DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Even before Iran’s envoys could pack their bags in Geneva after wrapping up a first-step nuclear deal with world powers, President Hassan Rouhani was opening a potentially tougher diplomatic front: selling the give-and-take to his country’s powerful insider interests, led by the Revolutionary Guard.
Iran’s ability to fulfill its part of the 6-month bargain – which includes greater access for U.N. inspectors and a cap on the level of uranium enrichment – will depend largely on the Guard and its network.
The Guard’s influence stretches from the missile batteries outside key nuclear facilities to the production of the equipment inside. It runs from companies making Iran’s long-range missiles to paramilitary units that cover every inch of the country.
Rouhani’s praise for the deal announced Sunday has sounded at times like snippets from the national anthem.
“The Iranian nation again displayed dignity and grandeur,” he said in a televised address. He went on to laud the “glorious” affirmation that Iran can continue uranium enrichment under the accord – at levels that can power Iran’s lone energy-producing reactor, but well below what’s needed to approach weapons-grade material.
Rouhani ended the speech by trying to give the country’s nuclear efforts a sense of homespun honor. Borrowing from the political theater playbook of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he surrounded himself with relatives of Iranian nuclear scientists killed in ambush-style attacks blamed by Iran on Israel and its allies.
But Rouhani is also appealing to the more practical interests of the Guard, whose clout translates into cash. The Guard has a hand in some of the biggest money-generating enterprises in Iran, including import-export gatekeepers and real estate holdings. Its leaders likely recognize that easing Western sanctions will help their bottom line.
What may be a harder point of persuasion is beyond the accord. The Revolutionary Guard must be comfortable that the deal isn’t a prelude to broader diplomatic overtures with Washington that could undermine its standing and reach, which include aiding Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.
A veteran commentator on Iranian affairs, Ehsan Ahrari, said the “schizophrenic nature” of Iran’s domestic leadership – one side extolling the accord and the other side wary – stands as the biggest wild card in the Geneva deal.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority, has the final word in all key matters and, for the moment, sides with Rouhani on the nuclear talks and the parallel outreach to the U.S. after more than 3 decades of diplomatic estrangement. The nuclear deal also appears to have widespread public support as a change to ease Iran’s international isolation and perhaps open the way for serious rollbacks on sanctions if the initial 6-month phase moves ahead as planned.
“It’s a strong victory for the policies of moderation in Iran,” said Sadeq Zibakalam, a prominent Tehran-based political analyst. “It will boost moderates.”
But there are other power centers that can shape policy. The Revolutionary Guard is the godfather of them all. Its commanders can open doors at the highest levels and help mold the views of even Khamenei.
Earlier this month, groups with the apparent backing of the Guard erected giant banners around Tehran – done in slick, ad agency style – deriding the nuclear talks as a potential trap for Iran. American negotiators were portrayed as double dealers, wearing a tie and jacket on top and military camouflage trousers below. The banners also sent a secondary message to Khamenei, who had taken the unprecedented step of advising the Revolutionary Guard to stay out of Iran’s international initiatives with the West.
The most senior Guard commanders have remained quiet in public since the Geneva deal. But one general, Mohsen Kazemeini, was quoted by the semiofficial ISNA news agency as calling the agreement with world powers a “matter of happiness” since Iran can retain its uranium enrichment. The general’s comment suggests that the Guard could be on board for at least the first 6-month leg.
Virtually every Iranian views keeping uranium enrichment as a matter of national pride. Even liberal-minded Iranians who rarely support the Islamic establishment often find rare common ground with hard-liners over the idea that the country must have self-sufficiency on all levels of its nuclear program.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who helped close the deal in Geneva, claimed Tuesday that from “the first phase to the last phase, ... enrichment on Iranian soil will continue.” Zarif plans on Wednesday to address parliament, which is dominated by conservatives leery of dealings with Washington.
For the Revolutionary Guard, enrichment could well be the tipping point issue.
It could find many reasons to back a long-range nuclear deal that keeps enrichment levels at the initial 5 percent cap agreed in Geneva. But the Guard could easily become a major obstacle if the West presses for more enrichment concessions in the next round.
In a sign of how quickly views can pivot in Iran, Ahmadinejad, the hard-line previous president, fell from the ruling system’s favored son to political outcast in a matter of months after challenging Khamenei’s authority in 2011. Ahmadinejad became such a political target that the parliament speaker filed a criminal case over their feuds.
Ahmadinejad refused to show up for a scheduled hearing Tuesday. A judge opened the case and said Ahmadinejad would be notified of future sessions.