Bottom Line & Above

3 – 9 May 2023 

Reformists, Principlists, and the JCPOA

We passed a milestone of sorts this week—and we don’t mean the V-E Day anniversary that increasingly is remembered only in Russia. But Monday, 8 May, marked five years since then-President Donald Trump gleefully repudiated the signature diplomatic achievement of his predecessor—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that curtailed Iran’s nuclear program—in favor of a policy of “Maximum Pressure” of extensive sanctions coupled with a diplomatic effort that resembled nothing so much as the Wicked Witch’s policy of skywriting “Surrender Dorothy” in the skies above Oz.

Don’t worry – I don’t intend to dissect the pros and cons and what-might-have-beens of the JCPOA here. But, the 8 May milestone provoked a slew of articles of late, ranging from requiems for the late lamented JCPOA by its advocates, reviews of how things have changed in the region since the US repudiated the agreement, and even proposals for follow-on or replacement deals.  Western observers have produced their fair share and more of analyses and navel-gazing regarding the JCPOA, but haven’t much explored how Iranians see it. Here, a close read of the PersuMedia Daily Summary might tell us something.

One thing that stands out is that the JCPOA is a more frequent topic of debate in Iran than it is here in the United States. No surprise there: Iranians have to live with the consequences of the increasingly ghostly nature of the JCPOA—especially the economic isolation and dysfunction aggravated by US sanctions—far more than most Americans do. When the China-brokered detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia briefly pushed the JCPOA to the back burner in late April, Iranian commentators continued to debate how that deal might affect prospects for reviving the JCPOA.  

The agreement is just as polarizing in Iran as it is here. Reformists, as a general rule, attach considerable value to the JCPOA; their principlist rivals less so. Indeed, Iran’s conservatives show more than a little ambivalence regarding the JCPOA. Now that they are in power, they are allured by the agreement’s potential to deliver sanctions relief but are wary of dealing with the US and concerned to be perceived to have “won” the negotiation. Long past are the days when Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif could frame the JCPOA as a “win-win” solution.

A review of Iranian media shows the reformists tend to be more consistent in their arguments. They almost always agree that revival of the JCPOA should be a government priority, and that Iran’s success and well-being as a country and polity depends on the JCPOA revival. Typical was the argument of Ali Bigdeli, a frequent reformist writer on Iranian foreign policy, who wrote last month that revival of the JCPOA was the only viable option to extricate Iran from its economic morass. He added that the post-rapprochement promise of Saudi investment would not materialize without the JCPOA.  Likeminded pundits argued that reviving the JCPOA would be central to the success of President Ebrahim Ra’isi’s vaunted “neighborly policy.”

The reformists’ keenness for the JCPOA in part reflects their conception of government. It is a generalization, but by and large, reformists do not view government as sacred, but as a human institution intended to serve the citizens by providing security and promoting prosperity. This view was expressed well by reformist cleric Abdolrahim Abazari, who in early April urged Tehran to consider the greater good in improving the people’s economic condition, ignore matters of lesser importance [e.g., ideological purity], and restore relations with all countries, including the United States.  The reformists tend to recognize the value to Iran of being integrated with the international economy and being able to deal with a broad range of countries.  Unlike the principlists, they are less concerned about the influence—especially cultural influence—foreign countries may gain with Iran as a byproduct of such intercourse.

Iran’s principlists entertain a broader variety of viewpoints regarding the JCPOA. After all, former President Hasan Rouhani and former Majles Speaker Ali Larijani, who negotiated the JCPOA and secured its ratification by a conservative Majles, always have been planted firmly to the right of center in Iran’s politics, their current label as “moderates” notwithstanding. That “realist” strain in principlist thought, that prioritizes hard power and a strong regime, is not negligible and tends to color the views of Iranian conservatives who actually have the responsibility to govern. Along those lines, it is interesting that one of the early signals that the Ra’isi government might be interested now in resuming the nuclear talks came from senior advisor Mohammad Morandi, who lately has claimed that Tehran is ready to sign the deal that was almost reached last August—a deal that Morandi at that time called “inadequate.”

Such “realist” conservatives, however, must always watch their right flank, where self-styled revolutionaries and ideological purists perch and snipe at any effort to compromise the Islamic Republic’s ideals for worldly objectives. The preservation of Islamic values and Iran’s independence from a materialistic “West,” outweigh, in their calculations, any benefits that might be obtained through compromise with an untrustworthy US. Hardline MP Fereidun Abbasi-Davani expressed this viewpoint well last month when he rejected the idea of negotiations with the United States, telling the news site Moniban that Iran must “put aside the US and the dollar.” 

