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Reading the Nuclear Politics in Tehran
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By Ariane Tabatabai

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (bottom) speaks in the parliament in Tehran on July 21 below a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Zarif was defending the agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program that Iran and six world powers concluded on July 14. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)Iran’s domestic politics and power structure have been a source of puzzlement and conjecture since the country’s 1979 revolution, which toppled a U.S. ally and brought the Islamic Republic to power. This bewilderment intensified during the nuclear negotiations between six world powers collectively known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Tehran.

Throughout the negotiations, many observers speculated about the Iranian perceptions of the emerging deal and how these perceptions would shape the future of the diplomatic process and the agreement’s implementation. In particular, the many statements of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were dissected in attempts to determine whether Iran would accept certain restrictions or stop the negotiations.1 In spite of the time and energy devoted to these analyses, many of Tehran’s signals were misinterpreted throughout the process.

Today, similar questions have arisen with regard to Iran’s intentions and ability to implement the comprehensive deal reached in Vienna in July. A key issue is whether domestic politics in Iran will allow the government to uphold its end of the bargain. This article provides a partial response to that question by analyzing the Iranian establishment’s attitude toward the P5+1 process from the beginning of the negotiations to the conclusion of the comprehensive deal.

Supreme Politician

To be sure, Khamenei is the final decision-maker in Iranian foreign policy and domestic politics. Yet, he is not the sole decision-maker in Iran. Furthermore, he tries to stay above politics. This important distinction is often lost in the United States, where the perception is that there are no checks and balances in the Islamic Republic. There are several centers of power within the regime’s structure, all of which have their own decision-making processes, interests, and drivers.

Khamenei and his office are the most opaque components of the regime, along with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Khamenei’s job description includes frequent comments and statements on social, political, and strategic affairs. He appears in various forums several times a month, including at Friday prayers, where, in addition to leading the prayer, he often makes comments on the most pressing issues on Iran’s social and political agenda.

For instance, in June 2009, he used the Friday prayer as a platform to issue an ultimatum and authorize the crackdown on hundreds of thousands of protesters opposing what they denounced as the fraudulent re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.2 This event was a turning point for Khamenei’s decision-making. It led to the greatest crisis in the Islamic Republic’s history, including a broad questioning of the legitimacy of the office of supreme leader and of Khamenei’s legitimacy to hold the office. This crisis led Khamenei and his advisers to re-evaluate their approach to elections in the following cycle.

This reality check was part of the impetus behind the victory of Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential elections. Indeed, many analysts in Iran and the West suspected that Khamenei would facilitate another fraudulent election, favoring his preferred candidate, Saeed Jalili, a hard-liner who had been a nuclear negotiator under Ahmadinejad.3 Yet, the election of Rouhani proved that Khamenei was no longer willing to ignore the wishes of the people and risk his own position when he could take a less dangerous path by assuaging the populace and securing the regime.

The most important topic during the elections was that of the nuclear crisis and how to solve it. It was clear that if Khamenei backed Jalili, blocking Rouhani from being elected, he would be endorsing Jalili’s method of negotiating: the all-or-nothing approach. Instead, with Rouhani now in power, the supreme leader was ready to play by Rouhani’s rules: acknowledgement of the need to make concessions, such as accepting limitations on the nuclear program. Throughout the process, Khamenei intervened to set limits on just how far the negotiators could go and where they could make concessions.4

Despite being interpreted by some as definitive and strict redlines, most of Khamenei’s interventions on the nuclear issue were in fact fairly moderate. Virtually every one of his statements on the nuclear negotiations was viewed in the United States as designed to derail the process. Yet, a careful reading of Iranian political culture and the Islamic Republic’s political dynamics and structure indicates that he was trying to position himself to stand to win regardless of the outcome of the talks while helping the negotiations.

Khamenei’s position on the nuclear issue has been driven by a number of factors. First, his mandate is to secure the survival of the Islamic Republic. To this end, he must identify and work toward regime interests. Therefore, in crucial periods, Khamenei has endorsed what the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary ideology opposes: working with the United States. This has consistently been the case when national security and, by extension, regime survival, have been at stake in Afghanistan, in Iraq against the Islamic State, and today with regard to the nuclear issue. Hence, when national security and revolutionary ideology have been at odds, the regime has actually privileged the former.

