Great Expectations

The Washington Quarterly
Fall 2015

Regardless of whether the nuclear deal succeeds or fails, Iranian society is undergoing substantial changes that make the Islamic Republic’s longer-term future difficult to predict.

12235008_10153607943696357_431259391222262661_nThe implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) heralds a new era for the Islamic Republic of Iran and the region. Over the past decade, by resisting unprecedented economic as well as political pressure and ignoring UN Security Council resolutions, Iran managed to significantly advance its nuclear program while avoiding a major military conflict. More recently, despite mounting opposition from critics in Tehran, Washington, and elsewhere, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and lead U.S. negotiator John Kerry, as well as President Obama, have overcome historically deep-rooted problems and perils, arriving at the JCPOA.

The nuclear deal’s significance in the Islamic Republic’s history is comparable only to UN Security Council Resolution 598, in 1987, which called for a ceasefire between Iran and Iraq after eight years of bloody war. If Iran and the P5+1 comply with the JCPOA for the next fifteen years, Iran’s economy will become fully integrated into the global economy and its peaceful nuclear program will then be thoroughly legitimized. What happens after those fifteen years depends on many factors and actors. It is likely that Iran will have a new Supreme Leader, given Khamenei’s age (he was born in 1939); however, it is impossible to predict whether a significant political shift will accompany this leadership change. Iranian society is also changing rapidly, a reality that further complicates these considerations.

For Iran’s immediate future, the most urgent questions relate to the nuclear deal. The JCPOA’s sustainability is uncertain, and all parties need to identify parameters to strengthen the agreement’s implementation. Since the JCPOA is neither a treaty nor a convention, Rouhani’s government does not understand it to be legally binding, and as a result, to require the approval of the Majlis, or Iranian parliament. This approach to the JCPOA by both sides reduces issues of compliance and enforcement to a question of political will, which means Iran and the United States need to gradually build confidence after decades of no diplomatic ties. Bolstering political will is tricky, however, since it is a force that can go either way; political will helped bring about Iran’s nuclear program in the first place, so using it to ensure the JCPOA’s success is uncertain. But it is the key to the agreement’s future…

View the full version of this excerpt on the Washington Quarterly website.


Forget the Fatwa

Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji
National Interest
March 14, 2013
Even if the Supreme Leader’s fatwa against nuclear weapons were enshrined in a UN document, strong monitoring and verification measures would still be the indispensable core of any agreement.

Iranian experts are set to meet their P5+1 counterparts in Istanbul next week to discuss the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. They are likely to reprise a long-standing claim: Iran will never build nuclear weapons, because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa banning “the bomb.” (In fact, Khamenei restated his position on this matter just a few weeks ago.) They will explain that this fatwa is an important confidence-building measure that the P5+1 have yet to adequately acknowledge. But there is more to consider than what will likely be conveyed during these expert-level talks.

Khamenei has spoken on this topic numerous times in the past decade, and such oral pronouncements do indeed have the same legal standing as a written fatwa. Khamenei’s precise formulation, however, has varied. He has at times appeared to tacitly permit the development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, but not their use. On other occasions, he has categorically forbidden stockpiling and development, as well as the use of nuclear weapons.

This should not be surprising. Fatwas are not immutable, and can be altered depending on circumstances. The founder of the Islamic Republic, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, modified his position on a number of issues — taxes, military conscription, women’s suffrage, the legitimacy of the Shah’s monarchy, and apparently even chemical weapons. And Ayatollah Khamenei could alter his fatwa regarding nuclear weapons should he deem it necessary. Because this could undermine the value of the fatwa as a confidence-building measure, some former Iranian officials have suggested that the Iranian parliament could pass legislation making the fatwa the law of the land. Conversely, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has suggested that the fatwa could be adopted as an official UN document as a way of building confidence.