Finally, among Iran’s principlists is a tendency to overestimate Iran’s leverage with the United States—a tradition that goes back to Ayatollah Khomeini’s bold but only partially accurate declaration that “America cannot do a damn thing!”  We have seen this lately as some conservative pundits have argued that Iran’s recent détente with Saudi Arabia will strengthen Tehran’s hand at the negotiating table with Washington.  A related tendency—which, we suspect, reflects some “mirror-imaging”-– is the conservatives’ penchant for overestimating the current US “need” for the JCPOA. Principlist analysts lately have argued that the US is ready to deal because a revival of the nuclear agreement with Iran would be popular with Americans and boost Biden’s prospects for reelection.  Go on–tell us another!

These tendencies, among both reformists and principlists, may have converged to produce the new signals of Iranian interest in reviving the JCPOA, as reported in our featured article this week. Iran’s détente with Saudi Arabia, as well as perceptions of victory in Syria and Yemen, may have strengthened the Nezam’s confidence that it would be negotiating from a position of strength. Moreover, after the Mahsa Amini protests, there seems to be a greater recognition among the conservative realists that they need to reach out to the Iranian people and regain their trust. The rising profile of moderates like Rouhani and Larijani, and their efforts to consult—and perhaps to ally—with reformists no doubt has added urgency to the government’s interest in giving hope to the population, which a revived JCPOA and easing of sanctions just might do. The risk, of course, is that the Nezam has taken too long to decide to deal. Given increasing Western dissatisfaction with Iran’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, its attacks on US personnel in Syria and on tankers in the Gulf, is the deal Iran says it is ready to sign still on the table?

Iran Sending New Signals for JCPoA Revival

From Daily Summary of 9 May 2023

In a shift from their recent pessimistic views towards JCPoA revival, some Iranian pundits and policymakers from both reformist and principlist camps are highlighting Iran’s readiness to restore the 2015 nuclear deal. They cite issues such as Iran’s positive cooperation with the IAEA and the recent Iran-Saudi resumption of ties as signs that a deal could be closer on the horizon. These bipartisan views, coupled with recent statements from the Iranian foreign ministry indicating a deal could be fully implemented, suggest that Iran might take more serious steps to reach out to the U.S. and EU to conclude an agreement. 

The reformist news outlet Arman-e Melli drew attention to comments from reformist-leaning international affairs expert Ali Bigdeli offering his perspective on the potential for the nuclear deal to be restored. According to Bidgeli, Iran’s decision to allow the IAEA to install 27 cameras at its nuclear facilities was an encouraging sign (see Daily Summary of 4 May 2023: “JCPoA Revival Hopes Gloomy”). Despite the uncertainty surrounding an upcoming IAEA Board of Governors’ meeting that could result in a resolution and a new round of sanctions against Iran, he maintained that Iran was moving towards a revival of the JCPoA. He considered the resumption of Iran-Saudi relations as a factor in concluding a nuclear deal, pointing out that Iran would have to deal with Saudi Arabia if it wanted to normalize ties with the West. He also stressed that Iran could lose everything, including its ideology and slogans, if the sides failed to reach an agreement. In a similar vein, principlist journalist Hadi Mohammadi highlighted that EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell had publicly expressed satisfaction regarding the IAEA’s progress in working with Iran. At the same time, Mohammadi suggested Iran’s negotiators remind the U.S. that Iran had reached 60 percent enrichment and that Iranians would continue to show patience, despite pressure on their economy, until the Americans came to the table. Reformist MP Jalil Rahimi-Jahanabadi, a member of the national security and foreign policy committee, also asserted that the JCPoA could be revived, providing the West clarified its intentions regarding the agreement and that proposals and initiatives acceptable to both the Iranian and Western sides were put forward. According to Rahimi-Jahanabadi, there was a national consensus in the country that underscored the need for the JCPoA, and in his view, the West had no other option but to restore the agreement.    


Iran Releases Hoseiniyyun Members amid Confusion

From Daily Summary of 3 May 2023

In what appears to be a course reversal, Iranian authorities have reportedly released high-ranking members of the Hoseiniyyun brigade residing in Iran. Although it is not clear if Towhid Ebrahimi and Orkhan Memedov had been arrested, previous unconfirmed reports suggesting such was the case were met by angry reactions from hardliners who accused the Iranian leadership of miscalculations against Baku.