This, in turn, is due to the second factor: that there can be no regime without a country. Hence, the supreme leader needs to take national interests into consideration and pursue them. In the past decade, economic and political pressure, increased isolation, and the threat of war all have put the country in a vulnerable position, which contributed to Tehran’s decision to come to the negotiating table.

A third factor is the personal interests that Khamenei has at stake. He has successfully sought to position himself in a way that guarantees he will remain unchallenged, regardless of the outcome of the talks.

From the beginning, Khamenei cautiously backed the negotiations and the negotiating team, commenting that although the United States could not be trusted, he trusted the negotiators to preserve national security, pursue national interests, and maintain the country’s dignity and accomplishments.5 This cautious endorsement is an indication of how Khamenei had to position himself within the domestic political landscape. Despite adhering to a fairly hard line on a number of issues, Khamenei has in fact been a moderating agent in the negotiating process.

Contrary to the widely held perception outside Iran, the supreme leader does not always intervene in all matters relating to foreign policy. His vision certainly informs the country’s strategy beyond Iran’s borders, but on an operational level, what Tehran does is the prerogative of the elected government. This means that the government, chiefly the foreign ministry, typically manages the country’s foreign policy issues, excluding those that are handled by the IRGC, namely Iran’s activities in Iraq, Syria, and the rest of the Middle East.

The nuclear issue was an exception to this rule; Khamenei was intimately involved in the talks. He “supervised” the process, and his redlines were Iran’s national bottom lines. The entire security and political establishment, as well as much of the Iranian populace, supported the idea that Tehran should make concessions but without stopping its enrichment program, curtailing its ability to conduct research and development, granting inspection rights to its nonmilitary facilities, or providing access to its scientists.6 Khamenei had a direct channel to the negotiators and frequently provided his input on what was on the table. In rare instances, he delivered the input publicly. That was the case on key issues such as inspection of military sites and interviews with nuclear scientists.7 

Misunderstanding the Corps

A man flashes the victory sign in front the Iranian national flag during a celebration in Tehran on July 14 after the nuclear deal was announced. Under the agreement, sanctions on Iran would be lifted in return for certain restrictions on and monitoring of the country’s nuclear program. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)The IRGC, much like its commander in chief, the supreme leader, is often misunderstood in the United States. Its role in the nuclear program and negotiations has been oversimplified and exaggerated.

The IRGC’s role in the program and talks is determined by a number of conflicting interests. First, although there has been a great deal of speculation on the IRGC’s role in the nuclear program, there is little concrete knowledge of the extent of this involvement. It is clear, however, that the IRGC has played and continues to play a role in the nuclear program and would essentially have custody of a nuclear arsenal if Iran acquired one.8

Certain other aspects of the connection between the IRGC and the Iranian nuclear program also are clear. First, the IRGC has played a very active role in developing the Iranian missile program. Second, the IRGC has managed to fill the vacuum left by foreign companies in Iran’s economy. The combination of the Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, and the nuclear crisis led an Iran in need of redevelopment to be isolated and under backbreaking sanctions. With foreign companies increasingly reluctant to do business in Iran, the country had to find a way to redevelop its economy and infrastructure. The IRGC stepped in. As a result of its ability to capitalize on the isolation and sanctions put in place, the corps now owns a large percentage of the national economy, with hands in many different fields. This means that the IRGC could actually stand to lose from sanctions.

Indeed, with the country open for business again, foreign companies will create serious competition for the IRGC. Many in the political elite have indicated their willingness to minimize IRGC involvement in all political and economic spheres. So far, however, their ability to pursue this policy has been limited, given that the country could rely only on the IRGC and the black market to fill the vacuum left by foreign companies. Today, with the economy opening up, steps can be taken to address this. Despite standing to lose some ground from the change in the Iranian political and economic ecosystem, the IRGC has generally followed Khamenei, positioning itself relatively moderately. IRGC commanders also have cautiously backed the negotiations and stated that they believe the negotiating team has only the best interests of the country at heart.9

In some cases, the IRGC and Khamenei have balanced each other. For instance, on one occasion when Khamenei gave a resounding endorsement of the negotiating team, the IRGC cautiously backed it. The following time, they reversed these roles, with a more cautious endorsement from Khamenei and a resounding one from the IRGC. Hence, both the supreme leader and the IRGC have tried to position themselves above politics in a way that would allow them to use the outcome of the negotiations to consolidate their power. At the same time, they have tried to guide the process to obtain what they view as the optimal result, with more gains on sanctions relief and fewer concessions on the nuclear program.

