The tactics behind Iran’s dual response to US withdrawal
Tehran’s politicians and the state-owned Persian news outlets have been heavily covering the US decision to pull out of the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was struck in 2015 between six world powers, known as the P5+1, and Iran.
The reactions and responses coming out of Iran are mixed. On the one hand, hard-liners are taking a tough stance by lashing out at the US and leading calls to “set fire to the nuclear deal.” When the Majlis, Iran’s Parliament, opened its session the day after President Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the deal, hard-line representatives burned a US flag and a copy of the agreement, while chanting “Death to America.”
These hard-liners are attempting to appease Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and make a reality of his previously symbolic phrase, “Set it (the nuclear deal) on fire.” Before the election of Trump, Khamenei warned that “if the threat from the American presidential candidates to tear up the deal becomes operational then Tehran will set fire to the deal.”
In addition, the regime in Tehran is warning that the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal will bring significant harm to America. Such threats against the US will most likely escalate.
On the other hand, Iran’s so-called moderate political party and its media outlets are taking a totally different approach. The moderates are forcefully spreading the narrative that European nations are robustly standing with Iran and opposing the US. For example, the Arman newspaper’s front-page headline quoted Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, as stating that “we (Germany, France and the UK) will stay in the JCPOA.” The Hamdeli newspaper’s headline applauded the French ambassador for saying: “We will support the JCPOA.”
Similarly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reacted by repeatedly promoting and buttressing the argument that there is no issue with the nuclear deal, even though the US has withdrawn from it.
In the Iranian newspaper Etela’at, he said the nuclear agreement was between the P5+1 countries (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — China, the US , Russia, France and the UK — plus Germany). All that has changed, he said, is that an intruder (the US) has left the accord. Now the agreement is between Iran and the other five nations, he added. Some state-controlled outlets, such as Hamshahri, supported his position, with headlines such as “the JCPOA stays, the US left.”
Any astute analyst who has studied the four decades of Iran’s ruling mullahs will know that such mixed reactions originating from the country should not be regarded as a surprise. It illustrates a tactical move utilized by the clerical establishment; such a dual approach is the modus operandi of the Iranian regime.
For instance, before the nuclear agreement was reached, the hard-liners — including Khamenei, high-ranking members of the powerful Revolutionary Guards and their hard-line social base — were taking a similarly strident stance by opposing the deal and criticizing the negotiations between Rouhani’s technocrat team and the West. Even a few hours before the UN unanimously voted to endorse the deal, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari, head of the Revolutionary Guards, rejected it, saying: “Some parts of the draft have clearly crossed the Iran’s red lines, especially in Tehran’s military capabilities. We will never accept it.”
This is a classic good cop, bad cop strategy. The moderates set the tone on the international stage through their shrewd diplomatic skills and softer tone, while the hard-liners take a tougher stance to assist the moderates in obtaining more concessions from the other side.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Although the Revolutionary Guards have been a major beneficiary of the nuclear deal, thanks to the lifting of crippling sanctions against Iran, Jafari added that the UN should not “waste its time” passing a resolution endorsing the agreement.
Hence, the big question now is why is the Iranian regime playing such a tactical game? The answer is that this is a classic good cop, bad cop strategy. The moderates set the tone on the international stage through their shrewd diplomatic skills and softer tone, while the hard-liners take a tougher stance to assist the moderates in obtaining more concessions from the other side.
In addition, it is critical to point out that when it comes to Iranian politics, the rhetoric of the leaders across the political spectrum matters less on certain occasions. The most important issue is the instructions that Khamenei gives behind closed doors to both the moderates and hard-liners. These instructions might totally differ from what Khamenei expresses in his public speeches and announcements.
For example, before the nuclear deal, Khamenei continually criticized the negotiations with the West and any potential agreement. But he desperately needed the nuclear deal. Without his blessing, Rouhani would not have been able to negotiate with the West and reach an agreement. In fact, were it not for Khamenei’s blessing, Rouhani would not have been approved by the Guardian Council to run for the presidency in the first place.
Khamenei is the final decision maker when it comes to Iran’s major foreign and domestic policies. Despite his public announcements and threats to set fire to the nuclear deal, the latest developments from within Iran suggest that even though the US has withdrawn, Khamenei, his gilded circle and the senior cadre of the Revolutionary Guards still desire to remain in the nuclear deal and keep it intact because of the benefits that it is bringing to the regime.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council.