Could Iran's Hardliners Derail a Nuclear Deal?

A primer on Iranian politics

Iran's parliament in Tehran (Vahid Salemi / AP)

On Tuesday, the final deadline for concluding international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program was extended again; after 18 months of talks, negotiators are working toward July 7 as a “soft deadline” to conclude a deal. Assuming that deadline is met, the conclusion of international diplomacy will set in motion distinct processes for implementing a deal in Iran and the United States.

In March, U.S. Senator Tom Cotton sent an open letter, signed by 46 of his colleagues, to Iran’s leadership, advising the recipients that “you may not fully understand our Constitutional system,” and in particular Congress’s (debated) role in approving and instituting international agreements. The Obama administration has argued that since the deal would not be a formal treaty, it does not trigger the constitutional requirement that “two-thirds of the Senators present concur;” however, Congress does ultimately get to decide on crucial aspects of implementation, such as whether and when to lift sanctions on Iran.

But what’s required to implement the deal on the Iranian side? Are there domestic forces in Iran, similar to those in the United States, that could derail a deal even if the leadership wants it? Are there Tom Cotton equivalents in Iran’s parliament? I asked Farzan Sabet, a visiting fellow in the Department of Government at Georgetown and managing editor of IranPolitik, a website on Iranian political affairs, to explain what might happen in Tehran after talks end in Vienna.

Kathy Gilsinan: Say the negotiators actually strike a nuclear deal. How does the Iranian system process it domestically? Does parliament have to pass laws to implement it? Can the supreme leader simply reject it if he doesn’t like it?

Farzan Sabet: According to Article 77 of Iran’s constitution, international treaties, protocols, contracts, and agreements have to be ratified by parliament. In the case of the nuclear negotiations, this means that parliament has to ratify both a final agreement and other legal documents Iran may choose to accede to for the purpose of a deal’s implementation, like the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol, which would allow inspectors expanded access to verify Iranian compliance [with the agreement]. We should keep in mind that these things are not always as predictable in Iran as in other places. For example, parliament may choose to hand off a final agreement to the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), a body which coordinates foreign and national-security policy decision-making between Iran’s main centers of power, for review and consultation before deciding for or against ratification.

The supreme leader can reject a deal if he doesn’t like it through an “executive command” (hokm-e hokumati). However, since the supreme leader is regularly briefed and consulted on the progress of the talks, the assumption is that any nuclear deal that is struck will already have his acquiescence and is unlikely to be rejected. If he does choose to reject it, he doesn’t have to do it directly. The supreme leader’s power pervades Iran’s political system and there are other ways to kill a deal that keep his hands clean.

Gilsinan: Like what?

Sabet: It depends on how Iran ultimately implements the deal domestically and the final procedures it establishes. Based on this, it could be through parliament, the president, the SNSC, etc. For instance, under a new law passed by parliament on the nuclear negotiations, the foreign minister and parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission are required to report to the legislature every six months about whether an agreement is being implemented in the “appropriate” manner. Procedures like this could give a pretext for parliament to derail an agreement months or even years down the road.

If Iran’s parliament were to derail the deal, however, the initiative probably wouldn’t come from the legislature by itself. This is different than in the U.S. where Congress could decide not to give the sanctions relief required in an eventual deal, and thereby derail it unilaterally. Parliament can theoretically try to dismantle an agreement after it is signed, but it is unlikely to do so as long as there is a regime-wide consensus that an agreement serves the national interest.

Gilsinan: When is the deal actually “done” within Iran? What other forces within the system could derail it after it’s signed?

Sabet: There are “known knowns” like parliamentary ratification, “known unknowns” like whether the supreme leader chooses to exercise his executive command, and then there are “unknown unknowns” like ad-hoc procedures adopted along the way which could  provide opportunities to derail an agreement.

The important point to remember is that the decision-making process behind the nuclear negotiations has been so centralized in Iran that it’s not only President Hassan Rouhani negotiating, but the regime. The relevant foreign-policy and national-security power centers in Iran have had input in the nuclear negotiations decision-making process and operate under the supreme leader as final arbiter, so if an agreement is reached they are unlikely to try and derail it.

Gilsinan: Does Iran have its own Tom Cottons? What have they been saying about the negotiations?

Sabet: Yes and no.

Yes in the sense that there is a bloc of legislators who absolutely distrust their president and the other negotiating party, and think the current nuclear negotiations compromise their country’s national interests. One place you can find them in the Iranian parliament is the Persevering Front of the Islamic Revolution faction. One of the episodes that really stands out in terms of what they’ve been saying about the negotiations is when MP Mehdi Koochakzadeh confronted Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the floor of Iran’s parliament in a yelling match and called him a “traitor” for his conduct of the talks. Otherwise it’s just been the usual “Death to America” chants from this small but vocal faction and nothing quite as memorable as Senator Cotton’s letter.

No in the sense that Senator Cotton arguably represents the tip of the spear of a powerful coalition who opposes America’s current stance in nuclear negotiations. It’s probably not too far of a stretch to say that Senator Cotton’s position is supported by many congressional Republicans (perhaps even some Democrats), a large swath of the American public (and the interest groups who represent them), and key U.S. allies in the Middle East.

In Iran, groups like the Persevering Front are, at the moment, fairly marginal. I’ve seen some in D.C. try to draw equivalence between “hardliners” over here (the U.S.) and over there (Iran) undermining negotiations, when it’s really not the case. Senator Cotton and the coalition he represents can bring pressure to bear on the Obama administration to change its negotiating stance and potentially even block the implementation of a final deal. The Persevering Front, and even parliament as a whole, are not powerful enough to block a deal by themselves. If and when the regime consensus turns against the implementation of a deal—and the parliamentary leadership would have input in any shift—the legislature may become a vehicle for its undoing. And the Persevering Front and their ilk would be the regime and leader’s most loyal pawns leading the headlong charge.