There has been a notable exception to the guards’ general support for the deal. General Mohammad-Reza Naqdi, the head of the Basij milita, has sharply criticized the deal. Naqdi questioned the intentions of the world powers, saying that the nuclear issue was an excuse “covering an underlying truth.” He claimed that “[the facts that] the foreign ministers of seven countries did not move for nine days and nights in Lausanne, or the U.S. Secretary of State[’s] presen[ce] in the negotiations for 20 nights and days with a broken leg” prove that something beyond the nuclear issue was at stake. He further stated that the answer to Iran’s economic problems is a “resistance economy not a borrowed economy.”10 Unlike the more mainstream members of the IRGC, the Basij have been generally more critical of the negotiations and the deal. Yet, the Basij is renowned for its loyalty to its commander in chief, Khamenei. Hence, while being generally more critical, its members have not been as vocal as an organization on the matter as other groups and are unlikely to have an impact on the implementation of the deal. 

Opposition From the Majlis

The Iranian parliament, the Majlis, has posed the greatest challenge to the talks. It has often mirrored the U.S. Congress, in part by seeking to gain more power over the process of reaching and implementing a deal. The hard-line position on the process has not been limited to conservative legislators; it has cut across the different traditional political leanings. To be sure, reformists and moderates have thrown their support behind Rouhani’s moderate agenda, but some have been critical of the process.

Much like opponents of the deal in Congress, those in the Majlis have different interests and are driven by different views. Some profoundly distrust the United States and fundamentally reject engagement with the West in much the same way that some in Congress oppose even sitting at the table with Tehran. Other members of the Majlis believe that any concession is too much. Still others were in Ahmadinejad’s camp and want to deny Rouhani a foreign policy victory of this magnitude, just as many Republicans in Congress, driven by domestic politics and their opposition to the administration of President Barack Obama, do not want him to have this foreign policy victory.

In other words, the Iranian domestic opposition to the nuclear negotiations stems from a number of factors and cannot be oversimplified and attributed to a single factor. The opponents have been very vocal, but are in fact a small minority of the Iranian population. Yet, the level of influence of these groups and the pressure they have exerted on the negotiators cannot be underestimated. Although it is a small group, some individuals within the group have considerable influence.

Ultimately, the Majlis found itself limited in its ability to influence the talks. Hence, its members exerted pressure on the Rouhani government by taking the fight outside the nuclear realm, for instance, by impeaching ministers. Such actions indicate that the legislators are trying to limit the government’s ability to maneuver and place obstacles in its way to stop it from implementing its agenda. In this case, these tactics were designed to weaken and put pressure on the Rouhani government.

Khamenei intervened a number of times after hard-line newspapers attacked the negotiating team. In doing so, he decreased the pressure on the team, facilitating its efforts conclude a deal. This in turn reinforced the idea that regardless of their efforts, critics of a deal would not be able to fundamentally shift what appears to be a national consensus and establishment decision to negotiate with the world powers and to do so with the intent to reach a deal. The Majlis managed to acquire the ability to supervise the process by regularly summoning Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and passing legislation expanding its powers to oversee the negotiations. Yet, in spite of the rhetoric of some of its members,11 the Majlis did not actually attempt to derail the negotiations altogether. A significant announcement made by Speaker Ali Larijani in the aftermath of the deal, praising the negotiating team’s efforts, encapsulated the idea that the Majlis would stand behind the deal.12

As the process continues into its implementation phase, the Majlis will continue to weigh in. Yet, it is unlikely to take action to stop the implementation process unless the P5+1 is seen as failing to live up to its end of the bargain. 

