost nothing’ for us economically. It should be said that the JCPOA has had no achievement in any [other] area [either].”

Meanwhile, Vatan-e Emrooz, another hard-line newspaper, argued, “In the first hours after the nuclear deal’s implementation, the government’s high-ranking officials stated that the banking obstacles were lifted. But after a while, many merchants and traders announced that they couldn’t engage in [banking] transactions with the world. Under these circumstances, Iran’s Central Bank governor explicitly announced: The JCPOA has led to ‘almost nothing’ for us economically.”

In response to the fresh attacks by his hard-line foes, Rouhani said, “We shouldn’t forget that when destruction occurs, reconstruction takes time. … Only three months have passed since the JCPOA’s implementation, [yet] some think 30 years have passed.”

Moreover, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the chairman of the Expediency Council, described the fresh criticism by the hard-liners as “unfair” and “politically motivated.” He said about Rouhani’s opponents, “They look for excuses and take stances in a way to make people think the [Rouhani] administration has failed.”

Moreover, in a speech at a meeting that appears to have been a reaction to the latest wave of hard-line attacks, influential Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi said, “I’m surprised that despite the supreme leader having approved the nuclear deal, some who pretend to be his followers are still slamming it and are using the word ‘treason’ [in regard to the JCPOA and those who negotiated it].”


The bigger picture appears to point toward the hard-liners distorting facts as a means to achieve their end, which is to question the whole implementation of the JCPOA. Ali Khorram, a former Iranian ambassador to the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva, told Al-Monitor, “Seif sought to persuade the United States to grant permission to Iran [to engage in activities that would resolve] on the dollar issue. That is why he said Iran hasn’t achieved anything economically. But the hard-liners took advantage of it. They distorted his words.” He added, “In fact, Seif didn’t question the entire JCPOA; he just expressed Iran’s concerns.”

Amid the spin, simply a close look at Seif’s speech at the CFR can shed further light on the controversy about his comments. According to the CFR website, the first thing Seif told the audience after “almost nothing” was, “On the JCPOA, the EU and the United States are committed to taking all administrative and regulatory measures necessary to ensure successful and effective lifting of sanctions to enable Iran to reintegrate into the international markets. We are not discounting what has happened — what has been done, such as OFAC’s guidelines documents, recent visits to other countries encouraging the financial community working with us, general and specific license issued to encourage engagement in trade and investment.“

Seif added, “These have proved to be 'insufficient' after the passage of three months. In general, we are not able to use our frozen funds abroad.”

Emphasizing Iran’s current problems in the aftermath of the formal implementation of the nuclear deal, which are related to dollar-based transactions, Seif warned that the JCPOA could “break up.”

Thus, despite how Iranian hard-liners choose to interpret Seif’s words, he did not in fact say that the JCPOA has not had any benefit for Iran. Khorram said, “The Central Bank governor attempted to convey Iran’s concerns about not being completely connected to US banks. What he was explaining was from a technical point of view.”

Moreover, Mohammad Ali Karimi, head of the CBI’s public relations department, told the local Vaghaye Daily, “When an Iranian official sits in front of the key figures of the country who imposed the sanctions and their media, he should focus on the flaws of the deal’s implementation.” 

Following Seif’s return to Iran, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif left Tehran for New York where he met with his US counterpart, John Kerry. Zarif appeared to have spent part of those meetings negotiating over what Seif had discussed with Lew. “The main axis of this conversation is the correct implementation of the JCPOA so that both sides — namely the Iranian nation — can rightly reap their benefits,” Zarif said after meeting Kerry on April 19.

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