On the US side of those talks, the political situation appears to promise a more hardline approach now that the Republican Party controls both houses of the US Congress and is using that majority to push for greater oversight in the process, plus confirmation that Iran is upholding its obligations. The Republican Party and Congress as a whole have a notably more skeptical view of relations with Iran, compared to the views of the Obama administration.
Obama’s perspective was criticized on Tuesday in an editorial at Front Page Mag, in which the author, Bruce Thornton, asserts that Obama chronically underestimates the theocratic impulses governing Tehran’s decision making process. Thornton quotes Obama as describing Tehran as “strategic” and “not impulsive,” and capable of responding to incentives that are proffered at the diplomatic negotiating table. But Thornton contradicts this by quoting the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran as saying, “Let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.”
“This traditionally Islamic triumphalist goal has determined Iran’s behavior for the last four decades,” Thornton writes. “It explains their support of numerous terrorist groups, their genocidal intentions towards Israel, and their relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons, which would reorder the whole region to Iran’s benefit and mark a giant step towards Iranian global dominance.”
What’s more, The Tower points to the January issue of Commentary Magazine, in which Omri Ceren of the Israel Project claims that current US policy toward Iran and its nuclear program have allowed the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities to go on virtually unchecked while international negotiations provided it with cover and a small measure of legitimacy. Ceren finds that all Western claims about curtailing Iran’s nuclear progress have been exaggerated at best and that in fact the Western powers had merely given up on a number of points in order to keep the talks moving forward.
This perfectly describes the concerns of US Congressmen who are working to change the US approach to these negotiation so as to subject Tehran to enhanced pressure, instead of shielding it from that while allowing it to talk ad infinitum without noticeable consequences for non-compliance.
Some critics of the Iranian regime have suggested that this is exactly what the Iranian negotiators intend to do – to stall for time to whatever extent possible and gain whatever short-term sanctions relief it can without actually curtailing its nuclear program in any serious way. But even if the Rouhani administration is earnest in its pursuit of a deal, it is clear that there are other, similarly powerful elements of the regime that so displeased by the talks that they may yet sabotage them in spite of Western assessments that suggest they are working in Iran’s favor.
Some evidence for this fact was presented by AFP on Tuesday in an article detailing Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s narrow escape from an informal vote of no confidence by the Iranian parliament. In a makeshift session, Zarif was grilled by legislators who suggested that Iran had made too many concessions to the West. This presumably refers to the agreement to maintain current numbers of operation centrifuges during the period of negotiations – one of the only concessions that the regime made.
Eighty-six out of 229 legislators voted against Zarif at the conclusion of the session; 125 supported him, 10 abstained, and eight expressed no preference. These results serve as further confirmation for the weak support that this engagement with the West has among Iranian government officials. But this stands in contrast with the considerable support that the negotiation have among the Iranian people.
This contrast is something that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attempted to emphasize in a speech on Sunday in which he floated the idea of a referendum vote on the nuclear issue. For some, this is indicative of genuine democratic impulses on Rouhani’s part, but others see it as another point on which his public statements are simply not supported by his official acts.
In a CNBC article, Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group is quoted as saying that Rouhani’s mention of a referendum is way of strategically encouraging the support of the Supreme Leader by emphasizing the nuclear talks are popular and that their success or at least their continuation would be a bulwark against further public discontent. Kupchan does not, however, believe that Rouhani’s statement constitutes a serious proposal.
But CNBC adds that the powers that be are still opposed to such popular measures, and that this indicates that the Iranian economy won’t be opening up to the world in the near future. The Telegraph supports this assessment by pointing to one specific reaction to Rouhani’s speech by an influential hardliner, namely General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of the Basij civilian militia. Naqdi accused Rouhani of being a “fake revolutionary” and he emphasized what he considered to be the proper values of the Iranian Revolution, including the destruction of the White House and the State of Israel. Such reactions clearly indicate that for much of the Iranian government, any serious engagement with foreign and specifically Western powers is still anathema.