The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal with world powers reached in July 2015 in Vienna, was one of Hassan Rouhani’s main promises in his 2013 presidential campaign. As Iranians head to the polls again on May 19, Radio Farda takes a look at the impact of this election on the future of the deal.
Candidates so far have pledged to continue implementation of the deal, but the hard-line Principlist camp -- which has been critical of negotiations and the way the deal was implemented -- are voicing their dissatisfaction over various aspects of JCPOA, such as the financial benefits which were expected following the removal of nuclear sanctions.
In this interview, part of a series addressing the issue of JCPOA in light of the upcoming election, Radio Farda sits down with Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Rubin shares his take on the Iranian elections and how JCPOA will be affected when a new government takes office.
RFE/RL: To start, what’s your position about discussing an internal affair such as the election and its relation to such an international issue like the Iran deal (JCPOA)?
Michael Rubin: I think the Iranian elections are doing two things, one of which is very much related to JCPOA and the second of which has nothing to do with it. [One of the] issues that is going to dominate the elections are an assessment of the aftermath of JCPOA and whether it has brought the economic relief to ordinary people that Iranians may have expected. For the first time, with the lifting of sanctions, the Iranian government doesn’t have the ability to blame the failures of the Iranian economy solely on outsiders. And the danger of unfulfilled expectations might play out at the polls.
But the other issue may be more important is preparation for succession with regard to the supreme leader. Ali Khamenei has been photographed in a hospital room while receiving treatment for prostate cancer, and that was the regime preparing for Iranians’ approach to Raisi for example in the election race. It’s going to be very hard for someone like Raisi -- should he remain in the race until election day -- to lose a presidential race and yet eventually take over the supreme leadership. Remember: Khamanei was president before he became supreme leader upon [Ruhollah] Khomeini’s death.
An election loss is going to be very hard to overcome if one wants to claim to be the deputy of the hidden imam, imam zaman, on earth. I would suspect that either Raisi is going to drop out of the race before the election or he will be out of contention for supreme leadership because he can’t afford to lose.
RFE/RL: We have a camp led by Rouhani which reached the JCPOA deal and defends it, and another camp that critical of the approach toward the international community and the impacts of the deal. How do you think the outcome of the elections will influence the future of the deal?
Rubin: Ultimately, just like in the United States, it’s very hard for any camp to just walk away from the deal, no matter what they think of it. This is because so much of the deal has already been implemented and was frontloaded. The Iranians may have already achieved the unfreezing of assets and lifting of many sanctions -- even though they want more.
The real monetary value to the deal is really going to be in the renewed investments, and many companies -- especially Western and Asian companies -- aren’t going to invest if they are worrying about reputational risk to their company or instability (including international instability).
Add into this the factor that because of the nature of the Iranian economy, specifically the importance of an organization like Khatam-al Anbiya (the economic wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC), there is an incentive for more hard-line Principlist groups not to walk away [from the deal] because a disproportionately large amount of any foreign contract actually goes to the bank accounts of the more hard-line elements, simply because of the structure of the Iranian economy.
One of the issues with regard to Iranian elections is that I have never looked at them as a democratic outlet for Iranians to express themselves. I see Iranian elections much more in the context of the supreme leader maintaining control by rotating power among various factions, so that no faction is able to establish a permanent base of opposition; therefore, after eight years of one faction, another one comes in.
For example, Ahmadinejad relied disproportionately on veterans of the IRGC in parliament and in the Cabinet. When Rouhani came in, many of these people were swept aside, and he brought in, frankly, a disproportionate number of veterans of the administrative intelligence. Now Rouhani has about four more years before another faction comes in to sweep aside his interest base.
I think where the West gets it wrong is assuming, for example, that a victory for Rouhani shows the desire of the Iranian people for real rapprochement of the West and real change. If you embrace that logic, does that mean the Iranian people were wholeheartedly for someone like Ahmadinejad? I don’t think the answer to that is yes.
RFE/RL: In recent weeks, we saw that the review of a bill to impose new sanctions on Iran was delayed in the U.S. Senate due to concerns about Iran's election. What is the view in Washington of this entangled network of political factions and, in your view, the supreme leader just exchanging one for the other to maintain control? What is the Senate waiting to see from the Iranian election?
Rubin: First of all, I’m not sure if there is a coherent view in Washington or the Trump administration about this issue yet. The Trump administration has still not appointed a whole range of officials and hasn’t filled many of the positions in the administration, and therefore I’m not sure if there is a single view on the matter.
What I’m afraid of is that, on one hand, while the Trump administration in recent days said Iran is abiding by JCPOA, on the other hand we have had surrogates such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis also truly castigate the Iranians and suggest that because of Iran’s support for terrorism ultimately there might be more sanctions on the way.
What I’m afraid of is that by talking about new sanctions, the Trump administration is going to alleviate the domestic pressure in Iran. JCPOA has not been able to rescue the Iranian economy because the problem was never sanctions; it was mismanagement on the part of the [government].
By raising the specter of new sanctions so publicly ahead of the Iranian elections, the Trump administration is giving a mechanism for people like Rouhani, Foreign Minister [Javad] Zarif, or anyone else to blame the U.S. for their failings rather than to accept accountability.
RFE/RL: What would you recommend the Trump administration do instead?
Rubin: What I would say is that you can precede by laying the groundwork for new sanctions, should you want to do so, without talking about it publicly so much before the election, in a way that throws a lifeline to [Iran]. There’s no reason why the threat of new sanctions has to be made now rather than in a month and a half.
The reason politically why this has occurred now has to do with Donald Trump’s domestic base and little to do with a greater strategic plan. From the moment Trump declared his candidacy he declared JCPOA to be the worst deal ever. And so many people among his base, especially his more conservative and nativist base, look at his administration’s acknowledgment that the Iranians are fulfilling their end of the bargain with their eyebrows raised.
The threat of new sanctions was about distracting Trump’s domestic base away from the fact that he had acknowledged the Iranians were abiding by their end of the deal. Everything had to do with that distraction and little to do with a longer-term recognition of what such threats might mean in the Iranian context.
RFE/RL: Finally, if the ultimate decision maker for Iran is the supreme leader, does that change Washington’s possible moves?
Rubin: Let me answer this in two ways. On one hand, the supreme leader is the ultimate decision maker, and I’m not one who believes just because it’s a factional battle inside Iran means that the result is going to be functionally different. In Iran, the president is about style and the supreme leader is about substance.
That said, the same sort of popular discord in unease at the economy impacted the supreme leader, and just as the threat of new sanctions helps create a distraction for someone like Rouhani against his own internal failings, the same can be said of the supreme leader.
Ultimately, what Iranians want to do regardless of politics -- and what they have consistently done for the past 30-plus years -- is to blame outsiders for their own failings. And what I don’t want to do is give the Iranians that excuse.
I personally was not a supporter of JCPOA; however, now having the agreement rather than just stating the past, what I hope we can do is force the Iranians to recognize that it was never about the sanctions and the real problem has to do with the politicians and religious officials who control them.