Thanks to one of those ironies that adds spice to history, the latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 powers, led by the United States, took place at the Hotel Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, Switzerland. This is the same palace where the victorious powers of the First World War finalized the burial of the Ottoman Empire and carved up the Middle East in the Lausanne Treaty of 1923.
However, as we know history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. This time, what came out of Beau-Rivage was not a treaty but a diplomatic dog’s dinner in the shape of a number of contradictory press releases and statements by the participants. (Last week President Hassan Rouhani asked the Iranian media not to speak of the “Lausanne Accords” but rather to call it the “Swiss talks,” so as not to recall the events of 1923.)
A week after President Obama announced his “great achievement” and claimed that he had clinched a deal with Iran over its controversial nuclear project, all sides are toning down their initial jubilant tones.
Right from the start Iran had claimed that no agreement had been reached and that talks about an accord would resume soon in the hope of finalizing a draft agreement by June 30.
The fact that the US, Iran and the European Union issued different and, at times, contradictory statements at the end of marathon talks has led to all sorts of speculations.
In its statement, the US State Department claimed that an agreement had already been reached and that all that remained was to work out the details surrounding its implementation. It used the phrase “Iran has agreed” 18 times. The Iranian text, however, did not use any of the seven words that the Persian language has for different kinds of agreement.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused the Obama administration of using “spin” to hoodwink the US Congress and the American public. “They have their domestic problems,” he said on Tehran TV.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry Political Director Hamid Baeedi-Nezhad, who was part of the Iranian team in Lausanne, went even further: “The Americans have their narrative, and we have our narrative,” he said.
“For example, the Americans say there will be no uranium enrichment in Fordo; we say enrichment in Fordo will continue. The Americans say the heavy water plutonium reactor in Arak will be destroyed; we say it will be redesigned and upgraded,” he added.
For their part, the Americans insist that their “narrative” is the correct one and that if Iranians are denying it the reason is their fear of domestic opposition inside the Khomeinist establishment in Tehran.
The prevalent assumption by most analysts is that the only opposition to a nuclear deal comes from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Republican majority in the US Congress and Senate and, perhaps, some always unnamed Arab states.
The truth, however, is that there is strong opposition to any deal inside the Khomeinist establishment itself, not to mention broader Iranian society.
This opposition comes in at last five forms.
The first form represents those who are opposed to any agreement with the United States which they refer to as “The Great Satan” or “World Arrogance.”
They say that even though President Obama has now abandoned all previous US demands as well as the demands of six UN Security Council resolutions on Iran’s nuclear project, the US still has no right to grant or deny Iran’s legitimate right to build its nuclear industry, or even build a bomb.
“The Americans have no right to tell us what to do and what not to do,” says Hojat Al-Islam, Hamid Rasa’i, a member of Iran’s Islamic Majlis (parliament), and whose constituency is Tehran.
“How could we allow the number-one enemy of our revolution to decide what policies we adopt?” he asked.
One of the organizers of the annual “Death to America” conference in Tehran goes further by claiming that the Khomeinist revolution’s ultimate aim is the destruction of the United States just as the Afghan Mujahideen destroyed the Soviet Union.
“Even unconditional surrender by the Americans is not enough,” says Basij Mustadafin [The Organization for the Mobilization of the Oppressed] Commander Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi.
The leading tribune for that form of opposition is the Tehran daily newspaper Kayhan which is reportedly produced under the supervision from the office of the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei.
Kayhan’s director and chief editorialist Hossein Shariatmadari presents an analysis of global politics that recalls that of the “Gang of Four”—the radical group within the Chinese Communist Party during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.
Though Shariatmadari uses uncannily similar terminology, he bases his world vision on the claim that, in a clash of messianic dialectics, mankind is now faced with two choices: life in submission to the US as global hegemon, or rallying to the banner of the Khomeinist revolution in Iran in an epoch-making struggle to create a new Islamic world led by the Islamic Republic.
