On October 13, opponents of the nuclear bill in Iran suffered a crushing defeat as parliament approved the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), with parliament voting for the deal 61-59. There were 13 abstentions.
It came after a two-month battle, during which hardliners fought hard against the deal with the P5+1 countries, using every available tactic they could to prevent it going through. In the end, President Rouhani’s administration succeeded, bolstering his political clout both at home and abroad.
In many ways, the failure was self-inflicted, with the self-proclaimed “worriers” following a familiar path in Iranian politics, and mistaking the intentions of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to such a degree that, for some, the result has been even worse than what they originally anticipated.
The hardline “worriers” acted in the belief that the supreme leader was against the JCPOA. They argued that the agreement went against Khamenei’s red lines for the deal; that Iran’s Supreme National Security Council did not have his approval; that Khamenei had supported calls for a vote in parliament, directly challenging Rouhani and his administration; and that he had publicly criticized the fact that sanctions had not yet been lifted. With this as ammunition, hardliners felt that they could impose their wishes on the government, thereby showing their commitment to support Khamenei and his agenda.
The “worriers” took their cue from some of the most fractious clashes in recent parliamentary history and perceived mistakes in the run up to the 2009 presidential election. Three years ago, Ali Motahari, a controversial member of parliament, said in an interview that the reformists Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi should have never run for the presidency in 2009 and that then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could have been dealt with in another way: By persuading Ayatollah Khamenei to support another candidate apart from Ahmadinejad. Although many hardliners believed the supreme supported the president at the time, they also thought it might be possible that as a united group, they could persuade him to put his support behind Ali Akbar Velayati, his trusted advisor in international affairs. In this way, the outcome could have been leveraged via Khamenei — and the events that unfolded in 2009 would have been unnecessary.
In the current environment, many hardliners believed the same sort of “imposition” could work for the nuclear deal, so many of them clubbed together to make sure this happened. But this time they got it wrong.
The Four Options
1. Outright rejection of the plan
Mahmoud Nabavian, the MP from the extreme hardliner party Islamic Revolution Resistance Front, was a conspicuous promoter of rejecting the JCPOA outright. He was joined by a number of hardliner media, such as the newspaper Kayhan and its editor-in-chief Hossein Shariatmadari, who wrote lengthy editorials against its ratification. Another figure who believed the action plan should be dismissed in full was Saeed Jalili, the former chief nuclear negotiator under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
2. An amended plan
Any modifications to the JCPOA would of course have necessitated a return to the negotiating table. Those who followed this line, including hardliner MP Hamid Resaee, did not propose that JCPOA be scrapped in full, but instead called for amendments. Resaee raised the option during a meeting of the Parliament’s National Security Committee, but more moderate forces in the hardline camp rejected the idea.
3. “A fact sheet” or addendum to the agreement
The third option was an addendum or “fact sheet” to the agreement. Mohammad Javad Larijani, secretary-general of the Iranian judiciary’s Human Rights Center, raised this alternative, supported by figures like Mehdi Mohammadi, another nuclear negotiator under Ahmadinejad. They did not want to explicitly reject JCPOA. Their intention was to make it very difficult for the government to implement it. They also believed that through such an addendum they could prevent the West from gaining influence in Iran. Among the supporters of this option were Alireza Zakani, the chairman of the parliament’s special committee on the JCPOA.
4. Destruction of the plan through insult, criticism and over-complicated recommendations
The fourth option was to break down and weaken the JCPOA through repeated and numerous criticism in parliament and suggestions for complex, detailed amendments. But supporters of this option were divided into two groups. Some MPs, including Ahmad Tavakoli, claimed that the critical review of the deal prepared by the special committee on the JCPOA reflected a final and accurate picture of the views of parliament and so it should be adopted as a strategy. The more vocal and powerful faction of this larger group hoped that this approach could prevent a vote from taking place. Hamid Rasaei repeatedly stated that in the end, parliament would not vote for the JCPOA, hoping there would be so many provisos and proposed amendments that the vote would never happen. Had they succeeded in this strategy, they could have claimed that the special JCPOA committee report, full of criticisms, was actually parliament’s view.
...But Rouhani Stood Firm
But the leadership of Speaker Ali Larijani, helped by some politicians who supported the nuclear deal, and the stance adopted by Rouhani’s administration essentially defeated all four options.
The government strongly resisted any attempt to modify the deal. It argued that it was an international agreement and could only be approved or rejected. Forced to do so by Khamenei’s public comments, Ali Larijani reluctantly accepted the formation of the special committee, but on the same day that the committee presented its critical report, he foreclosed its chances of having an impact by introducing a priority-one bill on the JCPOA, which passed on October 11. And when the National Security Committee, chaired by Alaeddin Broujerdi, rejected the committee's recommendations, all options were closed. On Tuesday, October 13, Ali Larijani delivered the coup de grace when he announced that no amendments could be introduced.
But the battle is not quite finished. The Guardian Council has the final say on all laws. Opponents to the deal believe that that the council can reject the JCPOA because it does not conform to the red lines set out by the Supreme Leader. But given the way parliament voted, the chances of such an outcome are now very low.
When the outline bill was originally introduced, it received 100 “no” votes, but when the detailed bill was presented, only 59 voted against it. It was announced in parliament that the October 13 bill was the result of a joint decision the previous night on behalf of Speaker Larijani, Ali Shamkhani, secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council, which represents Rouhani’s government and — crucially, Ali-Asghar Hejazi, Ayatollah Khamenei’s parliamentary liaison. As a result, the political atmosphere in Tehran is set to shift in coming days, making it all the more difficult for the Guardian Council to reject the deal. Those hardliners that do support the JCPOA now have enough credibility and power to influence the Guardian Council.
This misjudgment on behalf of some hardliners might have partially come from the fact that, following a provisional deal being reached in Vienna, Khamenei never explicitly stated that his red lines had been ignored, even though he did issue general signs of dissatisfaction or understated complaints. As a rule, he has stated publicly that he did not hold an opinion about the JCPOA. And now the fact that his parliamentary liaison took part in the decision speaks volumes.
Learning the Wrong Lessons
It is clear that opponents to the deal miscalculated, and that their naiveté led to their defeat. October 13’s parliamentary result will go some way to build President Rouhani's political capital and stature.
Opponents relied too heavily on the support of Ayatollah Khamenei, the same way that during the presidency of Ahmadinejad, the Islamic Republic counted too much on Russia’s and China’s veto power to forestall sanctions. They also mistakenly believed that Ayatollah Khamenei’s sporadic complaints would dissuade Speaker Larijani from building a consensus in support of the JCPOA. They learned the wrong lessons from their past experiences. They believed that by acting more forcefully and by organizing themselves better — as they did in the case of Rouhani’s science minister, who they successfully impeached — they could fracture Larijani’s coalition. This time, in a somewhat different environment, their calculations were wrong.
After a decade of miscalculations and misguidance over Iran’s nuclear program, pressure from the international community through sanctions and enforced isolation, the supreme leader and his advisors were forced to accept the nuclear agreement. This time it was the “worriers” — Khamenei’s ardent supporters — who miscalculated. The fact remains that this misjudgment was inherited from the top, straight from an example set by the supreme leader.
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