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No Royal Road to Implementation: How Rouhani Overcame Obstacles to the Nuclear Deal

Photo: Mehdi Ghasemi/ISNA

Photo: Mehdi Ghasemi/ISNA

January 17 was “Implementation Day”, when the UN nuclear watchdog officially certified that Iran had met its obligations under the nuclear agreement, reached in July 2015. The occasion represented a significant victory for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who made the reaching of a deal the centerpiece of his presidential campaign and subsequent term in office. As a result, many of the sanctions on Iran were lifted, opening up important sectors of the Iranian economy to international business and free tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets.


Experts had originally predicted that Implementation Day would come sometime in the spring, given the amount that Iran needed to do to satisfy its obligations. Yet President Rouhani was in a rush to ensure sanctions would be lifted in time for the February Parliamentary elections, so that his faction of moderates could trumpet the political benefits of the deal when facing Iranian voters.


Rouhani confronted numerous logistical challenges to reach this moment, including shipping 90 percent of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country, removing thousands of centrifuges from enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, and taking out the core at the Arak heavy water reactor and filling it with concrete. And there were obstacles of another kind he had to overcome. Much like his counterpart Barack Obama, Rouhani faced significant domestic political opposition from forces determined to delay, disrupt, or destroy the deal. And even though the deal has cleared the first hurdle of implementation, its political and economic significance will remain at the centre of national debates.


Challenges Within Iran’s Power Bloc

The implementation of the nuclear agreement created challenges within the governing institutions and power structures of both Iran and the United States. Just days after Rouhani issued an executive order to commence the implementation process, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, placed additional conditions on the plan, delaying the process by two months. Khamenei insisted that the IAEA’s Board of Governors formally close Iran’s Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) file—an inquiry into whether Iran conducted atom bomb research in the past—before Iran fulfills its promises to disable its Arak reactor and to reduce its enriched uranium stockpile.


Challenges within the Parliament

Since March 2013, when this round of nuclear negotiations were beginning, the conservative opposition in Iran’s Parliament, especially the Jebhe Paydar bloc (Steadfast Front) whose presidential candidate was Said Jalili, former head of nuclear talks, were resentful of Rouhani’s plans. They began a heavy campaign against his government and his negotiating team. They also accused the government of cringing in front of the ‘enemy’ and criticized it for ignoring the national dignity of the people. They also called the negotiation an opportunity for the US to meddle in Iran’s internal affairs.


Criticisms from the conservative bloc made it into the Parliament and were publicly discussed on national media. Additionally, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), once a proponent of negotiations, suddenly became the main critic of the nuclear deal.


When the nuclear deal was finalized in July 2015, the government was hesitant to present the agreement to the Parliament and believed that the approval of the Supreme National Security Council was enough to go forward with the implementation plan. Given the antagonistic history of the Parliament with Rouhani’s negotiation team, the government refrained from involving the Parliament as it feared being restricted in its future diplomatic maneuvers. Eventually the Supreme Leader ordered the involvement of Majlis in the implementation of the agreement.


Shortly after the nuclear agreement, Parliament’s commission on nuclear negotiations, headed by Alireza Zakani, hosted officials associated with the deal, including officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The commission subjected the negotiating team to harsh questions and tough criticism, which were subsequently broadcast in the media, creating a difficult environment for the implementation of the nuclear deal.


Divisions among members of the commission soon became apparent, however. While the commission’s final report contained numerous criticisms, five of its members objected publicly to the negative characterization, and later wrote a report highlighting the deal’s positive attributes for Iranian society. The tension between parliamentary members escalated so much so that at one point the chairman of the Atomic Energy Organization was harassed and sent threatening messages. Never before in the history of Iran’s Parliament had an important foreign policy issue been the subject of such vicious internal divisions.


At the same time, there were frequent talks aimed at establishing cooperation between power blocs responsible for the nuclear issue. One day before the nuclear deal, Mr. Hejazi, a senior member of the Supreme Leader cabinet, as well as Mr. Shemkhani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, were engaged in constructive talks with different fractions of the government on the nuclear issue.


Ultimately, the conservative-dominated parliament overwhelmingly endorsed the agreement on October 13. Despite significant divisions, the nuclear agreement marked a significant moment in the history of Iran, where all factions of the government were engaged in dialogue and debate on a critical foreign policy issue.The pattern and relationships established during this time will undoubtedly play a significant role in shaping public engagement in future foreign policy issues.  


The Supreme Leader and the President

Towards the end of October 2015, in a letter to president Rouhani, the Supreme Leader set out nine conditions that had to be met for him to approve the implementation of the nuclear deal.  According to Abbas Araghchi, deputy foreign minister, the Supreme Leader was involved in the details of each step of negotiations. Given this involvement, Khamenei’s letter was mostly likely a move to calm radical conservatives and to develop an fallback position should the nuclear deal be cancelled by America’s next president.


Rouhani responded to the letter by stressing the positive and historic aspects of the deal, and disputing claims that it contained fundamental weaknesses. Rouhani also discreetly confirmed that officials in the EU and the US had already approved some of the conditions mentioned in the letter, including the lifting of sanctions.  On the other hand, Rouhani remained silent on limiting the possibility of new sanctions for terrorism and human rights issues. Rouhani expressed confidence that the West would not accept such conditions.


Even though the critical tone of the letter may have appeared concerning for the implementation of the deal, on numerous occasions, Western officials appeared confident that Iran’s domestic affairs would not jeopardize the deal.


The logistics and major barriers to implementation

Iran needed to take major steps to implement the nuclear agreement. Iran had to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to 300 KG. It needed to redesign its heavy water reactor at Arak and reduce the number of its installed centrifuges from an estimated 19,000 to 6,000. And, finally, Iran had to implement the Additional Protocol to the IAEA, which grants the agency authority to access all nuclear and suspected nuclear facilities.  For sanctions to be lifted, the IAEA had to approve all such practical measures.


Additionally, Iran had to provide clear explanation and/or justification for its nuclear activities prior to 2003. Ultimately Iran worked cooperative with the IAEA and allowed for interviews to be conducted with site experts. During the negotiations, certain suggestions were raised to prevent the IAEA’s report on PMD to have an impact on the deal. John Kerry also said that even though Iran’s nuclear activity prior to 2003 is important to the United States, at this moment, his focus was more on the future. Prominent nuclear experts, including Fitzpatrick Gerald, believe that Iran would not be fully acquitted by IAEA, but the report would not serve as an obstacle to the agreement.   


Ultimately, on 16 December 2015, IAEA released the final report on possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s activities, concluding that “a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003….The Agency has no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009.”
Despite significant opposition and practical obstacles, the political will of Iran and the West was able to realize what had once been a fantasy: a peaceful and diplomatic resolution to the international crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme.


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