Iran Is Scared of America’s Hardliners
Iranians have voted out opponents of the nuclear deal. But they’re still worried the United States won’t live up to its side of the bargain.
By Reese Erlich
Foreign Policy, March 4, 2016
TEHRAN – In the aftermath of the nuclear agreement, the debates in the United States and Iran have become a mirror image of each other. As some officials in Washington worry that the Iranian government will use the deal to secretly develop nuclear weapons, in Tehran, Americans are the nefarious party – intent on slapping sanctions back on Iran at the first opportunity.
“Iran has done its part,” said Foad Izadi, an associate professor of international and world studies at the University of Tehran. Since the agreement was signed last July, Congress has introduced dozens of bills “trying to torpedo [it]. Senator Ted Cruz says he will stop it. Obama won’t be president in one year.”
Although Iranians generally remain wary of the deal, outright opposition remains a minority view. The Iranian hardliners who opposed the nuclear deal lost decisively in parliamentary elections last Friday. Reformists, centrists, and independent conservatives won all 30 parliamentary seats in Tehran, and several hardline opponents of the deal also lost their seats in the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with selecting the next supreme leader if 76-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dies or resigns.
Hardliners opposed the accord last year, claiming it violated Iranian sovereignty by allowing intrusive inspections of Iranian military sites, said Mehrdad Khadir, editor of the Voice of Youth newspaper. But since Khamenei supported the deal, they “don’t express their opposition like before,” Khadir said, “They continue their criticism of the accord but in a calmer manner.”
Hardliners also oppose cooperation with the West on issues such as foreign investment, and the wars in Syria and Iraq. They fear that the cooperation with the U.S. in negotiating the nuclear accord would lead to selling out Iran’s other regional interests.
“They don’t want the nuclear agreement to be a model that will be repeated in other areas,” Khadir said.
Some hardliners are warily watching the U.S. presidential election play out, and are making the case that a new administration in Washington could reimpose sanctions. Hardliners “are waiting for the U.S. elections so that if a Republican with a harsh view comes to power, they could also talk tough,” Khadir said.
Most Iranians are concerned about who will come to power in the United States next year, according to Izadi. A phone poll conducted by the University of Maryland showed 62 percent of Iranians don’t trust the United States to implement the agreement.
Iranian fears that the U.S. government will renege on the deal, Izadi says, are rooted in the fact that political support for the agreement in the United States is tenuous. He points out that while Iran’s parliament favored the agreement, a majority of the U.S. Senate opposed it. Obama was able to implement the accord because the Senate failed to muster the two-thirds vote needed to override a presidential veto.
“The hardliners are a minority in Iran’s establishment,” said Izadi. “That is not the case in the United States. Obama is a minority.”
Popular opinion in both countries reflects the same disparity. The University of Maryland poll showed 72 percent of Iranians support the agreement. A Gallup poll released in February showed only 30 percent of Americans favor the deal, with 57 percent opposed.
Yet Iranian analysts express cautious optimism that both sides will continue to implement the agreement. For Iran, the nuclear deal has eliminated the most damaging sanctions and allowed it to concentrate on improving its battered economy. For the United States, it eliminated the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons and generally lowered tensions with the country.
“At the moment, the U.S. administration has no vested interest in wrecking the accord,” said Seyed Mohammad Marandi an associate professor of international and world studies at the University of Tehran.
Even if hardliners in the United States seek to abrogate the agreement, he argues, European powers will be reluctant to re-impose sanctions. Germany, France, and Italy are all preparing massive foreign investments in Iran, he argued, that they will be reluctant to cancel.
“If the U.S. wants to impose new sanctions, it will isolate the U.S.,” he said.
Meanwhile, the electoral defeat of hardliners has opened a wider discussion in Iran about the merits of nuclear power. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continually expanded Iran’s enrichment facilities, making development of nuclear power an issue of national pride. As a right-wing populist, Ahmadinejad used the nuclear issue to stoke Iranian nationalism and call for self-reliance.
That idea has been discredited in the eyes of many reformists. Farzad Yazdoneh, a 25-year-old student, said he supports President Hassan Rouhani’s policies and would like to see an end to nuclear power, which is both expensive and unsafe.
“Iran is only pursuing nuclear energy because of regional rivalry,” he said. “Iran does not need nuclear energy, because other sources are cheaper.”
Reese Erlich received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for his coverage of Iran.