Now that a nuclear deal has been signed with the P5+1, the majority of Iranians are getting ready to celebrate what they call “the nuclear feast,” expecting the agreement to rapidly improve their living conditions, ease trade with the outside world and end years of economic suffering, political humiliation and isolation. Yet many questions persist regarding how their leaders will respond to the deal and its aftermath, both domestically and in terms of Tehran’s interventionist policies in the region. President Hassan Rouhani has already praised the agreement in a nationally televised address, claiming that Iran achieved all of its goals in the negotiations. And he will no doubt enjoy the public celebrations that are expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of Tehran and other large cities, taking them as a sign of appreciation for what he has done in past two years.
Yet Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s reaction to these developments will no doubt be quite different — he will likely watch the euphoric celebrations with deep concern and delay any direct public comments on the deal. And when he does comment, he is unlikely to portray the agreement as a grand victory for either side. For Rouhani and those who voted for him in 2013, the nuclear agreement is a win-win result in what could otherwise be a dangerous confrontation with the West, but for Khamenei it is more like a cease-fire that suspends the conflict to test whether the enemy has really changed its attitude toward the Islamic Republic.
In this sense, Iran’s reaction will probably mirror its response to the interim Lausanne parameters announced on April 2. At the time, the streets filled up with euphoric citizens, and Rouhani swiftly appeared on television and triumphantly declared, “We have taken the second step: our nuclear rights will be protected and sanctions will be lifted.” Yet Khamenei withheld comment for a week, then downplayed the tentative agreement in an April 9 speech, calling it “nonbinding,” claiming that Europe did not agree with the U.S. provisions and accusing Washington of lying about Tehran’s willingness to allow inspections at military facilities. Media reaction was similarly mixed. While reformist newspapers praised the negotiating team, state-controlled media outlets such as Kayhan focused on the differing U.S. and Iranian interpretations of the American fact sheet and cast suspicion on the P5+1’s intentions.
The earliest state media reactions to the agreement appear to be heading in a similar direction. These and other internal signs indicate that Rouhani will face a tough challenge in the coming weeks and months, since he will be caught between hardliner suspicions and inflated public expectations.
Throughout the P5+1 negotiations, Khamenei has sought to have his cake and eat it too. He views the talks as being strictly limited to nuclear issues, excluding other matters of dispute with the West, yet at the same time he expects Washington and its partners to end all economic pressure on Iran, even for nonnuclear reasons such as terrorism sponsorship. His rationale for allowing the talks to proceed is that compromising on the nuclear program would force the West to stop using that issue as an excuse to continue pressuring Iran. But nuclear compromise does not mean Tehran will change its regional policies.
For example, in a July 12 meeting with a group of university students, Khamenei was asked how a nuclear deal would affect the Islamic Republic’s struggle against “arrogance” — a term coined by Islamists to refer to Western power and influence, usually equivalent to leftists’ use of “capitalism.” He responded, “Is the fight against arrogance suspendable? Fighting against arrogance, fighting against the dominant order, cannot be suspended…This is one of the principles of the revolution. Without fighting against arrogance, we would not be followers of the Quran…America is the embodiment of this arrogance par excellence…We have told the honorable officials who negotiated on the nuclear issue…that they are authorized to negotiate only on the nuclear issue — they have no authority to negotiate on other issues, and they don’t. The other party sometimes raises the issue of Syria, Yemen, and the like, but [Iranian negotiators] say ‘We won’t talk to you about these matters.'” He concluded by telling the audience, “Make yourself ready for continuing the fight against arrogance.”
Although Rouhani and his cabinet have little role in decision-making on Iran’s regional policy, he has sought to portray the nuclear talks as having just the opposite effect. On April 3, he described the Lausanne framework as “the first step toward building a new relationship with the world.” And in his speech earlier on the day the agreement was announced, he stated, “The implementation of the deal is a test. If this deal is meticulously implemented, step by step it can remove the bricks in the wall of mistrust.” Although his mention of “implementation” was likely aimed at tempering expectations, he continued the triumphalist tone when addressing Iran’s Arab neighbors, telling them, “Don’t get fooled by Israel — we consider the security and stability of the region to be our security and stability…Today our relations with you have a new beginning.”
Yet Rouhani would likely be better off focusing on the deal’s potential long-term economic effects, because the fact remains that he has little leverage over the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other organizations under Khamenei that are involved in determining Tehran’s activities abroad. If he focuses on regional policy yet fails to prove that the deal is really transformational when it comes to Iranian adventurism, Western powers may prove unwilling to lift their many nonnuclear sanctions on Tehran. In this regard, Khamenei likely believes he can pressure Rouhani without hurting his own standing. Since Khamenei has carefully avoided taking direct responsibility for the nuclear deal, any hostile Western reaction to Iran’s policies in the Middle East would only prove his repeatedly expressed suspicion that the West’s ultimate target is the Islamic Republic, not the nuclear program, and that compromising on the nuclear issue while continuing to endure pressure on other issues does not make sense. Such an outcome would certainly put Rouhani’s political future in peril.
Mehdi Khalaji is the Libitzky Family Fellow at The Washington Institute.