Tensions in Iran deepen over N-pact

President at odds with conservatives, who see power waning as sanctions are lifted

TEHERAN • Tensions between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the more conservative authorities over the country's future under the nuclear agreement are turning increasingly bitter, punctuated by public exchanges and growing signs of an anti-American backlash, including arrests.

Mr Rouhani is insisting that the nuclear deal signed in July not only will create the basis for an end to Iran's prolonged economic isolation, but could also be the start of new relations with the United States under certain conditions. Yet, even his cautious optimism has provoked a stormy reaction.

The tensions, which political analysts foresee lasting into next year at least, are in some ways an expected outcome of the nuclear agreement, which rolls back Iran's atomic programme in exchange for a broad lifting of sanctions.

Many hardliners opposed the accord as a submission to foreign powers, especially the US.

With the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, endorsing the agreement, they turned their criticism directly on Mr Rouhani and his aides. The losing side's reaction has been harsh, as seen in arrests of Iranian journalists and at least one Iranian-American accused of collaborating with Western powers or worse. Even some prominent conservatives who mistrust the US but see benefits in a better relationship have been criticised.

The reaction has been stoked in some ways by Ayatollah Khamenei, who, while endorsing the accord, has also warned of what he calls an American desire to infiltrate Iran's culture, economics and politics.

"Khamenei is pre-empting any possible attempt to improve the official image of the US, which would threaten his and the regime's identity," said Mr Cliff Kupchan, an Iran specialist and chairman of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy in Washington.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the powerful Iranian paramilitary force that has thrived under the era of Western nuclear sanctions, amassing a wide range of businesses and stakes in industry, is seen as particularly threatened by the agreement. More imports and foreign competition, expected after many sanctions end, could jeopardise the corps' economic power and influence.

"There are a lot of entities that have a vested interest in the status quo," said Mr Farhad Alavi, managing partner of the Akrivis Law Group in Washington, which specialises in trade sanctions law and has received many client inquiries about doing business in Iran once the nuclear agreement takes effect.

Professor Gary G. Sick, a Middle East scholar at Columbia University, the White House's principal Iran aide during the 1979 Islamic Revolution and US hostage crisis, is not surprised by the heightened tensions.

The Revolutionary Guards and other conservative elements that control the media, judiciary and police, he said, "are really terrified that this agreement between the US and Iran is a precursor to a breakdown in the old revolutionary leadership".

Many of the figures who were in positions of power three decades ago, Prof Sick said, are still around today, and they embrace anti-Americanism as a fundamental tenet.

"This has become their dominant ideology they live by, and it's been very generous to them."

Mr Rouhani, elected two years ago on promises to end Iran's prolonged isolation and create a more open society, is regarded as a shrewd politician who knows his boundaries in the Iranian system.

A major test of political will is expected in the February parliamentary elections, when supporters of Mr Rouhani's approach will have an opportunity to express their preferences at the ballot box.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2015, with the headline 'Tensions in Iran deepen over N-pact'. Print Edition | Subscribe