Although no entity or individual affiliated with the Nezam officially confirmed the arrest of the two men, a group of concerned university students in Mashhad expressed outrage shortly after the news broke. Describing the men as valuable members of the resistance front fighting in places like Syria, they warned authorities against the possibility of the two men’s extradition to the Republic of Azerbaijan. In an open letter addressed to both President Ebrahim Ra’isi and Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, students identifying themselves as Basijis expressed surprise that such a gravely miscalculated action against the two Azerbaijani men could take place during the current administration, which identifies as revolutionary. Critics argued that if the intention was to appease the leadership in Baku, the Nezam should brace itself for a rude awakening, as Baku has already made up its mind to normalize ties with Israel.

Journalist Mohammad Motlaq reported on Twitter that the two men were released from “isolation”—presumably meaning solitary confinement—after intervention on their behalf by the IRGC. IRNA had previously quoted an unnamed official within the intelligence apparatus stating that more investigation was required and the two men were under surveillance. For his part, Towhid Ebrahimi published a video of himself somewhat confirming that the two men had been questioned but thanked Iran’s Ali Khamenei and Quds Force commander Esma’il Qa’ani for their “wisdom.”


SUV-gate Continues To Produce Aftershocks

From Daily Summary of 7 May 2023

The so-called SUV-gate scandal, in which legislators allegedly received luxury vehicles in a political quid pro quo, does not seem to be going away. New allegations continue to surface, this time from another MP who is alleging that many other government entities have also received SUVs outside the registration process and out of turn at a discounted rate.

The claim about offers of SUVs to some members of the Majles has turned into a chaotic political whodunit. “The accusation has generated heated discussions about the impeachment [of former minister of industry Reza Fatemi-Amin] and, of course, made the administration angry,” wrote Kargozaran daily on 29 April. The media went wild back in April when an MP first claimed that dozens of legislators had received SUVs to withdraw their support for the impeachment of Fatemi-Amin (Daily Summary of 30 April 2023: “Another One Bites the Dust: Minister of Industry Gone”). While these allegations did not stop Fatemi-Amin’s impeachment by the Majles, his failure to receive a vote of confidence did not end the controversy surrounding what came to be known as “SUV-gate.” It was revealed that SUVs were offered at a discounted rate and outside the regulations and the registry system, and the scandal continues to deepen and broaden (Daily Summary of 5 May 2023: “MPs’ Bribery Scandal Brings Systemic Corruption to Forefront”). Now, after 229 representatives signed a letter denying that they received SUVs in violation of regulations, there is a new twist. MP Ehsan Arkani, the secretary of the Majles investigation and research committee monitoring the executive branch, claimed that SUVs were also offered to other government organizations and their employees, including the president’s office. Arkani told his colleagues in an official session of the Majles that the committee has received information regarding the contract of one of the automobile companies that also produces SUV products, showing that a number of cars were handed over to government ministries and the president’s office. According to Arkani, the unnamed car manufacturer has allocated a “special sales package” to employees of various government ministries. Confirming that he had the names of these organizations and ministries, Araki went a step further and named some of the organizations involved in the scandal. These included, among others, the ministry of education, the ministry of roads and urban development, the ministry of science, the Plan and Budget Organization, the Social Security Organization, and the National Pension Fund. According to the findings of the investigation and research committee of Majles, although the organizations in question received automobiles outside of the registration cycle, the special inspector of the president’s office, either accidentally or intentionally, chose to ignore this clear violation. For now, it is expected that there will be more twists to this tale and the one question remaining is how the administration, as well as the suspected ministers and entities, will respond to these latest allegations.


‘Inflated’ Inflation Report

From Daily Summary of 8 May 2023

Although the Statistical Center of Iran (SCI) finally released official stats on inflation after a two-month hiatus, media pundits from various camps continued to voice concern about the report being incomplete and manipulated. This only strengthens the earlier hypothesis that the inflation rate is much higher than the administration had expected.