Yet these proposals would not solve the confidence problem, because it is the principle of maslahat (the interest of the regime) that guides the formulation of Iranian policy. Before he died, Ayatollah Khomeini ruled that the Islamic Republic could destroy a mosque or suspend the observance of the tenets of Islam if its interests so dictated. And the constitution of the Islamic Republic invests the Supreme Leader with absolute authority to determine the interest of the regime. He can therefore cancel laws or override decisions by the regime’s various deliberative bodies, including the Majlis (parliament), the Guardian Council, and the Expediency Council. Likewise, Iran’s checkered history of adherence to UN documents and resolutions (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a raft of UN resolutions pertaining to its nuclear program) raises questions about the utility of making the fatwa a UN document.

Further muddying the waters, spokesmen for the Islamic Republic have a habit of proffering convenient interpretations when it comes to fatwas and foreign policy. When Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie sparked a crisis in relations with Europe, Iranian foreign-ministry officials tried to downplay its importance, claiming that the fatwa only reflected Khomeini’s personal opinion and was not binding on the Iranian government. Now Iranian foreign-ministry officials want the international community to believe that Khamenei’s fatwa is a binding religious ruling that would prevent the Islamic Republic from getting the bomb. So which one is it?

The history of Iran’s chemical weapons fatwa, moreover, raises additional questions. During the Iran-Iraq War, Ayatollah Khomeini reportedly issued a fatwa regarding chemical weapons. But it is unclear whether the fatwa banned the development and production of chemical weapons, or only their use. It is also unclear whether it was eventually altered in the face of escalating Iraqi chemical warfare. Whatever the matter, the fatwa did not ultimately stop Tehran from producing a “chemical weapons capability” (which is the vague formulation used by representatives of the Islamic Republic) during the latter phases of the war — although it seems that Iran did not use this capability against Iraq. After the war, the Islamic Republic reportedly dismantled and destroyed its chemical-weapons capability and signed on to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

This precedent raises two very different questions of particular relevance to this discussion: If Iran’s chemical fatwa did not preclude it from subsequently acquiring a chemical-weapons capability, would Iran’s nuclear fatwa preclude it from acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability? And just as Iran eventually gave up its chemical-weapons capability (so it seems), would it be willing to negotiate away its nuclear-weapons potential?

Regarding the first question: for now, Tehran appears to be seeking a latent breakout capability that will effectively provide “nuclear deterrence without the bomb.” It is treading this path, at least in part, because it was unable to build a secret parallel nuclear program — which is what it was apparently trying to do by building undeclared enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow.

As for the second question: Tehran strongly supported the creation of the CWC, and likely hoped to gain international legitimacy for the Islamic Republic and for its nuclear program by complying with its terms and giving up its declared chemical-weapons capability. By contrast, Iran insists that its participation in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) confers on it an “unalienable right” to enrichment — providing it with a de facto nuclear breakout capability. For this reason, Iran’s nuclear fatwa — even if enshrined as a UN document — is no substitute for strong monitoring and verification measures, which are the only way to have any degree of confidence that Iran is adhering to its treaty obligations.

Some U.S. officials believe that the nuclear fatwa provides a diplomatic opening for Washington, and an opportunity to press Tehran to live up to its professed religious principles. Experts from Iran and the P5+1 should explore this issue further in their forthcoming meeting in Istanbul. The goal should be an agreement in principle to translate the tenets embodied in the Supreme Leader’s nuclear fatwa into robust monitoring and verification arrangements for any future agreements with the Islamic Republic regarding its nuclear program. As during the Cold War, “trust, but verify” remains the essential basis for any sustainable nuclear deal with Iran.

Michael Eisenstadt directs the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute. Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at the Institute. They coauthored the 2011 study Nuclear Fatwa: Religion and Politics in Iran’s Proliferation Strategy.


