Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Beneath the Handshake: Iran's Actual Thoughts on the Nuclear Deal

By Andrew StraussPublished November 5, 2015

Written by Andrew Strauss 11/05/2015 The Iran Nuclear Deal is set to go into effect this year. Liberals, conservatives, and policy experts have all expressed their views about the deal. But what are Iran's opinions on this agreement and how do they expect the Western countries to behave?
This past summer, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was reached between Iran and the P5+1 countries (United States, China, France, Germany, Russia, and United Kingdom). The deal requires Iran to limit its nuclear program while being monitored by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in exchange for nuclear-related sanctions relief. The Iran Nuclear Deal has been one of the most divisive and debated issues in the United States. Americans are primarily concerned about whether Iran will abide by or cheat on this agreement and strengthen its program. However, little has been said about what Iranian leaders and citizens think about the deal. Overall, most Iranians have gradually grown to accept this deal, but they expect sanctions to be lifted quickly and with little hesitation from the West.
 What are the main components of the deal? With this deal in effect, Iran's breakout time for producing a nuclear weapon has been pushed back from 2-3 months to at least one year, for the next ten years. For fifteen years, limits will be placed on Iran's uranium enrichment levels and research and development on advanced centrifuges. Iran has agreed to not build any new heavy water reactors for 15 years. The IAEA can access and monitor all Iranian facilities for the next 20 years. In return, nuclear-related economic sanctions will be lifted in a set schedule of steps. The JCPOA has provisions to re-implement the sanctions if Iran cheats.
What do Iranian politicians think of the deal? Iran's President Hassan Rouhani strongly negotiated for this deal, seeing it as a stepping-stone for future politics. Rouhani's policy agenda is called constructive engagement, which involves more negotiations and less hostility towards other countries. The centrist leader tweeted, "through #JCPOA we were not solely seeking a nuclear deal. We want to suggest a new and constructive way to recreate the international order." Liberal leaders are desperate for a change in foreign policy, as Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif admits that Iran has "exhausted all the bad options except for war."

Other Iranian lawmakers generally support the deal, but the government remains divided between reformists, who favor the deal, and hardliners, who oppose it. The parliament voted 161 to 59 for the deal. Iran's 12 membered Guardian Council deemed the deal to be constitutional. However, they also passed bills stipulating that American sanctions relief will be continuously monitored. Zarif fears that if new sanctions are imposed, hardliners will respond by rebuilding its nuclear program.

 Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is much more skeptical and cynical of the United States. Finally on October 21, months after the deal was made, Khamenei expressed his support for the deal. He strictly and incorrectly interprets the deal, believing that the "imposition of any sanctions on Iran at any level would translate into the violation of the JCPOA." This is incorrect; the United States could theoretically impose more non-nuclear related sanctions. Yet Khamenei declares, "the nuclear deal will be rendered void if any future sanctions are imposed on Iran by any country, or under any pretext…including human rights and alleged support of terrorism."
Nobody should expect the Ayatollah or Iran to become an ally or friend from this deal. Khamenei still spreads his extreme conservative, anti-American ideas, tweeting that "US deceptive involvement in nuclear talks has been intended to advance their hostile policies towards Iran." Khamenei is not interested in future agreements and asserts that, "neither in nuclear issue nor in any other cases, has U.S. taken any position except hostility and trouble; any change in future is unlikely." While it is unsettling that Iran's Supreme Leader still vehemently hates United States, it is miraculous that he even supports the deal. Nobody should expect future peace talks. As Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress, the nuclear deal is not meant to "reform Iran's regime or end its support for terrorism."

Ultimately, Iran's biggest challenge was not to get votes from public officials. Their most difficult task lies ahead; reformists need to earn approval from Iranian citizens and succeed in the upcoming elections on February 26. Iranian leadership has downplayed dismantling its nuclear program to its people, instead preaching that the West backed down on sanctions. Rouhani spoke on Iranian television, assuring the public that sanctions could be repealed in one or two months after Iran begins implementing the deal's provisions, which began in mid-October. This is a wildly optimistic projection, as most experts expect the sanctions to be lifted in two to six months, between January and April 2016, once Iran's nuclear program is dismantled. Zarif eagerly promises that the dismantlement will happen by the end of November. The timing of the sanctions relief is crucial for moderates. Rouhani remains popular in Iran, largely because of his guarantee that people's living conditions would improve once sanctions are lifted. If people do not feel these economic benefits by late February, Rouhani and reformists will lose election votes and future peace talks between Iran and the United States will be slim.

So far the deal has been viewed positively, as many Iranian leaders seem eager to change. However, the economic effects from lifted sanctions and the upcoming Iranian elections will shape what the future Iran"€United States relationship will look like.