As the deadline for nuclear talks approaches, the Rouhani administration has responded angrily to Iranian politicians’ latest bid to upset the outcome.
MPs passed a bill on Tuesday, June 23, addressing the key points that have divided Iranian political debate for at least the last 18 months. The bill, which aims to “protect Iran’s nuclear achievements” and its right to nuclear development, calls for the immediate lifting of sanctions once an agreement takes effect, and for a ban on Western countries having access to “military, security and sensitive sites,” as well as to key documents and scientists.
Of the representatives, 213 voted for the motion, 10 voted against, and six abstained. The bill will now go to the Guardian Council, which has the power to approve or reject it.
Speaking against the motion, government spokesman Mohammad Baqer Nobakht said parts of the bill — including the stipulation requiring that parliament safeguard nuclear achievements — clearly contradicts the Iranian constitution. “According to Article 176,” Nobakht said, “the issue of nuclear negotiations is to be decided by the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), not by the administrative or legislative bodies of the government.”
But Mohammad Ali Asafnani, spokesman for parliament’s Judiciary Committee, rejected Nobakht’s assertion and stated that the motion did not contradict the powers given to SNSC.
Whatever confrontations mount in parliament, it is the Guardian Council that will cast the deciding vote. Nevertheless, continued hostilities are bound to affect the atmosphere for successful negotiations.
“It is necessary to reiterate that, under the prevailing sensitive conditions, the negotiations are in their final phase. So this bill does not assist the Iranian side in negotiations at all,” Majid Ansari, Rouhani’s vice president for parliamentary affairs, told the Islamic Republic News Agency.
Only days before the backlash in parliament, President Rouhani implicitly expressed his concerns over such potential moves among parliamentarians. Addressing a joint meeting of his cabinet and parliament on June 20, he urged lawmakers to cooperate with the government at the current sensitive juncture in order to secure the success of the talks.
Losing Room to Maneuver
The Rouhani administration is worried that these last-minute attempts to destabilize talks will cost Iranian negotiators vital room to maneuver.
But can parliament’s latest move seriously affect the negotiations at this late stage?
“The demand to lift sanctions in the bill is not a detailed provision,” an expert in the Iran-P5+1 negotiation process told IranWire. “If the Iranian negotiating team can reach an agreement on lifting sanctions with the P5+1 countries, it can bypass the provision and announce that all nuclear sanctions have been lifted.”
Hardliners have consistently warned the government not to negotiate on other issues outside the nuclear program, and Rouhani’s administration insists that this has been its approach. Government officials state that negotiators have not entered into discussions over human rights, counter-terrorism or military issues and, as a result, sanctions that are not related to the nuclear issue will remain in place.
Access to military sites and relevant scientists has become a pressing issue over the last three months, and has further complicated negotiations, and coverage of them. If Iranian negotiators accept the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocols on inspections, then part of the problem will be solved. But it is far from clear whether this contentious issue will be resolved so easily.
The debate over whether any nuclear agreement should be approved by parliament continues to dominate Iranian domestic politics. Over the last two years, hardliners have outlined the necessity of parliament taking on a supervisory role. Now, at least on paper, they have succeeded.
Although the recent bill does not specify this role, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, told Mehr News Agency that any nuclear deal with the international community must be approved by parliament.
On his website, hardliner MP Hamid Rasaei echoed Boroujerdi’s statements. He added that, although the bill garnered support from a large number of MPs, those parliamentarians who had voiced opposition to the Rouhani administration’s handling of the nuclear issue felt it did not go far enough. But, in an effort to show goodwill and reach a consensus, they had agreed to help pass the bill.
Also on June 23, Fars News Agency published the results of a recent survey, reporting that 77 percent of respondents believed that parliament must play a role in approving or rejecting an agreement. The poll also found that 81 percent believe that if parliament decides the agreement goes against Iranian national interests, it must have the power to stop such an agreement.
Mehrdad Bazrpash, a member of parliament’s governing body and a critic of the Rouhani government, said the Iranian negotiating team sacrificed a valuable bargaining chip when it removed parliament from the process. “The moment that we said parliament should step in and pass a motion, they said there was no need,” he wrote in Jam-e Jam newspaper. “Whereas, in America, both the House and the Senate, which make up the US Congress, stepped in and added value to America’s bargaining chips.”
From this point of view, MPs claim that, by introducing the bill so close to the endgame for nuclear negotiations, they have actually given the Iranian team a better chance of achieving a satisfactory agreement.
“With this bill, the other side is left with no more excuses,” said Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, a member of Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission. He said that opponents to the bill might present it as “an obstacle to the negotiations,” but that was simply not true, and that negotiators were well aware of how far the majority of parliament felt negotiators should go. “First of all, the American Congress has passed a similar resolution and, second, the provisions in the bill set out the same red lines that we have repeatedly discussed.”
Whether or not parliament has a key role to play in negotiations is a yet to be determined, but what is clear is that this latest move could well push the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to re-enter the fray.
What Does Khamenei Say?
If Khamenei decides to oppose the final deal, he now has official support from parliament — and he can claim that it is the new law, not him, that makes it impossible for Iran to sign up to an agreement. In this way, he will avoid blame if the negotiations fail. If he approves of the final agreement, then a parliament filled with active hardliners would make it difficult for his supporters to lodge any complaint about the way matters were conducted.
Parliamentary approval of the agreement would be beneficial to the government — giving it political and legal weight on the domestic front. But MPs have also likely introduced the new bill at this juncture to raise their own profiles in the run up to the parliamentary elections in February 2016. With the bill being considered by the Guardian Council, politicians can potentially flout their approval of the agreement to boost their public image.
But some in the Rouhani camp have expressed anxiety that aspects of the agreement have already been lost, thanks to corruption. Speaking at a conference in mid-June, Saeed Leylaz, an economic expert close to Rouhani, warned of the economic consequences of a nuclear accord. “Corruption in the country could squander any positive outcome from a nuclear agreement — and some of the results of the agreement have already been squandered ahead of the agreement,” he said.
This observation can also be extended to Iranian politics. In fact, what is happening in domestic Iranian politics is not necessarily opposition to a nuclear agreement, but a series of efforts to exploit the results of a possible agreement politically.
Parliamentarians — and especially hardliners — will enjoy seeing the government as the big loser if an agreement cannot be reached. But if there is an agreement, it is inconceivable that Rouhani and his team can be the only heroes. If there is a victory, MPs want to share in the glory.
In his web post, hardliner Rasaei emphasized that the recent bill has the potential to compensate for any “un-heroic flexibilities” on the part of negotiators. For many hardliners, it is crucial that Iran’s negotiators do not look weak on the international stage. And it is just as important that this unsavory image does not wear off on them. To prevent this, they were willing to moderate their views and adjust their positions somewhat. At the same time, they got the attention they were hoping to receive.
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