Thus any compromise between the Islamic Republic and the US, even if Iran does get everything it wants on the nuclear issue, would be undesirable if not dangerous because it would cause “confusion about the battle between Right and Wrong.”
Beyond that ideological opposition to the Lausanne scenario, another group opposes the outline of a possible agreement as depicted by the various press releases last week.
That group has been labeled “Del-Wapasan” which could be roughly translated as “Anxious Hearts.”
In the past year, the group has held a series of conferences in Tehran and other major cities trying to mobilize opposition to “excessive concessions” by the Rafsanjani faction, of which President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif are members.
Rouhani has attacked the group as “a bunch of illiterate moaners” and “naysayers.”
A leading member of the group, Majlis member Ali-Reza Zakani, expressed concern that Iran might freeze its nuclear program in a way that would make it a meaningless but very expensive toy while “the other side” continues to wield the Damocles sword of sanctions for decades, if not forever.
In a statement last week, Zakani wrote about “12 red-lines” that Iranian negotiators should observe if and when a final agreement is reached within the next three months.
The problem is that observing those “red-lines” would mean total surrender by the US and its allies in exchange for absolutely no concessions by the Islamic Republic.
Concern that the US might cheat on its promises is a key theme with the Anxious Hearts.
“Mr. Zarif says that sanctions will be lifted the day an agreement is signed,” writes Muhammad Safari in his editorial in the Siasate Rooz [Today’s Politics] daily newspaper.
“Yet, in the US State Department statement there is absolutely no reference to the instant lifting of all sanctions. The only mention of sanctions relief is based on reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA],” he added.
Muhammad-Hussein Qadiri-Abyaneh, a strategic expert in Tehran, dismisses Rouhani’s suggestion that Iran has scored a great diplomatic victory.
“Even if what we hear is true, any deal would be like when we accepted UN Security Council Resolution 598 that ended the war with Iraq [the Iran–Iraq War] but gave us nothing,” he said.
“That is certainly no cause for celebration,” he added.
While Ismail Kowthari, a member of the Islamic Majlis, echoes that analysis.
“The US has achieved all its objectives while we failed in securing our key objective which is the lifting of sanctions. Rouhani and his team have wasted 18 months of our nation’s time and ended up submitting to what the Western powers wanted,” he said.
Another Majlis member, Mehdi Kouchakzadeh accuses Zarif of “betraying the Constitution of the Islamic Republic.” While during a question-and-answer session with the foreign minister at the Majlis‘s Committee on National Security last week, Kuchak-Zadeh raised a poster that read: “‘Any agreement might lead to foreign domination on the nation’s natural resources, economy, culture and armed forces is forbidden’ – Article 153 of the Constitution.”
The Anxious Hearts also oppose any form of inspection of sites with any military connections. That would cover 14 of Iran’s known 17 nuclear sites.
Even then, they would only agree to inspections by the IAEA on the condition that the inspectors are fully approved by Iran and the imposition of strict rules on the inspection, which would also take place under Iranian supervision.
A Turkmenchay reoccurance?
The third form of opposition comes from those who fear that the US and its allies want to draw the Islamic Republic into a cobweb of relations that—because they are more powerful compared to Iran—would lead to their domination of Iranian politics.
According to the group, the US is therefore backing the Rafsanjani faction in the hope that it will win next year’s elections for the Majlis, as well as the Assembly of Experts which is responsible for appointing the “Supreme Guide.”
There is a long history in Iranian parties of factions or groups seizing control, with the help of foreign powers. In the early 19th century a faction within the Qajar establishment made a deal with Tsarist Russia to assert its power. The deal took the form of the Turkmenchay Treaty which is regarded by Iranians as the blackest moment in their 3,000-year history. The treaty ceded all of Iran’s territories in Transcaucasia to Russia and put substantial parts of Iranian policy under joint British and Russian supervision.
