Iran’s hardliners reluctantly support the nuclear deal for now

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 29 Oct 2019

TRT World spoke to Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the former top Iranian diplomat on the country’s nuclear issue. He believes that both hardliners and moderates support the nuclear deal for now, but much depends on what the EU will do to save the agreement.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a news conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 26, 2019. ( Brendan McDermid / Reuters Archive )

With the unilateral US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, tensions between Tehran and Washington have increased despite attempts by Europe to convince the two parties to resolve their differences. 

While US President Donald Trump is getting a lot of heat at home for his withdrawal, in Tehran, Iranians — be they hardliners or moderates — appear to have reached a consensus over how the country should react to Washington on both the nuclear deal and the issue of nuclear energy generally. 

“In Iran, there is a unanimous voice for nuclear energy. There is a support for the continuation of the peaceful use of nuclear energy. There is also an overall support for talks and negotiations,” said Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s former top diplomat to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which was instrumental in mediating talks between Iran and the US and other countries. 

The 2015, the Iran agreement created a mechanism called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for easing economic sanctions against the country. 

While European capitals and Tehran are negotiating hard to keep the agreement alive, without the involvement of the US, which has imposed harsh sanctions against Iran, it’s not clear how the nuclear deal could be implemented 

Soltanieh, Iran’s former top nuclear negotiator, who is close to the spiritual leader and conservative circles, said so-called hardliners were aiming to balance caution with support for the country's moderate President Hassan Rouhani. 

Iran's former Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh waits for the start of the IAEA board of governors meeting at the International Center in Vienna, Austria on March 4, 2013.(AP Archive)

“There are concerns about to what extent we should compromise. This is the question. The degree of compromise is an issue for different groups, different people including intellectuals and different political parties [in Iran],” Soltanieh told TRT World. 

According to Soltanieh, from the very beginning of the talks the most important issue for Iranian elites has been “how much we should trust the United States”. 

Once-warm relations between Iran and the United States soured after an anti-monarchy coalition led by powerful Shia cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, overthrew the Shah, installing a revolutionary government in 1979. 

For four decades, Western powers and the US have hoped that revolutionary Iran will fall apart at some point under severe sanctions. 

But it has not happened. Instead of standing down in response to Western sanctions, a now bolder Iran has established an even greater network in the Middle East and Central Asia, running its mainly Shia proxies from Afghanistan to Lebanon.

Former president Barack Obama tried to reestablish ties with Tehran, using the nuclear deal as part of a carrot and stick approach. But Trump rejected that tactic and right after he came to power, he dismantled it completely. 

President Donald Trump shows a signed Presidential Memorandum, with which the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal on May 8, 2018.(AP Archive)

“The focal point in this whole process was whether we could trust the West, particularly the United States. Most of those opponents - or let’s say some people whom in the Western media are called hardliners - echoed the concern during the negotiations that we cannot trust the United States,” Soltanieh observed. 

According to Soltanieh, as a result, Iran’s supposed hardliners have told Rouhani and his allies to be careful not to give up the country’s rights because nuclear energy is Tehran’s “inalienable right”.

Soltanieh explained that so-called hardliners had warned that the US would not adhere to its pledge. 

But the team around Rouhani to some extent believed that the Obama administration was determined to have a good deal and was acting in good faith to reach a deal that was acceptable for everybody, despite some misgivings.

When Trump reversed Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, it was obvious that there was also internal tension within American between Republicans and Democrats about the nuclear deal, Soltanieh observed. 

The agreement became the victim of an internal fight between the two parties in the United States, which was not “expected” by Iran’s negotiation team, Soltanieh added. 

The opponents of the deal kept quiet as the agreement was approved by parliament and endorsed by the supreme leader, respecting the democratic process and the deal itself until Trump withdrew from the agreement. 

But Trump’s decision opened a new chapter in the US-Iran relations, making supposed hardliners question the wisdom of having a deal with Washington in the first place. 

“After the US withdrawal from JCPOA, those people [Iranian opponents of the deal] said ‘Look! We said you should not trust the United States. Now you see the result of trusting the US. It’s proved that we were right,’” Soltanieh explained. 

In his opinion, at this stage, the majority of Iranians, whether they supported the deal or not, have come to the conclusion that they should not trust the US.

The question among Iranians has therefore moved on to what to do next, Soltanieh pointed out. 

“Some people say ‘enough is enough. Let’s get out of this agreement.’ But the government and some other people say that ‘Let’s reduce our commitment step by step with the hope that the EU can compensate the negative effects of the US and the sanctions,’” Soltanieh said. 

From left, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson come together in May to keep the nuclear deal alive despite President Donald Trump's vehement opposition.(AP Archive)

If the EU can not circumvent sanctions, Iran will eventually stop participating in the deal, Soltanieh said. But if the EU offers some kind of compensation, Iran will still be in the deal, he added. 

“Iran has already exercised strategic patience for one year. We did not do anything for one year after Trump decided to withdraw. Then, finally, we decided to gradually reduce some of the commitments according to the rules of the JCPOA. But we are still in the agreement.” 

Soltanieh said much of the deal’s future depends on what the EU will do. 

He personally thinks that Iran has compromised too much for the sake of the deal, putting too much trust in the US. Because of the agreement, Iran has been subjected to the most robust and intrusive inspection regime, to which no other country in history has ever been subjected, covering one fifth of all inspections in the world, according to Soltanieh. 

“It’s too much for us. What are we gaining? Nothing. But we are also subjected to sanctions. This can not continue,” he said. 

“If the situation gets worse, it means we are not gaining anything, but pressure and robust  inspections, much beyond the obligations under the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty for Nuclear Weapons] are still in place. Then, I will not rule out the possibility that parliament might ask for the withdrawal from the NPT,” Soltanieh concluded.