There is much speculation around how a prospective deal next week that could strengthen constraints upon Iran’s nuclear program in return for a partial lifting of sanctions will go down in Washington. But how about Tehran?
Anoush Ehteshami notes there are several factors affecting the Iranian political system’s ability to support progress in negotiations. The first important dynamic is that “elections matter in Iran… they give the incumbent the legitimacy and mandate.” In contrast, when elections are unclear or seen as less than legitimate, this can have a lasting impact on the power of the incumbent and the wider administration. Ehteshami observes that the controversy over the 2009 elections that ushered in Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s second term “still casts a long shadow over the regime’s domestic legitimacy and confidence”. As a consequence of the crisis in 2009, “there now exists a deeply-divided conservative camp”, divided along personal and policy fault lines and in their relationships with the Supreme Leader who prioritizes an approach that attempts to balance powers. Yet the reformists are equally dysfunctional and ineffective, with limited resources, vision and voice.
In contrast, with a surprise first-round majority obviously obtained on a platform of engagement with the international community, Dr. Rouhani has a strong legitimacy and the mandate to pursue this agenda. The rest of the elite, including the Supreme Leader himself, recognizes this. It is not so much that Rouhani himself has a free hand, but rather any opposition to engagement has to account for the fact that the Iranian people have spoken. And the Islamic Republic depends upon a sense of accountability to the Iranian people for its legitimacy.
Second, whilst the Islamic Republic certainly has a crucial ideological identity, it also has highly pragmatic approaches. “The Islamic Republic takes note of such important matters as the economy, regional balance of power, security and geopolitics.” Whilst Iran may feel that in certain respects it has gained influence within the region, by and large its economy is in tatters and the future prospects for recovery in the face of sanctions are highly uncertain.
Third, whilst the elite is riven by infighting, it also has a strong instinct “to derive policy choices through consensus”. This may be related to the role of the Supreme Leader. Policy choices are not predetermined by rules, by institutions nor by the Leader… rather there exists complex and ever shifting degrees of institutional and individual influence. This makes the pursuit of consensus extremely difficult for those involved and difficult those outside to analyze.
This leaves a “complex and layered institutional framework for dealing with nuclear policy,” according to Ehteshami. He identifies three competing attitudes to the question. “The first group, not so visible yet having a voice internally within the elite, can be called ‘nuclear neutralizers’ - those either opposed to investing in the nuclear program or to using it to challenge the international community.” Those at the other extreme, the foreign policy revolutionaries or ‘nuclear hardliners’, see compromises as betrayal and get plenty of exposure for their views in Iran and abroad. The third, sitting between these two, comprises the ‘nuclear compromisers’ or ‘normalizers’, and who are represented by Rouhani and Zarif. Whilst they support the development of a domestic civil nuclear industry as part of the essential modernization of Iran, they see an element of compromise as “essential in order to set the country free in order to deal with all the political, social, economic and foreign policy problems, and eventually reintegrate Iran into the international community”. The tendency to attempt consensus between these perspectives can obscure clarity and make it more challenging to reach agreement, but equally it can hold back more aggressively hostile approaches in the context of the nuclear program. “Nevertheless, deep-seated factional rivalries and also personal loyalties play a significant part in policy decisions”.
In addition, Ehteshami points to four eternal pressures on decision-makers: a weak and structurally-vulnerable economy; the high expectations of the public arising from hopes raised from the talks; the continuing crisis of legitimacy; and geopolitical uncertainty.” There is a strong approval amongst the Iranian public for Rouhani’s approach to the talks. If there is an agreement that enables Iran to retain a respectable civil nuclear program with a progressing nuclear fuel cycle that shines a light on the path towards an element of integration into the international community, it is likely that such an agreement will be received positively in much of Iran and those more skeptical may be sidelined.
This blog entry is based upon a conversation at Chatham House between Professor Anoush Ehteshami, Professor of International Relations, and Joint Director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World at Durham University and Dr. Patricia Lewis, Research Director of International Security at Chatham House last week.