The fact that the mullahs played a leading role in producing the Turkmenchay disaster has enabled some to draw a parallel between what happened then and what the mullahs are trying to do today.
Some commentators in Iran have dubbed the Lausanne declarations, “Lausanne-Chay,” a wordplay that recalls the Turkmenchay Treaty.
“The whole thing is a trick to lead the Islamic Republic towards secularism. The name of the Islamic Republic will be maintained, but it would be meaningless. We would become part of the American bid’ah [heresy],” claims Hojat Al-Islam Mostafa’i.
Manouchehr Mohammadi, a former Deputy Foreign Minister, says the fact that there are at least three versions of what happened in Lausanne indicates that “someone is up to some tricks.”
“If our negotiators claim that they are strong enough to challenge the foreign ministers of six great powers, plus the European Union foreign policy chief, why are they afraid of coming . . . to tell us what really happened,” he says.
“If you convince us, we would be ready to applaud you,” he added.
Dr. Mohammadi, who is now a university teacher, suggests that Iran should adopt “an aggressive diplomacy” rather than try to curry favor with a moribund Obama administration.
“We are trampling the Americans under our feet in the Middle East,” he claims. “Our Supreme Guide saved Bashar al-Assad from demise with a single sentence. and the Americans put their tail between their legs and ran away.”
A secret deal?
As for the fourth form of opposition to the Lausanne scenario, this comes from those who fear that the end of the crisis and the lifting of sanctions will consolidate the Khomeinist regime in its worst version and prolong its existence.
Some commentators believe that the Rafsanjani faction has already concluded a secret agreement with the Obama administration. They fear that Rafsanjani hopes to become Iran’s Deng Xiaoping; that is to say the man who closes the chapter of revolution and opens a new chapter as an ally of the US, thereby helping to create a new balance of power in the Middle East.
This would be the “win-win” scheme that Rouhani has promised. The US would win by completing its retreat from the Middle East while the Islamic Republic wins by becoming the regional “superpower,” something that Obama has already indicated.
In an editorial last Friday, Raja News—which is close to the radical faction in Tehran—rejected Zarif’s claim that the statement issued in Lausanne was nothing more than a press release with no legal value.
“Did we need nine days of negotiations to produce a press release,” the editorial asks. “Or were they working on a veritable treaty which has not been made public?”
Suspicion that there may be a secret deal has prompted some commentators and former officials to demand a full report to be submitted to the Majlis, or at least for Rouhani and/or Zarif to participate in public debates on what happened in Lausanne.
One critic is Abulhassan Banisadr, the first President of the Islamic Republic, now in exile in France.
“The term national interest under today’s political system only means the interest of the ruling clerics,” Banisadr said in an interview last week.
“Instead, I use the term national rights which would observe the rights and interests of all Iranians in general.”
Banisadr describes Iran’s policies as “catastrophic” and claims that the people of Iran have not been told the truth about what is going on and what is involved in the nuclear issue.
The former Iranian president also claims that “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei has decided to “open up” to the US and world powers in order to avoid any opening at home.
US wooing Iran’s military
The fifth form of opposition has come from Iran’s military and security establishments. They fear that a deal on the nuclear issue, which is certain to involve the inspection of military sites, would inevitably lead to contact between the Iranian military and Western powers, notably the US. Thus, the US might use the cover of inspections to forge relations with elements of Iran’s military and security organs that might be tempted to seize power for themselves. After all, the most frequent method of regime change in the Middle East over the past 150 years has been military coup.
Thus, many in Iran fear the Obama administration could help produce a situation in which the alternative to the rule of the mullahs would be a military regime—setting Iran’s 150-year old hopes of democracy back yet again.
“The Iranian military would love a deal in which they would gain greater influence in domestic politics while building an empire in the Middle East,” says analyst Hamid Zomorrodi, a former naval officer.
“They would also love access to the best and latest weapons, things that only the Americans can provide,” he added.
