Nuclear talks secrecy allows Iran's hard-liners to argue US has upper hand

Iranian hard-liners say US optimism after last week's nuclear talks is a sign Iran made too many concessions. The secrecy on talks has allowed such accusations to flourish.

Martial Trezzini/Keystone/AP
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif briefs the media after the two days of closed-door nuclear talks, during a press conference at the CICG, in Geneva, Switzerland, Oct.16, 2013.

Hard-liners in Iran are lashing out at Iran's nuclear negotiating team, arguing that if the United States is happy about the outcome of talks in Geneva last week, then Iran must have given away too many concessions. Secrecy on the content of talks, agreed to by both sides, is also being used as an argument to raise suspicions and fuel that criticism. 

At the end of two days of talks between Iran and world powers on curbing Iran's nuclear program, a senior US official said the American negotiating team had “never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversation” in 1-1/2 years of fruitless effort. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif echoed the positive note, saying a “very important step” had been made and that he was “looking at the future with some hope.”

Serious differences remain between Iran and the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany), with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov saying the two sides remained “kilometers” apart.

Yet hard-line editors and politicians in Iran focused on the hints of progress, firing off complaints that Mr. Zarif and his team must be secretly peddling a bad deal for Iran. It's a reaction that underscored how vicious political infighting remains in Iran, even after the surprise, overwhelming victory of centrist President Hassan Rouhani in June elections over a slate of conservative candidates. Many hard-liners – whose voices have been muted but growing since the election –see the new president's outreach as too compromising in its eagerness to strike a nuclear deal and ease sanctions.

Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the hard-line Kayhan newspaper – an official representative of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – titled his analysis, “Why is the enemy satisfied?” The newspaper has played the role of “bad cop” as popular optimism inside Iran has surged this summer in response to Mr. Rouhani’s pledge of moderation and change.

“The unprecedented excitement of [the P5+1] … shows that we have not gained any concessions in return for all the concessions that we have given away or promised to give away,” Mr. Shariatmadari wrote. “This bitter reality is more obvious than 'secret.' ”

Talks to the benefit of the P5+1 “means to our loss,” Shariatmadari wrote. Iran's counterpart at the talks are the "enemy of Islam and Iran," he said, and secrecy would mean that Iranian media could not counter their "psychological operations." The secrecy, he asserted, was raising “suspicions in public opinion that [Iran’s team] might give an ‘inappropriate’ concession.”  

Despite the official link to Mr. Khamenei, Kayhan and its editor have seen much reduced influence of its reach and ideological message, since the resounding defeat of conservative candidates last June. Shariatmadari has also been known to take especially hard-line stances that have undermined sitting governments, and provoked hard-line factions – which remain a minority in Iran – into noisy backlash. The result for Khamenei, Iran experts say, is a delicate balancing act.

"I think [Khamenei] doesn’t like to distance himself from obedient and loyal hard-liners,” says an analyst in Tehran who, like most commentators in Iran, declined to be identified publicly. “By this policy, he not only keeps the sword of Damocles over the government and reformists … but being close to [hard-liners] makes it easier for him to control them.”


There have been several reports in US and Israeli media – sourced to unnamed Iranian or Western officials, or Americans who briefed Israel on the Geneva talks – purporting to know the details of Zarif's proposal. Those unconfirmed reports contain familiar contours expected in any final deal: A halt to Iran’s most sensitive uranium enrichment of 20 percent, which is technically a few steps from bomb-grade; limits on low-level enrichment; much more intrusive inspections.

Zarif, who titled his Geneva PowerPoint presentation “Closing unnecessary crisis, and opening a new horizon” and spoke in English, has given interviews and taken to social media to clarify that there had been no leaks of the Iranian offer. 

“These are speculations that have little in common with reality,” Zarif told news outlet Al Monitor website in an interview. “Our refusal to unveil details of the proposal is a sign of our sincerity and seriousness.” 

“My colleagues and I are prepared to bear the media pressure,” he wrote in Persian on Facebook, adding that keeping the talks secret “does not mean that we are afraid of revealing their contents.”

The Obama administration has its own set of potential spoilers to contend with, if any deal is to be struck. Many members of the US Congress are determined to add further sanctions that could disrupt the talks. And US-ally Israel has spelled out its own demands that Iran not just limit its nuclear work, but in fact dismantle its entire nuclear program – an ambition that few others entertain, with industrial-scale nuclear work already under way for years in Iran.

In Iran potential spoilers are also numerous, and Kayhan has already had an effect. It misquoted Zarif telling a closed-door meeting with Iranian lawmakers that Rouhani’s historic phone call with President Obama in late September was a mistake.

Upon seeing that Kayhan headline, Zarif said he was afflicted with back and leg pain that took him briefly to the hospital and has since affected his work. Afterward he said all official statements would be made publicly, because “the market for abuse is very active."

Khamenei's balancing act

Weeks ago, Khamenei ordered all factions in Iran to support the fledgling Rouhani government, and said in advance of Rouhani’s diplomatic efforts-- in New York at the United Nations and in Geneva on the nuclear file-- that “heroic flexibility” might be necessary.

Iran’s Friday prayer leaders take their guidance from the supreme leader, and last Friday many praised the result in Geneva, while also asking why details remained hidden. “The heroic aspects were preserved during the negotiations because no Iranian bowed to the enemy,” said the prayer leader in Qom.

Many other Iranian officials also approved of the positive result, noting that Iran’s new proposal was now the center of the talks, effectively replacing a P5+1 offer presented last spring that was seen by Iran as unbalanced.

But after the Obama-Rouhani phone call, Khamenei said that some actions in New York – without specifying which – had been “inappropriate.” That simple hint came from a rankled Khamenei in partial response to Mr. Obama restating that "all options" including military ones were on the table regarding Iran, while standing next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It also opened the way for Iran’s hard-liners to step up their attacks.

They oppose what they call “the New Yorkers circle” of Iranian officials close to Zarif who have often spent years posted in New York, and who hard-liners believe are too close to the US and want to normalize relations after nearly 35 years of mutual hostility. Zarif was educated in the US, and was Iran’s UN ambassador for five years.

“This gang is a well-known group in the foreign ministry…which enjoys a very negative opinion and is responsible for measures in the years after the [1979] Islamic revolution which were mostly destructive for the country,” wrote one hard-line weekly, according to a translation by Rooz Online.

The hard-line Raja News website spoke of “the clear and undeniable record of the activities of the New Yorkers group in damaging the national interest.”

In another note about Geneva, Kayhan asked why the “Great Satan” America (along with the “Little Satan” Israel) was an insider aware of the proposal details, while the Iranian people are outsiders. Resalat newspaper noted that “‘creating’ doubt is different from ‘managing' it.”

Still, more moderate Iranian news sources took issue with the hard-line view.

The Alef news website, for example, chastised Kayhan’s editor for not telling the entire story. The site said that along with praise from the P5+1 for the unprecedented candor from Iran was also recognition that Iran’s new offer “is meaningfully far from the West’s desire…. Therefore there is no reason to accuse Iranian diplomats of being traitorous.”

Likewise, the reformist Bahar newspaper sought to slap down Kayhan by stating a fact of life in Iran – that Khamenei makes all final decisions – and noting that previous years of failed nuclear talks conducted by hardliners were also done in secret, with little complaint.

“A question comes to mind: Can the new team reach an agreement and execute it without the permission of the Supreme Leader and the National Security Council?”  Bahar asked. “Everybody is well aware that the smallest details of this case [require] the Supreme Leader’s approval.”

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