In the past five years, the SCI has regularly published the inflation rate and the consumer price index for the previous month on the first day of the new month, showing the changes in the price of the household consumption basket, and this trend continued until March of this year (see Daily Summary of 26 April 2023: “Hyperinflation and Gloomy Economic Future”). In fact, this is one of the main duties of the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and the SCI. For the last couple of months, however, the SCI published no reports and when it finally did, the data was incomplete and, according to many media outlets, showed signs of tampering. Majid Gudarzi, an economist interviewed by Aftab-e Yazd, believes this was done to show that the sanctions did not have much effect on Iran’s economy, which is why the CBI and the SCI obtained permission to publish the report with a delay. In an article titled “Arbitrary Statistics,” Aftab-e Yazd also quoted Ali Qanbari, another economic expert, who told the reformist paper that, unfortunately, the two organizations published an arbitrary report, and anything contrary to the expectations of these two institutions remains hidden. This has happened in the past as well, according to Qanbari, but it is likely that the inflation rate is higher than what the government expected. Another media outlet called the report “manipulated” and explained how. According to Aftab News, the annual inflation rate of consumer goods and services of households has reached 45.8 percent based on the numbers from March 2021 to March 2022. However, the report makes no comparison with the previous month even though in the presented table the inflation rate for February of the previous year has changed. In the February report published by the SCI, it was stated that “the annual inflation rate for households in February 2022 has reached 47.7 percent,” which shows an increase of 1.4 percentage points compared to the previous month. These numbers are, in fact, detrimental to the administration because if it was based on the previous report, the inflation rate would have decreased by little more than two percent. However, now with the changes made, the inflation rate has increased by only about 1.7 percent, an indication of manipulation of the numbers.

Remarkably, even conservative and pro-administration outlets voiced concern about this latest report. Khorasan newspaper called it “incomplete and very brief.” Eqtesad Online also criticized the delay and the attempt to mislead, calling it “completely unprofessional and useless.” The outlet wrote that the monthly inflation reports for March and April were published with the year 1400 (March 2021–22) as the base, while the inflation rates for the previous months were available with the base year of 1395 (March 2016–17), and therefore it was not possible to correctly compare the current situation with the past, intentionally misleading the people. The overwhelming opinion of independent economists is that the Ra’isi administration has used rhetoric and empty promises on the economy. This latest report once again shows, however, that economic statistics are not an arena for rhetoric. In fact, the report must be a mirror that can show progress or regression and dealing with it transparently and non-selectively gains society’s trust. However, such a misleading, manipulative report has the opposite effect. As a result, it is not difficult to see why there is such a dark outlook on the economic future of the country, as pundits have little to zero trust in the administration’s economic plan, if in fact there is one.


Iran Using Multifaceted Nuclear Strategy

From Daily Summary of 5 May 2023

While threats of the activation of snapback sanctions by the West loom over Iran, Tehran is cooperating with the IAEA by reinstating surveillance cameras at nuclear sites while, at the same time, advancing its nuclear technology. This multifaceted approach can be interpreted as part of Iran’s broader strategy to manage the negative effects of a potentially failed negotiation outcome while remaining focused on its nuclear goals.

Amidst concerns about a potential move by the West to activate the snapback mechanism, which would restore UN sanctions on Iran for JCPoA violations, Tehran announced it would cooperate with the IAEA (Daily Summary of 4 May 2023: “JCPoA Revival Hopes Gloomy”). The threat of snapback sanctions has not, however, deterred Iran from continuing its efforts to advance its nuclear technology. Speaking at the inauguration ceremony of the Saghand yellowcake plant in Yazd province, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Mohammad Eslami announced that Iran was increasing its yellowcake production by 50 percent, using a “heap leaching technique.” Eslami pointed out that five uranium mining sites in Yazd and Isfahan provinces had begun operating in March 2023 and that the AEOI was making efforts to start an electrostatic particle accelerator called “Dynametron.”

While some analysts and media outlets have warned about the threat of the activation of the snapback mechanism by the West and the consequences for Iran’s deteriorating economy, others are dismissing such threats. Hardline international affairs analyst Mostafa Khoshcheshm, whose articles and interviews appear on the supreme leader’s and IRGC-affiliated websites, believes that Western officials have never made the decision to activate the snapback mechanism because it would not benefit their position. In his view, media reports on the issue were an effort to pressure Iran. Khoshcheshm considered the reports about the potential activation of the snapback mechanism part of the enemy’s psychological war aimed at destabilizing Iran’s economy and creating security concerns. According to Farda News, known to be affiliated with Majles Speaker Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, there is a belief among some Iranian pundits that the West does not plan to activate the snapback mechanism against Iran. Foreign policy analyst Amir-Ali Abolfath asserted that despite Iran’s failure to adhere to its commitments under the JCPoA, which included enriching uranium above 60 percent, using new generation centrifuges, enhancing the Fordow site, and shutting down the IAEA’s cameras, the snapback clause had not been triggered. He suggested that the West might also be concerned about the consequences of activating the snapback mechanism.