Popular Support

The vast majority of Iranians support a negotiated solution to the issue of the nuclear program.13 This is because virtually every aspect of Iranian public and private life has been affected by the nuclear crisis: the threats to national security, including the looming threat of overt military conflict; economic hardship resulting from sanctions; the tightening of space for political reforms; and the inability to push for improvement on human rights because of the threat of war. If the vast majority of Iranians have been following the details of the talks, it is not because they care about their uranium-enrichment capacity. Instead, they see the nuclear issue as an obstacle to the normalization of their lives and the country’s economy and international status.

The support for the negotiators, the popularity of Zarif, and the nationwide celebrations of the 2013 interim deal and the recent comprehensive deal certainly strengthened the negotiators’ hands domestically. This means that while facing harsh criticism at home from some quarters, the negotiators could say that they benefited from the population’s general support for their efforts.

The conventional Western wisdom on Iranian politics is that the people’s views on issues do not matter. There is an element of truth to that view because the supreme leader, the ultimate decision-maker, is not an elected official. He is supposed to be above politics and a “neutral” figure in Iranian politics. Yet, domestic politics can and do influence decision-making. As noted previously, Khamenei learned in 2009 that going against the popular will could come at a cost for him. In 2009, that was a blow to his legitimacy and that of the regime more generally. In 2013, defying public opinion could have led to a deepened crisis of legitimacy and an increased weakening of the very foundations of the Islamic Republic.

The Majlis represents the people. Nevertheless, in some cases, including this one, members of the Majlis do not reflect the views of their constituencies. Ultimately, however, the members also know that, in order to be re-elected, they can only go so far in their opposition to something the majority of the population really wants.

All this is not to say that there has not been any opposition to the negotiations and the deal. The Delvapassan, or “Worried,” movement, as it has come to be known, has made headlines throughout the process, criticizing the negotiations and urging the team not to make concessions on the country’s technological and scientific achievements. Members of the movement were often subtly invited to quiet down by Khamenei’s endorsements of the process. In those statements, Khamenei always presented Zarif’s team as driven by national interests.

More recently, the government shut down an ultraconservative weekly paper, 9th Dey, for criticizing the deal. At the same time, Rouhani has described social media, including Twitter and Facebook, banned in Iran since 2009, as helpful tools for young people eager to express their support for the negotiations.14

The Way Ahead

In the coming months, a number of domestic events will occur in parallel with the implementation of the comprehensive deal. First and foremost, the Majlis elections, scheduled to take place on February 25, will be decisive for the Rouhani government. The Majlis continues to want to play a role and supervise the process. As was the case throughout the negotiations, however, it is unlikely to do much to disturb the process even if it shifts more to the right as a result of the elections. Nevertheless, it could exert more pressure on the government through other means, as it did during the negotiations.

Iran is expected to voluntarily implement an additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement, providing the International Atomic Energy Agency with the authority to monitor the country’s facilities more closely. The Majlis, however, has yet to ratify it, which would make its provisions permanent and legally binding. Under the comprehensive deal, Iran must “seek [the protocol’s] ratification and entry into force consistent with the respective roles of the President and Majlis.” Tehran voluntarily implemented the protocol from 2003 to 2005, but stopped implementing it when the previous round of negotiations failed. The ratification step will be crucial to ensure that Iran continues to implement the protocol after the expiration of the various constraints imposed by the deal.

After the parliamentary elections, the next big event in Iranian politics is the presidential election, scheduled for mid-2017. By then, many of the issues directly related to the nuclear issue should be solved. Given the eight- to 25-year provisions in the deal, however, a number of events are worth noting. These include the redesign of the Arak heavy-water reactor, which involves removing the core, destroying it or shipping it to another country, and replacing it with a core that would produce less plutonium; the conversion of the Fordow enrichment site into a research center; and the reduction of the country’s stockpile of 10,000 kilograms of enriched uranium to 300 kilograms.

The Rouhani government will likely point to the nuclear deal as the flagship success of its first term and seek re-election for a second four-year term, the last for which it will be eligible. A potential complication for the successful implementation of the deal lies in the much-debated health of Khamenei and the choice of his successor. This could translate into tremendous change in the very foundations of the Islamic Republic. For this reason, the upcoming years will be vital to the long-term viability of the deal. If the deal is implemented without major complications and Tehran receives what it sees as its due under the deal without feeling vulnerable to military attacks from other countries in the next few years, future changes in the country’s politics and political structure are less likely to have a tremendous impact on the future of the implementation of the deal.