Supreme Succession; Who Will Lead Post-Khamenei Iran

This policy focus was originally published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Although Ayatollah Khamenei has given no signs of imminent departure from the political scene, both the confrontational nature of his recent actions and the still-ticking Iranian nuclear clock raise important questions about what will happen upon his death. Will the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps subordinate the new Supreme Leader and focus on domestic issues, thereby cementing its status as the main player in Iran’s political, military, and economic spheres? Or will the new government become even more radical than Khamenei’s and carry on his bellicose foreign policy? Answering these questions requires a clear understanding of the Islamic Republic’s current power structure, its past approach to leadership transition, and the closed-door nature of its most important political decision.
In this Policy Focus, Iran expert Mehdi Khalaji shows how the succession question could present a unique opportunity for Washington to soften the regime’s anti-American posture or, failing that, to ensure that the IRGC’s ambitions do not jeopardize other regional states.

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Nuclear Fatwa

Nuclear Fatwa: Religion and Politics in Iran’s Proliferation Strategy
by Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji
Free download

As the various threats posed by Iran’s nuclear efforts become increasingly clear to the international community, most published assessments of the regime’s strategy continue to overlook the role of religion. Because Iran is a theocracy, any attempt to fashion an effective policy toward its nuclear program must account for the religious values, beliefs, and doctrines that shape the country’s decisionmaking. In this Washington Institute report, Michael Eisenstadt and Mehdi Khalaji scrutinize popular assumptions regarding Ayatollah Khamenei’s longstanding fatwa banning nuclear weapons. Examining the process by which fatwas are issued and modified, they discuss the often contrary forces that could pull Tehran in unexpected directions as the nuclear program advances: the pragmatic doctrine of regime expediency, which often trumps religion, and the less-flexible doctrines of resistance and Shiite messianism that have been embraced by certain hardline factions.


Velvet Revolution Trumps Nuclear Negotiations

By Mehdi Khalaji and Patrick Clawson

While the United States is concentrating on the G-20 summit and the October 1 meeting with the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Iranian attention has been focused on the potentially destabilizing protests planned for September 18, Quds Day. This critical difference of agenda — with Iran focused more on its domestic turmoil than on simmering international issues — will be a major complicating factor in negotiations between the international community and Iran in the coming weeks.

Hossein Taeb, the commender of Basij militia in Quds Day demonstration Since 1979, the Islamic Republic has promoted the last Friday of Ramadan as “Quds Day” (Jerusalem Day), a celebration of solidarity with Palestinian rejectionism and of protest against the United States and Israel. Quds Day has become symbolic of the Islamic Republic’s effort to present itself as the leader of the world Muslim community in rejecting what it perceives as Western and Israeli plots against Islam.

Khamenei’s ‘Velvet’ View of the Negotiations

The dispute over Quds Day — not the nuclear negotiations — has been the main topic in Iranian political circles for the past week. Not only does this reflect the usual trumping of foreign affairs by local politics — a situation certainly not unique to Iran — it also indicates how delicate Iran’s domestic political situation has become.

For twenty years, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has warned of the dangers posed to the Islamic Republic by the West’s cultural invasion. He has stated that the West will provoke a “velvet revolution” similar to that in Czechoslovakia in 1989, which witnessed the very rapid overthrow of an apparently rock-solid government. From Khamenei’s perspective, the events of the past three months demonstrate his prescience. The initial campaign efforts of the rather uncharismatic Mir Hossein Mousavi were pathetic, yet by the end of the campaign, especially after the televised debate between Moussavi and Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, hundreds of thousands of people were effusive in their support of him. A conspiratorial mind might see evidence of powerful forces behind Mousavi. Indeed, forces were behind him, but they were former presidents Muhammad Khatami and Rafsanjani — not the West.

In response, Khamenei decided to crush hope: he ordered vote rigging so blatant as to show that no election would be allowed to change the system; he then stepped forward to acknowledge his support for Ahmadinezhad’s policy stances, rather than remaining above the fray. Furthermore, he has repeatedly blamed protestors in ways that have inflamed passions against him and the system he represents. In short, Khamenei was so afraid of a velvet revolution that he has provoked one.

