Iran’s best chance for a ‘good deal’

For Iran’s leaders, no deal is better than a bad deal.

Iran 36th anniversary of revolution
Iranians attend a rally commemorating the 36th anniversary of the Islamic revolution under Azadi Tower, Tehran [AP]

As the 36th anniversary of the Iranian revolution got under way this week, both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and President Hassan Rouhani made significant speeches breaking away from some of the well established norms of political rhetoric in the Islamic Republic.

In a speech last Sunday, Khamenei indicated that he is as ready as he will ever be for a nuclear agreement with the P5+1. He gave his full support to the talks and, for the very first time, used the words “I agree with the Americans” that no deal is better than a bad deal. Although this is not a major departure in policy terms, it nevertheless signifies a giant leap in speech terms.

Rouhani, in what could also be described as a departure from norm, tacitly accused the hardliners opposing nuclear talks of treason, saying they are no better than Israel in undermining Iran’s national interests. There may be serious disagreements between the hardliners and Rouhani but for him to use the occasion of the anniversary of the revolution to accuse the opposition of treason is taking it one notch above the usual discourse inside the establishment. He is, in effect, shifting the blame to the opposition in case the talks fail.

Eagerness to succeed

Both speeches are unprecedented in their own way and they reflect both eagerness to succeed in the nuclear talks and a level of nervousness about their failure as the June deadline nears. This is especially acute since US President Barack Obama stressed in a recent interview that if a framework agreement is not reached by March 24, there would be no point in extending the talks.

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Khamenei and Rouhani both understand that the forthcoming deadline would be Iran’s very last chance at having an agreement for lifting the sanctions. Both know that if such an agreement is not reached, the deal would be “a bad deal” for Iran. Both know that failure could lead to political tension at home and ill reputation abroad. They know well that failure is a very likely scenario when most estimates, including Obama’s, puts the chance of success at less than 50 percent.   

Both leaders want to prepare the Iranian public for the consequences of possible failure and as such their speeches are mainly for internal consumption. They also want to say they have done all in their power to reach a deal and if this fails the blame should be placed on the US.

Khamenei’s speech was designed to set the tone for all official statements during the anniversary ceremonies. He wanted to ensure that officials would all voice support for nuclear talks but stress the importance of a good deal, which translates as lifting of all sanctions. That is just what he received. Top hardline officials such as the head of judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, and the speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, as well as the head of Guardian Council, Ahmad Janati, slightly adjusted their tone supporting the talks while stressing upon the idea of a “good deal”  

“Lifting of all sanctions is the condition for nuclear agreement,” said the slogan on several banners in the anniversary marches in Tehran and other cities.

“We urge the negotiators to seriously and precisely respect the redlines specified by the Supreme Leader in his Sunday’s speech,” said the final communique of the demonstrations as reported by Fars News agency.

‘Consecutive excuses’

In his speech, Iran’s Supreme Leader was uncompromising about a two-phased agreement consisting of a framework agreement in March and a technical agreement in June.


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wanted to ensure that officials would all voice support for nuclear talks but stress the importance of a good deal, which translates as lifting of all sanctions.”]

“This would become a tool for consecutive excuses,” he said. “I do not approve of this.”

Khamenei also had a message for the Iranian president that his support has limits and is conditional on success.

“Let me remind the president that he has pledged to bring the two sides to a mutual agreement,” said Khamenei, explaining that “mutual” means the other side must also move on its promise to remove sanctions.

He numerated all steps taken by Iran in reducing enrichment in Ferdow as well as halting work on the heavy-water reactor in Arak, and poked fun at the Americans “wanting everything to go their way”. They are asking for too much, he said, adding “this is not the way of negotiation”.

The president, for his part, is also preparing the ground for possible failure of the talks. He knows the days are numbered for the exceptional level of support he has received from Khamenei. He has been under constant pressure from hardliners since the talks began in November 2013. They have pulled him and his team of negotiators apart for every single issue, some as banal as questioning Foreign Minister Javad Zarif over why he was seen in a photo walking with the foreign minister of “the Great Satan“, a term they use for the US.

Rouhani knows that if the nuclear talks fail, the Supreme Leader is very unlikely to support him or his reform programme in the next parliamentary elections due in March 2016. He knows that success in the talks would give him the needed authority and possibly lead to fewer hardliners in the next parliament. That is why he has called for the “political will” of the world powers for the success of the talks.

Dr Massoumeh Torfeh is the former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan and is currently a Research Associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.