Celebrations on the streets of Tehran

Hanif Leylabi analyses what the nuclear deal means for politics inside Iran.

The banner reads: "We came out as a show of force against the hardliners."
The banner reads: “We came out as a show of force against the hardliners.”

After two years of nuclear negotiations, the US, European powers, Russia, China and Iran have finally reached an agreement. At the heart of the agreement lies a trade-off between limits on Iran’s nuclear programme in return for the abolition of sanctions. Key points include that Iran will reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by over 98% and remove 2/3 of its centrifuges. In return, all sanctions relating to Iran’s nuclear programme will be lifted and the current arms embargo will be eased significantly.

The talks took place in the context of increasing instability in the Middle East, with western strategists fumbling around in the dark, still reeling from the foreign policy mistakes of the 2000s. Iran on the other hand has increased its influence in the region, with leaders in Baghdad, and Erbil thanking Iran for swift support in the fight against Islamic State. Iran also continues to arm the regime in Damascus.

It remains to be seen how much the nuclear deal will herald a new chapter in political relations between Iran and the west, particularly in the fight against I.S. And, of course the deal still needs to get through whatever obstacles US Congress might create. In this article, I’m going to concentrate on consequences the deal will have on Iranian politics. These are also uncertain, but the possibilities are potentially far-reaching.

Is Iran a dictatorship?

Politics in Iran is often misunderstood and misrepresented in the western media. Iran is not a liberal democracy, but neither is it a dictatorship. Many powers are vested in the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but he does not have absolute power. The events of the last few years have shown just how divergent views are in the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Divergent enough for former prime ministers to have been placed under house arrest and divergent enough for the right wing to be unable to form an alliance in the 2013 Presidential elections.

It is increasingly hard to distinguish between the political factions in Iran as new groupings emerge and splits appear in existing alliances. Simply put, Reformists are those who seek the biggest change to Iranian society but want to work within the system to achieve it. Moderates, like current President Rouhani, are pragmatists who prioritise stability, security and economic growth. They are therefore against extreme policies, be they on the social front or relating to foreign affairs. Conservatives can include moderate conservatives and more extreme conservatives, who have called for the death penalty for reformist leaders. The ultra-hardliners are a relatively small but powerful group centred around Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi. Many ultra-hardliners believe that the democratic elements to the Iranian system are un-Islamic and should be abolished.

The Supreme Leader has to manage these conflicting interest groups whilst grappling with the fact that around 20% of the population abstains wholesale from the democratic process in protest at the Islamic system. Different institutions can also be controlled by different factions. For example the current Presidency and government are controlled by moderates, the parliament is controlled by conservatives and the judiciary by hardliners. Far from having no power, these different institutions are able to exert influence over the Supreme Leader. Under the reformist Presidency of Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005, Iranian society underwent great changes with an explosion of civil society. This was made possible by the combination of a reformist Presidency and reformist parliament elected with landslides that developed out of popular protest movements in the 1990s. In the 2013 election Khamenei deliberately did not endorse any candidate for fear of backing someone who would lose and upsetting relationships with different influencers. In short, he doesn’t get all of his way, all of the time, even if he is certainly the most powerful person in the country, presiding over a confusing network of institutions that are aimed at reinforcing this power.

Who will benefit politically?

The main proponents of a nuclear deal inside of Iran have been reformists and moderates. The main opponents have been hardliners. The Supreme Leader has played a balancing act by giving his full support to the negotiating team, whilst also repeating some of the hardline rhetoric. This way he was able to try and take some of the credit for a deal and also say ‘I told you so’ if it didn’t work out.

Most people, however, will see the Rouhani administration as the force that delivered this deal. In the run up to parliamentary elections next year this could be crucial. Previously, the Guardian Council, which vets candidates, disqualified large number of reformists, making it almost impossible for them to influence legislation. With a popular moderate government, elected in alliance with reformists, it will be much more difficult to block reformists this time around.

There is now the prospect of a presidency and parliament both controlled by moderates and reformists for the first time in around 15 years. There are forces that will do anything to stop this from happening. It is not unlikely that Khamenei who is now 75, will die in the next seven years, especially in the light of recent ill health. The political uncertainty and turmoil that this event will create will be a watershed in the history of the Islamic Republic and hardliners understand that every institution lost to reformists is a blow in what is effectively a war of position. This deal has made their task more difficult as it has boosted the popularity and credibility of the reformist strategy and the confidence of the reform movement.

Crucially, this deal has given hope and confidence to activists on the ground. During the Presidency of Ahmadinejad, many political movements were suppressed, hundreds of activists were imprisoned and dozens killed. Now a deal has been done, these groups will be looking to President Rouhani to make good on his other election promises, including the release of 2009 presidential candidates Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi. In fact, one of the main slogans chanted last night during celebrations in Tehran was demanding the release of political prisoners.

There are many obstacles facing those who seek change in Iran. Not just in the form of political hardliners, but also the Revolutionary Guard which controls up to a third of the Iranian economy and has vast influence across institutions. However the struggles develop, a pre-requisite for progress is a confident mass movement. Whether that movement is backing up a reformist legislature when it amends sexist laws, or whether that movement directly forces the judiciary to release political prisoners through mass protests. The nuclear agreement is an incredible victory for this movement and that’s why its slogans dominated celebrations last night.

Whatever the geopolitical significance of the nuclear deal, it is a victory for all of those inside Iran who want to turn it in a new direction. It undermines those forces of reaction who dictate how women should dress in Tehran, and those who are most committed to propping up a brutal dictator in Damascus. There will be many tough days ahead, but Iranians now face those days with a spring in their steps.


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