The protests have likely confirmed in Khamenei’s mind his oft-stated view that the nuclear issue is simply a Western excuse to advance its plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic. In the recent show trials following the June 12 presidential election, prosecutors have been airing wild charges of a far-reaching conspiracy involving Iranian reformers and Western governments. In these trials, even well-known German sociologists Max Weber (1964-1920) and Jurgen Habermas, as well as British political scientist John Keane, were accused of inspiring Iranian reformists to overthrow the regime. Khamenei has now eclipsed this: last month, he attacked the teaching of the humanities, stating that “teaching these academic disciplines in universities leads to skepticism of religious and ideological principles.” Khamenei believes that the humanities are colonialist tools of the West for conquering Muslim minds.

In this atmosphere, Khameni apparently worries that if the nuclear issue is resolved, the West would find another excuse with which to advance its true goal of cultural invasion. To him, any compromise on the nuclear issue will only feed the West’s efforts to overthrow him. No matter how often Washington reiterates its willingness to work with Khamenei’s Islamic Republic, he is not likely to believe a word of it. He has shown no interest in resolving outstanding differences with the West. In his sermon last Friday, Khamenei stated: “The enmity of America, Britain, and the Zionists with Iran is a matter of pride for the nation, and this should not frighten us or force us to give up before the enemy.”

Khamenei, however, is correct about one point: Every Western government would be delighted to see Iran’s hardliners lose power and the Islamic Republic morph into a more democratic system.

Policy Implications

The fear of a velvet revolution, accompanied by the deep fissure within the Iranian elite, seriously complicates efforts to negotiate with Iran. Khamenei, given his views of the West, may see little advantage in resolving the nuclear impasse. Even if he decides to engage the West — and no evidence suggests that he will — forging a consensus among the badly divided Iranian elite to permit such a bold change of direction would be no easy feat.

Consider Iran’s hardline camp: For weeks, Ahmadinezhad has been sparring with the Majlis over his cabinet nominations, and reports show deep discontent among the security services, both the Revolutionary Guards and the Intelligence Ministry, which Amadinezhad has been purging. In such an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and dislike, any initiative to compromise with the West is almost certain to be bitterly criticized as a sellout of Iran’s revolutionary principles.

Ahmadinezhad, however, has long wanted to use international negotiations to raise his profile, as evidenced by his letters to various world leaders and his offers to debate President Barack Obama. The Iranian president’s main objective, it would seem, is to use his platform to promote his ideological, apocalyptic, and anti-Western agenda, which fits his argument that public diplomacy is the main field of battle for Islamic radicals. Ahmadinezhad may also believe that the West has to concede to Iranian demands; that is, strike a deal that allows Iran to keep its nuclear program. Khamenei, however, is not so confident; he is more worried about Iran’s disadvantages in any negotiations with the West.

In addition, Iran’s hardliners are unconventional adversaries who may respond to typical negotiating strategies in unusual ways. Iranian hardliners may fear the West’s carrots, believing that its offers for closer engagement are a plot for soft overthrow by those groups in Iranain society — intellectuals, businessmen, youth, and women — whom the hardliners fear. Likewise, the hardliners may welcome the prospects of Western sticks, believing that sanctions or a military strike would inflict little damage and may rally nationalist support.

Although the current prospects for successful engagement with Iran are poor, the West has little choice other than to try. Iran’s leaders may decide — despite their deep mistrust of the West — that it would be too much of a gamble to ignore an offer from a popular U.S. president who is obviously eager to engage with Iran. After all, Iran has been hard hit by the global economic downturn, Ahmadinezhad’s ideological and economic policies, and by Western sanctions. In addition, the threat of Israeli military action against Iran looms in the background. Despite these factors, no one should have any illusions: the West is not going to shake the Iranian hardline conviction that the West is out to overthrow the Islamic Republic.

This article first appeared in the website of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy