Source: The Wall Street Journal – by Jay Solomon (Nuclear Deal Fuels Iran’s Hardliners)
The Obama administration’s nuclear deal was intended to keep Iran from pursuing an atomic bomb, and raised hope in the West that Tehran would be nudged toward a more moderate path.
But there are growing fears in Washington and Europe that the deal—coupled with anescalating conflict with Saudi Arabia—instead risks further entrenching Iran’s hard-line camp.
Since completion of the agreement in July, Tehran security forces, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have stepped up arrests of political opponents in the arts, media and the business community, part of a crackdown aimed at ensuring Mr. Khamenei’s political allies dominate national elections scheduled for Feb. 26, according to Iranian politicians and analysts.
“Americans have set their eyes covetously on elections, but the great and vigilant nation of Iran will act contrary to the enemies’ will, whether it be in elections or on other issues, and as before will punch them in the mouth,” he told a meeting of prayer leaders this week.
The feud between Tehran and Riyadh, sparked by the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia, could also strengthen hard-line nationalist forces in Iran. U.S. officials fear the conflict could undermine international efforts to end the civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Iran and Saudi Arabia joined international talks in Vienna late last year that put in place a timeline to end the war in Syria. The future of the talks is now uncertain.
And in a challenge to the U.S., Iran in recent weeks tested two ballistic missiles and fired rockets near U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.
U.S. and European officials had hoped the nuclear accord would broaden cooperation with Tehran, and empower Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to promote democratic change. He was elected in 2013 on a platform to end the nuclear standoff and build bridges to the West.
The agreement, which calls for Iran to scale back its nuclear work in exchange for removal of international sanctions, fueled euphoria in Tehran among residents, students and business executives seeking greater freedom.
But the continuing purge and the conflict with Saudi Arabia stand to weaken Mr. Rouhani, a moderate Islamic cleric who backed the nuclear deal that involved more than two years of negotiations by his closest aides.
As much as $100 billion in frozen revenues are expected to return to Iran after sanctions are lifted, which U.S. officials said could happen in coming weeks. The White House hoped the cash windfall would aid Mr. Rouhani’s political fortunes. But Iranian academics close to Mr. Rouhani are increasingly concerned Mr. Khamenei will use the money and diplomatic rewards to entrench hard-line allies, at the expense of the president.
Many of the companies about to be removed from international blacklists are part of military and religious foundations, including some that report directly to Mr. Khamenei. Those firms could be the first to benefit from the rush of international businesses looking to profit from the lifting of sanctions.
A senior Obama administration official said Wednesday that it was too early to gauge the political fallout created in Iran by the nuclear agreement: “There is the opposite case to make,” the official said, “that as sanctions relief comes into play it will dilute the hold on power of the old guard.”
Mr. Khamenei, who gave lukewarm support to the deal, has said the U.S. would use the accord to try to sabotage his country’s Islamic revolution. “We won’t allow American political, economic or cultural influence in Iran,” the 76-year-old supreme leader said in August.
Weeks later, evidence of the crackdown surfaced. Award-winning filmmaker Keywan Karimi was sentenced in October to six years in prison and more than 200 lashes on the charge of “insulting sanctities.” He was making a documentary about an Iranian artist, based in Europe, accused of blasphemy by Shiite clerics. He has denied the charges.
The same month, two Iranian poets, Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi, each received decadelong sentences and 99 lashes for kissing members of the opposite sex and shaking their hands, Iranian state media reported. They have denied the charges.
Authorities also arrested Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American energy industry executive whose family owns a consulting firm that specializes in attracting foreign investment to Iran, his family said. No charges have been filed against Mr. Namazi, who attended Tufts and Rutgers universities.
In November, an Iran court convicted the Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief, Jason Rezaian, of espionage and sentenced him to prison. The Post and Mr. Rezaian have denied the charges.
The White House, while voicing concerns about the arrests, has said the nuclear agreement was in the best interests of the U.S., regardless of where Iran’s domestic politics goes next.
“The guiding assumption was that Iran would not moderate its behavior,” said Rob Malley, President Barack Obama’s top Mideast adviser. “The president considered [it] absolutely critical to get this nuclear deal because we had no assessment that in the foreseeable future, Iran would change its approach.”
Many of the regime’s staunchest critics, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Abadi, said a more open society would one day emerge as Iran’s global relations improved, an argument made by many in the White House.
Mr. Obama said last March in a message to Iran marking the Persian New Year that he believed a nuclear agreement could “lead to a better path, the path of greater opportunities for the Iranian people. More trade and ties with the world. More foreign investment and jobs, including for young Iranians. More cultural exchanges and chances for Iranian students to travel abroad. More partnerships in areas like science and technology and innovation.”
But recent arrests have sent a chill through Iran’s business and political circles, even as European executives stream to Tehran to pursue opportunities.
At an upscale hotel in northern Tehran recently, an Iranian businessman told a European delegation in hushed tones what he believed motivated hard-liners. “The fear is penetration from the West through business,” said the executive, who holds dual-citizenship with a Western country. “They want to send the message that they still count.”
