Not Everyone’s Happy: Hardliners in Iran Criticize Geneva Nuclear Deal

While most in Iran celebrated a deal that could signal a warming of ties between Tehran and Washington, the country's hardliners found reason to grumble

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Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty Images

Iranians newspapers headlining the deal made with major powers over Iran's disputed nuclear deal are displayed on the ground outside a kiosk in Tehran on Nov. 25, 2013.

If the initial reaction to Iran‘s signing of an interim deal in Geneva with the P5+1 met with media euphoria and a striking, bi-partisan embrace of the agreement by hardliners and moderates alike, responses on Monday varied more widely, as the country’s political elite absorbed the potentially game-changing nature of the deal.

The reaction in Tehran on Sunday, carefully managed by the government of President Hassan Rouhani to pre-empt any hardline opposition to the agreement, struck an overwhelmingly positive tone. By holding a press conference flanked by the families of assassinated nuclear scientists and writing to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Rouhani presented the nation with an agreement that had the backing of the country’s highest authorities and its most fierce nationalists.

But today, some hardline media outlets seem to be suffering a hangover from Sunday’s national cheer. The news site Alef, affiliated with prominent conservatives, ran pieces questioning the agreement’s technical details (one piece noted discrepancies with what had been published in a White House briefing paper) and lamenting the position of weakness from which Iran had been forced to negotiate. “Why Was Zarif Empty Handed?” the site asked, arguing that “there is no doubt the agreement is oppressive” but that Zarif’s failures must be viewed in the context of the bargaining position he inherited from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government.

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The country’s reformist papers ran special editions on Sunday highlighting the agreement’s success in securing sanctions relief, and kept up the bright coverage on Monday. Photos of Zarif dominated the front pages, with the newspaper Arman-e Emrooz declaring that “We Must Give Zarif a Gold Medal,” the daily Aftab headlining “Smiling Diplomat: We Thank You,” and in the newspaper Ebtekar, “A Historic Dawn in Geneva.”

Hardline reactions on Sunday were largely muted, with three hardline members of parliament noting that what U.S. diplomats were saying about the deal contradicted the assurances of Iranian negotiators. MP Mehrdad Bazrpash demanded clarification and criticized the negotiators for failing to secure the West’s recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium. But these views swiftly came up against another faction in parliament who dismissed such a facile reading of diplomats’ public statements. Ahmad Tavakoli, a prominent conservative MP, said the Geneva agreement “will be positive for Iran’s economy,” and that “much of the public positions Western officials were taking were aimed at their own domestic constituencies.”

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The question of enrichment emerged on Monday as a point of contention, with some hardline sites like the newspaper Kayhan arguing that nowhere in the agreement had the West conceded Iran’s right to enrich. Much of the criticism raised a day after the agreement centered around its technical and economic aspects, as some conservatives and hardliners sought to present their objections in a substantive rather than partisan light. The website Fars News said it had done the math, and found that “the points gained and the points conceded didn’t add up,” arguing that by failing to secure lasting relief from oil and banking sanctions, Iran would still lose in a month what it had gained in the unleashing of some $4.2 billion of its foreign exchange reserves, previously frozen as a result of international sanctions.

Israel’s loud condemnation of the deal drew major attention in Iran, and actually seemed to disarm some prominent hardliners, who concluded that a deal that Benjamin Netanyahu so derided couldn’t be all bad for Tehran. “That Netanyahu disapproves of the Geneva agreement shows that Iran succeeded in securing what it needed during the negotiations,” said a columnist in Jahan News. The website Alef, close to hardliners, ran an overview of regional reaction under the headline “Reactions to Geneva, Smiles of Friends, Frowns of Enemies” that parsed Netanyahu’s warnings about the deal.

Monday’s reaction, among reformist papers and figures, sounded a more thoughtful note, looking at how the Geneva agreement might herald a new political culture in Iran and a shift in its foreign policy. Sadegh Zibakalam, a prominent university professor, told the reformist daily Bahar News that “the details of the Geneva agreement don’t matter, what’s really key is that Iran has put aside its wrathful view of the West.”

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