After Diplomatic Coup in the Gulf, is China Eyeing Syria Next?

From Daily Summary of 8 May 2023


China shocked the world by playing an important role in the Saudi-Iran normalization deal. Now, Beijing seems to be angling to support another regional peace process: the on-going rehabilitation of Bashar al-Assad.  

Bashar’s recent spate of diplomatic good fortune seems to be directly tied to Iran-Saudi normalization. Shortly after agreeing to the resumption of ties, both countries started engaging with Syria in more substantial and public ways. Iran signed several oil agreements with the embattled nation, while Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister met with Assad in Damascus for the first time since the outbreak of the civil war. On May 7th, Bashar was officially re-admitted to the Arab League with full support from Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Chinese media have been closely following the story, and has framed Assad’s rehabilitation as the dividends paid by China’s recent diplomatic efforts. Before the recent developments, Chinese officials had consistently urged humanitarian and diplomatic action to resolve the crisis, and repeatedly criticized the US position. CGTN attributed the move to the “atmosphere of peace” that has overtaken the Middle East in recent months. In a report entitled “Arab diplomats reach consensus on Syria war,” one journalist cited the “earthquake two months ago [that] seemed to push those hesitant neutral countries towards Syria” and pointed out that “chances of normalizing relations between Riyadh and Damascus rose sharply after Riyadh and Tehran, Assad’s main ally, announced an agreement last month to restore diplomatic ties.” While Chinese media are careful not to claim exclusive credit for China, it is difficult to deny that  the latest developments are best understood in the context of China’s diplomatic roll through the region.  When Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad met with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in Jeddah on April 12, the same day that an Iranian delegation arrived in Riyadh to prepare for the reopening of the embassy and consulate, Chinese media reported that an Arab diplomat based in Riyadh told Agence France-Presse: “It is unbelievable that the Iranian and Syrian delegations appeared in Saudi Arabia on the same day. This was a fantasy a few months ago.”

More intriguing is the fact that Chinese officials have shown signs of getting involved in the process themselves. On April 30th, Bashar al-Assad met with Zhai Jun, China’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, in Damascus. Bashar congratulated China on successfully mediating the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Syrian President said that he believed that the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have an important and positive impact on the international situation and regional situation. He expressed that Syria “appreciates China’s positive work in promoting the improvement of Syria’s relations with other Arab countries, and welcomes China to play a greater role in maintaining regional peace and stability.” Zhai Jun referenced several phone calls between Xi and Bashar in 2021 that “injected a strong impetus for the development of China-Syria relations” and praised Bashar’s leadership of the “Syrian people” in the “struggle against terrorism and interference.” The same day, Syria’s Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Susan gave an interview to Xinhua in which he praised China’s “respect [for] international law and the sovereignty of all countries.” In particular, he praised out China’s proposal for a political solution to the Ukraine crisis and its mediation efforts to restore diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. “The United States and the West have been trying to create and spread doubts among countries in the region in order to intensify tensions, thereby serving the hegemonic interests of the United States, but are bringing suffering to the people of the countries in the region.” He also emphasized that the Iran-Saudi reconciliation would “help ease tensions” and “ensure regional security and stability.” 

Ultimately, this is another example of China piggybacking on a regionally-driven peace process. As the United States turns its attention towards the Pacific and is increasingly unable to guarantee security in an era of drone strikes and cyber warfare through traditional military strength, the countries in the region have plenty of reasons to want to reduce tensions and find a way to live with one another, instead of relying on the deterrent of US military intervention.  In fact, it is possible that because the evolving nature of warfare prevents any nation from guaranteeing security or achieving hegemony, peace and stability have become more attractive alternatives to a perpetual state of Hobbesian conflict.  But the Chinese press is not incorrect to point out that without the “earthquake” of Iran-Saudi normalization, the process would likely have remained stalled. Only time will tell if China will be directly involved in the rehabilitation of al-Assad, but it certainly deserves credit for indirectly creating the conditions that made it possible.