The JCPOA and the Supreme Leader’s masterful politics

The way in which Iran's Supreme Leader got the nuclear deal through domestically has high comedic value, which is more than can be said for the deal itself which isn't funny at all

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Potkin Azarmehr
On 19 October 2015 08:38

What I am about to describe is not specific to the Islamic Republic, it also pre-dates the Islamic Republic and it does in fact describe how any Iranian power entity, whether a mosque, village or a commercial company, ticks.

Iranians find formal procedures laborious and cumbersome to follow. What they prefer is using personal relationships. (Also referred to in Iran as “parti”. As the saying goes, “the ‘thicker’ someone’s ‘parti’ is, the better connected and thus more powerful he is perceived in getting things done, and therefore he is a more attractive individual to get close to.)

Within every Iranian power structure, there is a Supreme Leader or a Shah or a Village Chief etc. who has the final say, and there are rival circles of networks/factions under him who compete with each other for power and influence through favours granted by the head honcho.

The successful Supreme Leader who can keep the entity together and prevent it from collapsing, or losing his own power, is the one who will keep these rival circles in check, not allowing one or the other to eliminate the others or ever have the complete upper hand but continue to depend on his favours and generosity towards them.

The way the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khamenei, handled the passing of the bill that outlines the framework and conditions for implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aka, the Iranian nuclear deal, was a classic example that demonstrates why his profound knowledge of his role has kept him in power for almost three decades.

Khamenei’s constraints were several. First of all he had to make sure the regime did not look desperate to sign the JCPOA but that the regime was seen to have stood up to six major powers, brought them to the negotiating table and made them give Iran concessions. He was helped in this immensely by Obama’s hapless administration.

His other more challenging constraints were to keep three rival networks content and at the same time make sure the JCPOA did go through, for otherwise the dire economic conditions that Iran was facing could have led to the collapse of the regime. What was important, however, was that he kept himself detached from the signing of the JCPOA.

Khamenei waited for the US Congress to ratify the JCPOA first. Had Iran ratified the deal first and then Congress rejected it, would have shown Iran was more in need of the deal; that was unthinkable. Once the bill went through the US Congress, Rouhani’s administration was keen for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) to approve the implementation of the JCPOA.

That would have meant a clear stand, one way or another, by the Supreme Leader however; something he was mostly trying to avoid, to make sure all the rival networks were kept content and could claim the Supreme Leader was on their side. To do this he first made sure the JCPOA ratification went through the Majlis, the Iranian parliament and not the SNSC.

By doing this he could claim, the approval of the JCPOA was the work of the Majlis and he was above interfering in the process.

The three rival circles that Khamenei had to keep content, were the Rouhani administration, the Iranian hardliners and the foreign proxy groups.

The Rouhani administration came to power specifically tasked with removing the sanctions and saving the Islamic Republic from collapse. The Iranian hardliners, are intrinsically against any modernisation or better relations with the immoral, decadent West, yet they are the first and foremost group that Khamenei can rely on when his position is in danger, as in the widespread post-election protests in 2009 or what he refers to as “sedition”.

The third group that the Supreme Leader had to keep content, are Iran’s foreign proxy groups who look to Iran as the flag bearer of fighting Western imperialism or the “global arrogance” as they call it. To them, Iran is the protector of the dispossessed against the US and the West. The perception that Iran was abandoning them for improved relations with America and the West, could have resulted in their demoralisation, as well as pessimism towards Iran as their sponsor.

In order to go ahead with the JCPOA and manage the constraints he faced, the Supreme Leader never gave a clear indication of whether he was for or against the deal. He masterfully hedged his bets and throughout his speeches he made sure the chants of Death to America, England and Israel continued.

He insisted that the negotiations with the US were specifically on the nuclear issues and all other negotiations, including regional co-operation, were forbidden. He reiterated Iran’s continuous support for its proxy groups and their cause.

The Majlis ratification of the JCPOA itself was full of amusing theatricals. First of all a text was drafted titled “Iran's Proportional and Reciprocal Act for Implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)” made up of 9 clauses with the final clause having two amendments. In reality, the entire text is just slogans to keep the shop front looking good and, all that matters is the final second amendment of the final 9th clause which suspends Iran’s previous acts that were in place in response to the restrictions imposed on its nuclear program.

The Sunday before last, the Majlis discussed the above text in its “generalities”. 139 deputies voted For. Last Tuesday the text was then discussed in its details and 161 voted For.

Somehow 22 deputies were against the generalities of the text but for the details of it!

The head of Iran's Atomic Organisation, Ali Akbar Salehi, who was a member of the nuclear negotiating team, stood behind the podium and frantically screamed that a hardline MP, Hojat-ol-Islam Hosseinian,  had threatened him by swearing to the Koran that he would pour cement over him and bury him inside the Arak nuclear reactor.

Salehi had good reasons to be scared, Hosseinian was previously connected to the Iranian intelligence ministry and has been implicated in the extra judicial killings of Iran’s dissidents and intellectuals in 1998.

Hosseinian was later taken to hospital for a heart ailment. He was visited by Salehi and the two kissed and made up with Hosseinian saying he was joking and his joke had been taken out of context.

Another deputy, Ali Asghar Zarei, cried so much after the text was passed that he was taken to the emergency clinic based inside the Majlis to prevent him from having a heart attack.

All in all, it was unclear where the Supreme Leader or the SNSC stood on the bill. There were mixed messages all along. Each rival network interpreted the outcome to their own advantage.

Those who were for Iran implementing the JCPOA claimed the Supreme Leader was on their side, and the Iranian hardliners claimed that the head of the Majlis, Ali Larijani, used parliamentary tricks to sweep the bill under the carpet and the Supreme Leader and the deputies who were vocal against the JCPOA were cheated and deceived through Larijani’s cunning.

Thus the Supreme Leader remains the Supreme Leader for all the competing factions and life under the Islamic Republic continues as a result of his superb political skills polished and toughened by three decades of experience.

Potkin Azarmehr left Iran for the UK after the “Cultural Revolution”. He is currently a contributor to several newspapers and Television stations on Iran related news and also writes and produces a number of TV programs

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