Thus, it is important to put the deal in place quickly and smoothly, to the extent possible, to make sure it is locked in before Khamenei passes from the scene. This will ensure that the deal is implemented efficiently throughout the political transition to his successor. In principle, once the implementation of the deal begins and the first key stages—the redesign of the Arak reactor, the conversion of the Fordow enrichment facility, and the initial phases of sanctions relief—are completed, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and the foreign ministry will be in charge of the file, and the supreme leader’s office and the Majlis will no longer be watching it as closely.

One development that would draw the attention of the supreme leader, the IRGC, and the Majlis would be any covert action against Iran’s program while the deal is being implemented, even if such action is undertaken by a country that is not bound by the agreement. In the meantime, Khamenei, the IRGC, the Majlis, and others will continue to make statements.

It is important not to get caught up in their rhetoric, but to pay attention to what Iran is actually doing. The distinction between rhetoric and policy is crucial in understanding Iranian intentions and actions. In the sensitive stages of early implementation of the nuclear deal, reading Tehran properly will be more important than ever.

Ariane Tabatabai is a visiting assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and is a columnist for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Previously, she was a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow and an associate at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She received her Ph.D. from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.


1. Ray Takeyh, “Iran Poised to Choose Poverty Over Nuclear Disarmament,” The Washington Post, October 31, 2014; Julian Borger, “Did the Supreme Leader Just Torpedo the Nuclear Talks?” The Guardian, June 24, 2015; Thomas Erdbrink and David Sanger, “Iran’s Supreme Leader, Khamenei, Seems to Pull Back on Nuclear Talks,” The New York Times, June 23, 2015.

2. “Khotbeha-ye namaz-e Jomeh-ye Tehran,” Khamenei.ir, June 19, 2009, http://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=7190 (in Persian).

3. Mark Dubowitz, “Iran Has a Presidential Selection, Not an Election,” The Atlantic, June 14, 2013.

4. “‘Khotut-e ghermez-e mozakereh’ az didgah-e rahbar-e enghelab dar didar-e karshenasan-e sazman-e energy-e atomi,” Fars News, April 14, 2014, http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13930125000961 (in Persian).

5. “Bayanat dar didar-e jamee az farmandehan va karkonan-e niroo-ye havayi,” Khamenei.ir, February 8, 2015, http://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=28896 (in Persian).

6. The refusal to allow inspection of military sites should not to be confused with the issue of “managed access”—opening certain, less-sensitive sections of the facilities to inspectors—which was open for discussion.

7. Ariane Tabatabai, “Interview: Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Ravanchi,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 30, 2015.

8. Anthony Cordesman and Adam Seitz, “Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction: Doctrine, Policy and Command,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 12, 2009.

9. Annie Tracy Samuel, “Revolutionary Guard Is Cautiously Open to Nuclear Deal,” Belfer Center Iran Matters, December 20, 2013, http://iranmatters.belfercenter.org/blog/iran’s-revolution-guard-and-nuclear-deal; “Agar mozakerat Enshallah be natije beresad hame khahand did ke ma az hoghough-eman kootah nayamadeim,” Tasnim, November 14, 2014 (in Persian).

10. “Naqdi: Resistance Economy Is the Way Around Problems, Not Borrowed Economy,” Fars News, August 11, 2015, http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13940520000202 (in Persian).

11. Kelsey Davenport, “Bill Allowing Vote on Iran Deal Approved,Arms Control Today, June 2015.

12. “Larijani: Tavafogh-e hasteyi joz-e dastarvardha-ye melli ast,” Asr-e Iran, July 23, 2015, http://www.asriran.com/fa/news/407455/ (in Persian).

13. Wilfred Chan and Mitra Mobasherat, “From Social Media to the Streets, Iranians Erupt With Joy After Nuclear Deal,” CNN, April 3, 2015; Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Iranians Celebrate Nuclear Deal: ‘This Will Bring Hope to Our Life,’” The Guardian, April 2, 2015; “Many Iranians Celebrate Nuclear Deal As Opening to the West,” NPR, July 14, 2015.

14. Hassan Rouhani, interview with Iranian State Media, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, August 2, 2015 (in Persian). 

Posted: September 2, 2015