Nuclear Accord Intensifies Power Struggle In Tehran
28 July 2015
By Amir Taheri
It is too early to know how or even if the deal announced on Iran's nuclear
program will be implemented in the way it claims. The deal is a wish list by
the two sides, Iran and the P5+1 group of powers led by the United States.
The 159-page wish list becomes applicable after a series of often tortuous
steps, including approval by the US Congress and the passage of a resolution
by the United Nations Security Council. Its full application could take up to
15 years at which time President Barack Obama would be little more than a
The White House is already engaged in intense haggling with US Senators to
secure a favorable vote in exchange for toughening certain aspects of the
deal against Iran. For its part Iran has so far refused to publish an
official Persian version of the wish list. The foreign ministry has described
the existing text as "unofficial". It has even labelled the Persian
translation of the text's appendix as "unofficial."
It is not clear which text would form the basis of decision-making for the
"Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei who has so far refused to endorse or reject the
deal although he has thanked the Iranian negotiating team for their "brave
Khamenei has been studying English for more than 20 years and may be able to
work with the English text. However, he would need a Persian text to fully
appreciate the technical terms used and the intricacies of the lawyerly
Also, it is not normal for a country to embark on a major policy change
without understanding its implications in its own language. Was the deal
submitted to the Islamic Majlis, the ersatz parliament, in English rather
than Persian? In any case, the official foreign language of Iranian diplomacy
is French, not English.
Confusion about the text does not stop there.
The summaries published by the Islamic Republic in Arabic are all designed to
bolster the claim that Tehran has scored a great diplomatic victory, rubbing
America's nose in dust. Even the daily Kayhan, reflecting Khamenei‘s views,
uses the forked tongue. Its Persian version remains strongly doubtful, if not
outright hostile to President Hassan Rouhani's "Fath Al-Mobin" (brilliant
victory). In its Arabic edition, however, the paper beats the drums about
having "humbled the Great Satan" and forced the big powers to recognize the
Islamic Republic as regional leader.
"Does this mean that, in the eyes of the mullahs, Arabs don't deserve to know
the truth?" asks Reza Tabesh, a Majlis member.
Worse still, the draft of the Security Council resolution, published last
Wednesday and taken up yesterday, offers yet another twist to the plot if
only by keeping some key issues in the shadows.
There is no doubt that the declared "deal" has divided the Khomeinist ruling
elite and, beyond it, society at large.
Despite Rouhani's failure to organize "spontaneous mass celebrations" of the
deal there is no doubt that a majority of Iranians support an accord that
promises a lifting of sanctions. Iranians are tired of being seen by the
outside world as fanatics and terrorists. A deal that might restore some of
the respect they enjoyed before the mullahs took power would be welcome. Some
also hope that normalization with the West, especially the US, could trigger
a process that might end in the demise of the Islamic Republic.
"When the head of the camel enters the tent, the rest is sure to follow,"
says Azar Ahmad-Beigi, a human rights activist. "We should welcome any move
that might increase contact with countries that respect human rights rather
than places such hellholes as North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe."
In any case, the announced deal has opened a new chapter in the ideological
war that has been tearing the Khomeinist movement apart for more than a
decade. Disagreement over what has been agreed to is the first element in the
"Shouldn't Iranians be told, in their own language, what has been decided on
their behalf?" demands a Hamid Rasa'i, a member of the Islamic Majlis.
The roots of the ideological fight among rival factions go deeper.
Some want Iran to close the chapter of the revolution and reorganize itself
as a normal nation-state in a world of nation-states.
"We cannot forget that this is a country with real people who want a real
life," says sociologist Hormoz Massoudi. "All nations that have experienced a
revolution end up closing that chapter at some point, and restart their life
as normal member of the international community."
Sadeq Ziba Kalam, an advisor to President Rouhani, puts the same idea in a
different way. "No one has given us a mission to export revolution and fight
Israel and America," he says. "Our primary task must be to deal with the
needs of our people and solve their problems."
Such analysis, however, is anathema to supporters of "permanent revolution"
who fear that any attempt at normalization might spell the end of the Islamic
Republic as an ideological state.
"There are those who want to keep the term Islamic Republic but empty it of
its content," says Hojat Al-Islam Muhammad-Mahdi Fatemipour. "President
Rouhani is moving in a direction which, far from being a faith-based option,
is an American dream."
Fatemipour even accuses Rouhani of "falsifying the basic narrative of Islam
from the appointment of the Prophet to the disappearance of the Hidden Imam
and his Return. He is celebrating a truce with Satan."
For ideologues any normalization with the outside world is tantamount to a
betrayal of the revolution.
"Why are they celebrating?" demands Sadeq Faramarzi, leader of the Muslim
Students Association in Tehran. "One should celebrate the victories of
resistance not its retreat even if they are only tactical."
Those who follow Iranian politics closely recognize the fault lines within a
regime that is split between a desire to cling to its militant idealism on
all issues and the necessity of compromise with reality.
Supporters of normalization could be found at all levels, especially within
the civil service, the academic world and the business community.
"Iran is the last major untapped market in the world," says Farhad Darwish, a
businessman. "Opening to the outside world is good not only for our people
but also for global economy."
That view finds strong echoes even within the small circle of economic
policymakers around President Rouhani many of whom hold PhDs from American
universities and are heavily influenced by market-based economics.
What the military elite think remains an enigma.
Some generals make public statements in support of the usual slogans, wiping
Israel off the map, destroying the US, and creating a global Muslim
superpower led by Iran. However, the entire military establishment is also
heavily involved in business networks that would benefit immensely if the
normalization strategy was genuinely adopted.
The military elite are tempted by something else: the prospect of access to
modern American-made weapons. The recent increase in the military budget,
around 23 percent, is partly based on the calculation that the Islamic
Republic would place large orders for arms within the next five years.
Paradoxically, the concept of normalization seems to be also popular among
the clergy, a majority of whom have maintained their distance from the
regime. Their fear is that the current ideology may end up inciting Iranians
against religion itself.
"You cannot send people to heavens by force," Rouhani said in a recent
speech. "It is not the task of the government to force people to comply with
their religious duties."
Ayatollah Hassan Aqamiri puts the same idea in a different way. "An angry
Islam with a dour face puts people off religion," he says. "A true Muslim
society emphasizes peace, forgiveness and understanding."
Opponents of the clergy claim that the "moderate" voices now being heard
indicate a tactical retrenchment.
"The mullahs are afraid of what is coming," says Massoud Honarmandi, a
businessman. "They are trying to hedge their bets. If the regime survives
they will keep their privileges. If it falls, they will claim they had warned
By next March the two views of Iran's future will be put to the test in two
elections, for the Islamic Majlis and the Assembly of Experts which chooses
the "Supreme Guide."
The Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani faction has promised Western powers it will win
both elections if the nuclear accord is implemented and helps revive the
Islamic Republic's anemic economy.
However, much depends on who controls the electoral process.
Khamenei and his faction still have the power to veto any would-be candidates
and, after the election, cancel any results they do not like. Their control
of the military and security apparatus also enables them to "arrange" the
results as desired.
Nevertheless, the "normalizers" are in a stronger position than any time
since the late 1990s. Their control of a good part of the government
machinery, much of the national budget and a network of business interests
might give them an advantage in many areas.
Guessing Iran's future behavior is always hazardous.
However, one thing is certain: Whether or not the announced nuclear deal
actually materializes, the power struggle in Tehran is going to intensify
until the showdown next spring.
That faces foreign powers interested in Iran with a dilemma: To help the "normalizers"
win more ground in Tehran or to wait until the outcome of next spring's
electoral duel is known.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London
and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.