Next month’s Iranian election will choose a new parliament and the administrative body empowered to select Mr. Khamenei’s successor, a new leader who could steer Iranian politics for many years ahead, analysts said. There are signs that hard-liners will limit the number of reformist politicians eligible to run, analysts said.
Earlier this week, the Guardian Council, a clerical body that has begun vetting candidates, announced that the grandson of Iran’s revolutionary founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, may be barred because he missed a religious exam. He is seen as an ally of Mr. Rouhani and reformist politicians.
Iranian analysts and politicians said Mr. Rouhani shouldn’t be written off. The cleric is working with a coalition of loyalists, technocrats and religious leaders who are trying to gain control of parliament. An overly aggressive effort by hard-liners to thwart Mr. Rouhani and his allies could backfire, they said.
But the ranks of reformists in Iran have been depleted. Many activists are angry at the Obama administration for failing to support them six years ago in a rebuff that hasn’t been previously reported.
Iranian opposition leaders secretly reached out to the White House in the summer of 2009 to gauge Mr. Obama’s support for their “green revolution,” which drew millions of people to protest the allegedly fraudulent re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The demonstrations caught the White House off guard, said current and former U.S. officials who worked on Iran in the Obama administration.
Some U.S. officials pressed Mr. Obama to publicly back the fledgling Green Movement, arguing in Oval Office meetings that it marked the most important democratic opening since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Mr. Obama wasn’t convinced. “‘Let’s give it a few days,’ was the answer,” said a senior U.S. official present at some of the White House meetings. “It was made clear: ‘We should monitor, but do nothing.’ ”
The president was invested heavily in developing a secret diplomatic outreach to Mr. Khamenei that year, sending two letters to the supreme leader in the months before the disputed election of Mr. Ahmadinejad, said current and former U.S. officials.
Obama administration officials at the time were working behind the scenes with the Sultan of Oman to open a channel to Tehran. The potential for talks with Iran—and with Mr. Khamenei as the ultimate arbiter of any nuclear agreement—influenced Mr. Obama’s thinking, current and former U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials said the White House also was getting conflicting messages from Green Movement leaders. Some wanted Mr. Obama to publicly warn Mr. Khamenei against using force. Others said such a declaration would give Iran’s supreme leader an excuse to paint the opposition as American lackeys.
Mr. Obama and his advisers decided to maintain silence in the early days of the 2009 uprising. The Central Intelligence Agency was ordered away from any covert work to support the Green Movement either inside Iran or overseas, said current and former U.S. officials involved in the discussions.
“If you were working on the nuclear deal, you were saying, ‘Don’t do too much,’ ” saidMichael McFaul, who served as a senior National Security Council official at the White House before becoming ambassador to Russia in 2012.
After a week of demonstrations, Iran’s security forces went on to kill as many as 150 people and jail thousands of others over the following months, according to opposition and human rights groups. Mr. Khamenei accused the U.S. of instigating the uprising. Iran denied killing protesters.
Some of Mr. Obama’s closest advisers, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in retrospect the U.S. should have backed the Green Movement. “If we could do it again, I would give different counsel,” said Dennis Ross, Mr. Obama’s top Mideast adviser during his first term. At the time, he said, he argued against embracing the protests.
A senior U.S. official said this week that the Obama administration argued against covert support for the Green Movement because it risked undermining its credibility domestically, not out of fear of Mr. Khamenei’s reaction. “We did not want to tar the movement,” the official said.
Mr. Obama pursued nuclear diplomacy with Iran using a two-track approach: ratcheting up economic sanctions while leaving the door open for direct negotiations.
Over the next four years, international sanctions cut Iran’s oil exports in half, and the value of its currency, the rial, dropped by two-thirds. The U.S. also succeeded in shutting off most of Iran’s financial institutions from the global economy, including Iran’s central bank.
In 2012, the White House, working through Omani intermediaries, set up the first direct talks with Iran. A year later, Mr. Rouhani was elected, and the negotiations moved more quickly toward an agreement.
Mr. Obama’s advisers said the White House’s cautious handling of Iran’s political opposition was the best course in 2009. The Green Movement wasn’t unified, they said, and didn’t have much of a chance to overthrow the regime.
Former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who led the protests, remain under house arrest in Tehran, despite pledges by Mr. Rouhani to release them. Thousands of student leaders and democracy activists who took to the streets six years ago were exiled to Turkey, Europe and the U.S., fearing arrest if they return home.
At a recent oil conference in Tehran, Mr. Rouhani’s energy minister, Bijan Zanganeh,answered questions about oil production and job promotion in the wake of the nuclear agreement. When pressed about the status of political prisoners, which include Messrs. Mousavi and Karroubi, he didn’t answer and instead jumped into a waiting SUV.
“A historic opportunity was missed” six years ago, said former Green Movement leaderHeshmat Tabarzadi in an interview via Skype in Tehran. He has served intermittent jail terms there since 2009.
“There isn’t much of a Green Movement left,” he said.