The US and allies used the same tactic of inspections in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and managed to “recruit” a number of senior Iraqi military figures, including two of the despots’ sons-in-law.
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gen. Hamid-Reza Moghadamfar claims that the deal could even give Israeli military access to Iran’s “sensitive sites” and an opportunity to get to know Iranian commanders.
“We have concerns that must be addressed about the additional protocols of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and unannounced inspections and the possibility of Israeli and American spies gaining access to our national secrets,” he warned.
The tone of the debate over Lausanne has been passionate and, at times, even acrimonious. It is clear that while Rafsanjani’s faction, thanks to its control of state-owned media, is able to speak the loudest, there is deep grass-root suspicion about hidden agendas both in Tehran and Washington.
However, occasionally, one also finds less angry analyses by individuals who regard the Lausanne exercise with concern but do not wish to turn the issue into another battleground for factional feuds.
One such analysis is penned by Dr.Muhammad Sadiq Kushki, a professor at Tehran University. While he is initially sympathetic to the Rafsanjani faction, his analysis argues that the faction is taking risks with Iran’s national interests in order to secure advantages in domestic politics.
Leaving aside those who have publicly opposed the Lausanne statements, what increasingly interests analysts is the silence of important segments of Iranian establishment and society in general towards the deal.
“What matters is not wishful-thinking by our officials,” Kushki writes. “What matters is what the Western side wants to do about sanctions.”
General Hassan Firouzabadi, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, issued a laconic statement expressing the hope that the Lausanne talks would lead to a recognition of “all of Iran’s rights.” Hardly a ringing endorsement.
Other military commanders, including the top brass of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have also been notable by their silence. People who are often all over TV screens and newspaper columns commenting on everything under the sun are suddenly nowhere to be found.
The Grand Ayatollahs of Qom, including those on government payroll, have also remained silent. Last week, pro-Rafsanjani media claimed that one of the grand ayatollahs, Nasser Makarem Shirazi, had praised the Lausanne “outcome” and thanked the Iranian diplomatic team, led by Zarif. However, Shirazi’s office quickly rushed to deny the claim.
So far the only leading religious figure to have congratulated Iran on the Lausanne talks is Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church (More significantly, at the time of writing this, even Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not said anything on the outcome of the talks.)
Tehran Mayor Muhammad-Baqer Qalibaf has published an op-ed hedging his bets. He has not welcomed the result of the Lausanne talks but has invited everyone not to use the subject to “create divisions.” Again, not an endorsement.
The only cleric who has been praising the “great victory of Islam in Lausanne” is Rafsanjani who has issued similar statements on a daily basis, trying to prop up his protégé Rouhani at a difficult time.
Former President Mohammad Khatami, also a mid-ranking cleric, is nowhere to be found. Although this is perhaps because his name, voice and picture are banned in the Iranian media.
Another former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has expressed his own view in an original manner. Ahmadinejad was attending the burial service of a former official when a reporter asked him on his Instagram about his views on Lausanne.
“Have you prayed for the dearly departed?” Ahmadinejad answered.
Tehran media claim that Ahmadinejad’s reference to the “dearly departed” was not the former official, but rather Iran’s expensive nuclear project.
Majlis Speaker Ali Ardeshir Larijani, head of a powerful clan with good contacts in the West and particularly Great Britain, has also thanked the Iranian negotiating team but carefully avoided endorsing the reported outcome.
Larijani’s younger brother, Sadeq, is a mid-ranking mullah who acts as Islamic Chief Justice. Though usually a talkative fellow, Sadeq, too, has been uncharacteristically taciturn.
In the country as a whole the mood is one of cautious expectation. People are tired of sanctions and economic hardship. However, they do not seem to have adopted a clear position on the Lausanne scenario, partly because of contradictory accounts by Tehran and Washington. They are concerned that both sides may be “arranging the facts” to deceive their respective publics.