Iranian Opinion Divided Over New Nuclear Talks in Geneva

Iran’s establishment has split into rival camps in the run-up to tomorrow’s resumption of nuclear talks, and no one has a better view of the divide than the Islamic republic’s chief negotiator.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif checked into the hospital last week suffering from stress he blamed on conservative newspapers at home. Zarif said he was misquoted as part of a backlash against President Hassan Rouhani’s drive to promote U.S.-Iranian reconciliation at the United Nations last month.

At Tehran University last week, Friday prayers turned into a demonstration against détente. The chants of “Death to America” were encouraged by prayer leader Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami. “As long as there is American evil, this slogan will endure across the nation,” Khatami said, according to Fars news agency. The previous week, the imam had quelled similar chants.

As negotiators in Geneva prepare for a two-day session, the first top-level contact between American and Iranian leaders in decades has led to surging expectations for an accord over the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. The public argument in Iran over the U.S. trip, with newspapers close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei weighing in against a thaw, suggests that Rouhani may have limited room to make concessions.

“Rouhani is talking about making foreign policy based on national interest rather than based on ideology,” said Mohammad Javad Akbarein, a former Iranian cleric now based in Paris. “Conservatives like Khatami are linking anti-Americanism to the regime’s own survival. They want to create extra red lines.”

Economic Promises

Rouhani was elected in June after campaigning on a pledge to ease Iran’s global isolation and repair an economy squeezed by sanctions. The U.S. and its European allies have tightened financial and trade curbs to curtail a nuclear program that they say may be cover for building nuclear weapons.

Iran, which says it’s developing the technology solely for peaceful purposes, has seen oil output slump to the lowest in more than two decades under the sanctions, while inflation surged above 40 percent and the currency plunged.

The country’s officials outlined their position during the last weekend before the talks. Abbas Araghchi, deputy foreign minister, said on state TV yesterday that Iran won’t ship out any of its stockpile of enriched uranium. “We will negotiate about the form, size and level of enrichment, but transporting the enriched stockpile out of the country is one of our red lines,” he said.

Iran’s Pitch

Negotiators plan to put forward a three-step proposal at the talks, according to the Iranian Students News Agency, which includes seeking a commitment from the so-called P5+1 group to recognize its right to enrich by the end of the negotiations.

Zarif said he’ll seek to avoid a “resultless process,” according to a post on his Facebook page. “Iran’s negotiating will try to change the situation of the past six years that didn’t lead to any agreement,” he wrote.

After addressing the UN last month and pledging to work for a diplomatic solution, Rouhani spoke by phone on Sept. 27 with U.S. President Barack Obama, the first time the leaders of the two nations had spoken directly since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Israeli Concern

Israel, which along with the U.S. has threatened military action to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons if diplomacy doesn’t work, has urged Obama not to take Rouhani’s promise of a deal at face value. The Iranian leader has stuck to the line taken by his predecessors that Iran is entitled to enrich uranium and won’t give up the right.

“The window for diplomacy is cracking open,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech yesterday to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. Still, “we are mindful of the need for certainty, transparency, and accountability in the process.”

“No deal is better than a bad deal,” Kerry said.

After Rouhani’s return, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said the president had made a “tactical mistake” in talking to Obama. In his first public comments, Khamenei, Iran’s top decision-maker, gave only qualified support to Rouhani’s diplomatic efforts.

‘Not Appropriate’

“Some of the things that happened during the New York trip were not appropriate,” Khamenei wrote on his website. “Because we believe the U.S. government is untrustworthy, arrogant and irrational, and one that reneges on its promises.”

Khamenei had said he wasn’t opposed to direct talks with the U.S. to resolve the nuclear standoff, though he was not optimistic. In a speech on Oct. 5, he called the U.S. “untrustworthy, arrogant, illogical and a promise-breaker.”

“The supreme leader had approved nuclear diplomacy,” said Ali Vaez, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Istanbul. “He hasn’t approved a rapprochement with the U.S.”

The signs of a backlash against Rouhani’s diplomacy strengthened on Oct. 8 with a front-page article in the Kayhan newspaper, which is considered close to Khamenei.

Nuclear Diplomacy

It reported that Zarif had told lawmakers in a closed-door session that the Rouhani-Obama telephone conversation was a mistake. Kayhan also quoted Zarif as saying that his own meeting with Kerry had been too long.

In an unprecedented move, Zarif posted his complaint against the newspaper on his Facebook page, denying the veracity of the article. Then he checked himself into a hospital complaining of back pain.

The objections from conservatives don’t necessarily mean that Khamenei is against the diplomatic initiative, said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution, a public policy organization in Washington.

“Zarif is playing the role of the victim to gain sympathy,” she said. “Zarif came to New York and met everyone, and presumably that was with a nod from the Supreme Leader.”

There was support for Zarif and Rouhani from a section of the Iranian media. Arman and Aftab newspapers quoted him on the front page as saying he wouldn’t let domestic opponents ruin the “great victory in New York,” a reference to Iran’s diplomatic outreach after years of being treated as a pariah under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

For critics of Rouhani and Zarif, the handshake and friendly words with U.S. leaders may be harder to stomach than anything that happens this week or at subsequent nuclear talks, said Alireza Nader, an analyst in Washington for the Santa Monica, California-based Rand Corp..

“They may support some degree of flexibility on the nuclear issues,” Nader said. “But to suddenly not view the U.S. as the great enemy may make them quite uncomfortable.”