Nuclear deal: From Iran's pulpits, a sign Rouhani has support from on high

Iran's foreign minister returned home Friday to a hero's welcome. More importantly, perhaps, prayer leaders signaled support from the supreme leader for the deal.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a news briefing at the Saadabad palace in Tehran, Iran, Friday, April 3, 2015. Rouhani on Friday pledged that his nation will abide by its commitments in the nuclear agreement reached the previous day in Switzerland.

Returning to a hero’s welcome in Tehran after clinching a framework nuclear deal with world powers, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stood up through the sunroof of his car upon arrival Friday at the airport, waving as supporters chanted “Long Live Zarif!”

While some Iranians took to the streets to wave flags and celebrate as the agreement was announced Thursday night – jubilant at the prospect of sanctions being lifted, and of Iran’s isolation easing – it was the message from Friday prayer pulpits that should give Mr. Zarif particular satisfaction.

They indicated that Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei supported Zarif and his team, even though many hardliners – and at times, apparently Mr. Khamenei himself – have been critical of the nuclear talks.

The Tehran Friday prayer leader, Ayatollah Emami Kashani, said the nuclear deal – which lays out the parameters for curbing Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for sanctions relief –  was a “victory for the Islamic Republic.”

“To be fair, the negotiating team is modest and wise and have followed the supreme leader’s advice on heroic flexibility,” said Mr. Kashani. “We much congratulate the president and Mr. Zarif.”

That was rare praise indeed, for the negotiating team and for relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who have come under constant attack from conservative political opponents.

New era of cooperation

On Friday Mr. Rouhani, in a national address, hailed the framework agreement as heralding a new era of “cooperation with the world.” He said Iran would continue to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, while vowing that Iran would stand by its commitments made in the negotiations.

"Some think we have no option except to fight the world or to surrender. But there is a third way, too. We have to have cooperation with the world," he said, according to the Associated Press.

The messages from the Friday prayer leaders are coordinated nationwide with Khamenei’s office. 

“This shows the pressure coming from the top to disarm these hardliners who come up with strong words [against a deal],” says a veteran analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named.

“Friday prayers are a strong bastion of conservatives and hardliners – and all these nice words coming from there, of course it’s not unrelated to the leader’s views,” says the analyst. “Nobody dares to go against what he endorses. Hardliners of course keep saying what they say, but they’ll have a harder time to oppose what’s happening.”

Hardliners say Iran caved to West

Indeed, some Iranians oppose making any compromise with Western powers, especially on the nuclear issue, which they see as Iran caving into Western demands.

“We gave up a saddled horse, and in return we just received one with torn pieces of a bridle,” said the editor of the hard-line Kayhan newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari.

Esmail Kowsari, a conservative member of parliament from Tehran and member of the national security committee, complained that “the negotiating team has showed slackness in the negotiations, and what was supposed to be achieved has not been achieved, and the results are not acceptable.”

Despite those complaints, some Iranians have rejoiced in the fact that Prime Minister of Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel – a regional foe for decades – has opposed the deal so vehemently. Mr. Netanyahu said Friday the deal would threaten Israel’s existence.  

“Many supporters of the deal point to this fact,” says the analyst. “They say we should be congratulating Zarif for causing such an unprecedented division between Israel and America, and the reactions coming from Israel – all the fury and anger –  just shows we are on the right track.”

Relief on social media

Iranians took widely to social media to express relief and support for the deal.

One cartoon circulating showed President Barack Obama and Rouhani in a warm embrace, both holding their fingers in victory signs and encircled by white doves of peace. Another showed Zarif leap-frogging over Obama.

Someone joked on Viber, the phone messaging app, that the deal would not yet effect Iran’s strict dress code: “Ladies! The agreement was about nuclear issues … do not leave the house with shorts and sleeveless tops!”

Sobhan Hassanvand, a journalist with the reformist Shargh newspaper, used a Persian proverb to describe the sense of a miracle having been performed in Lausanne: “An idiot throws a stone into a well, a thousand sages cannot bring it out,” he tweeted. “But Zarif did it…”

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