Meet the men behind Iran’s nuclear deal

A profile of the Iranian politicians at the forefront of the nuclear deal, and the stances they adopted over time.

Iranian FM Zarif with EU''s Mogherini
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has led Iran's negotiation team to reach nuclear deal [Reuters]

After 18 days of marathon talks in Vienna, Iran has reached a deal with P5+1 nations – China, France, Russia, the UK, the US and Germany – on its nuclear programme.  

The outcome followed a series of staggered deadlines and delays, but the accord was finally announced on Tuesday by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the EU’s policy chief Federica Mogherini via a joint statement.

Zarif called the deal a “win-win” solution and a historic moment for international diplomacy. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani echoed this sentiment on Twitter saying that its outcome shows that “constructive engagement works”.

The accord has yet to be made officially public, but will prevent Iran from producing enough material to make a nuclear weapon for at least ten years, while also imposing new provisions regarding inspections of Iranian facilities.

Throughout negotiations, the Iranian politicians at the forefront of the deal have made many – at times conflicting – statements on the future of Iran’s nuclear programme. Below are profiles of the four men who have been at the centre of the negotiation process, and what they had been saying.

Khamenei has drawn what some are calling “red lines” in regards to the nuclear deal [EPA]
Khamenei has drawn what some are calling “red lines” in regards to the nuclear deal [EPA]

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

As the second Supreme Leader in the country’s history, Ayatollah Khamenei stands over political squabbles in Iran’s domestic arena wielding the final say on any aspect of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Over time, Khamenei has staunchly maintained that the programme is for peaceful purposes only, a stance that took on religious gloss in 2003, when he issued a fatwa “forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction, and specifically nuclear arms”.  

Khamenei has combined this rhetoric with an anti-American posture lined in hostile language; in 1998, he rejected the idea of talks with the US, saying that they would be “harmful” and that the US was the enemy of the Islamic Republic.

Almost ten years later, when Obama extended Nowruz gestures in a video message for the Persian New Year, Khamenei was the face of Iran’s uncharacteristically high-level response in a state television address, which reiterated that there would be no changes between the two countries.

The Supreme Leader’s stance on the US has not been categorical, however. Other public utterances seem to indicate that Iranian hostility does not beam directly at the idea of US-relations in general, but rather at the potential for damage perceived in such relations.

In 2013, an important annual speech at the beginning of Iranian New Year signalled a historical shift in tone.

At the time, Khamenei had expressed scepticism of negotiations with the US, but also said “I don’t oppose them”. For the Supreme Leader, talks would be possible if, and only if, Washington changed its own approach of entitlement and pressure.

The dizzy ricochet of competing groups in Iran’s domestic scene has been a compelling force for Khamenei, who has regime stability as his endgame. President Rouhani’s popular campaign platform of moderation, nuclear resolution and sanctions removal demonstrated that many in the country were willing to entertain talks if they could soften economic plight.

Khamenei has faced a tough political equation; he had to balance a potential beneficial outcome of talks with the risk of alienating hardliners. 

Recent declarations by Khamenei indicate that he had been keeping this balance in mind. While deflecting hardliner criticism of Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif’s efforts to spearhead talks, calling them “children of the revolution“, he also declared, while talks were ongoing, that negotiators had to be vigilant

Moreover, Khamenei drew what some called “red lines” with regards to the nuclear deal, which observers said could have jeopardised the possibility of successful negotiatons.

In a recent speech published on his personal website, Khamenei had declared that the nuclear industry should not stop and that Iran will not accept any 10 or 12 year-long restrictions on its programme, which contradicts the new deal’s stipulation that Iran not make material for nuclear weapons for 10 years.

Khamenei, however, had been adamant that “research, development and production should continue”, and sanctions be immediately lifted “at the time of signing the agreement”.

He is also opposed the development of the programme being contingent on the International Atomic Energy Agency reports.

Lover of novels, defender of the 1979 seizure of American hostages in Iran, and a leading figure in the 1979 revolution, Khamenei has remained an elusive persona for Western media, who had worked to decipher whether his comments presented a genuine obstacle to talks, or were merely pacifying scraps tossed to the country’s hardliners. 

Described as pragmatic and a centrist’, Rouhani ran on a presidential platform of moderation [EPA]
Described as pragmatic and a centrist’, Rouhani ran on a presidential platform of moderation [EPA]

President Hassan Rouhani

Rouhani’s election to office prompted a flurry of global headlines, which were only further stoked by a historic phone call between Rouhani and President Obama marking both Rouhani’s election and the first direct conversation between American and Iranian leaders since 1979.

Described as pragmatic and a centrist, Rouhani ran on a presidential platform of moderation, touting a potential nuclear deal as a window to economic progress and an end to Iran’s international isolation.

After the election, Rouhani became associated with the future of Iran’s nuclear programme when it was announced that his new government had the responsibility – and accountability – of spearheading negotiations alongside Foreign Minister Zarif.

Yet Rouhani has had previous experience with Iran’s nuclear programme. In 2003, he was the lead Iranian negotiator in talks with the EU-3, during which he agreed to freezing Iran’s uranium enrichment program in the only deal between Iran and the West until 2013.

The deal fell through, and Rouhani was painted as a sell-out by hardliners. In a telling speech the following year, however, he implied that the talks had given Iran an advantage by allowing the country to stall for time.

“While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan,” he said.

His speech had followed revelations that Iran had concealed plans for a more advanced centrifuge – plans that Rouhani said Iran had intended to disclose. He admitted, however, that the incident eroded Iran’s credibility with the EU-3.

“It was a serious blow to the process,” he said. Rouhani later resigned.

Less than ten years later, however, shifts in Iran’s domestic politics allowed Rouhani to come back to the negotiating table as president. In November 2013, he and the P5+1 laid out a framework for a long-term solution called the Joint Plan of Action, to be implemented in 2014. A deadline was tentatively set for July, with cushion room for possible extension.

In this plan, Iran agreed to limit its programme by suspending enriched uranium production while curbing stock and the construction of facilities. The country was granted temporary sanction relief in return.

Since the framework’s establishment, Rouhani has made overtures of transparency by giving the IAEA access to previously barred sites.

By 2014, Rouhani, who had previously been hailed in Western media as a “diplomat sheikh“, was positioning himself in front of an open door to a future economically successful Iran. During the World Economic Forum, he asked a hall full of political and business leaders to “come and visit Iran to see the investment opportunities”, adding that nuclear weapons have “no place” in the country’s security outlook.

Yet others remain sceptical of the image of Rouhani the pragmatist.

Zarif has two degrees and a doctorate from US universities, and a long history of diplomatic service behind him [EPA]
Zarif has two degrees and a doctorate from US universities, and a long history of diplomatic service behind him [EPA]
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

Before becoming Foreign Minister of Iran, Zarif served from 2002 to 2007 as Tehran’s UN ambassador, a diplomatic tenure that established his reputation of being an articulate and a reasoned spokesperson.

During his time in New York, where he gathered Washington analysts and academics for small dinners, Zarif became well-known among many US politicians. Vice President Joe Biden said of him that “he can play an important role in helping to resolve our significant differences with Iran peacefully”.

Zarif has two degrees and a doctorate from US universities, and a long history of diplomatic service behind him. He was an unofficial spokesman at Iran’s embassy in Washington at the age of 19, and made appearances in negotiations over the cease-fire of the Iran-Iraq war and intelligence assistance for US forces in Afghanistan.

US negotiatiors have called Araghchi 'professional' and 'tough' [EPA]
US negotiatiors have called Araghchi ‘professional’ and ‘tough’ [EPA]
Source: Al Jazeera