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Is Iran's Conservative Camp Muscling In On Nuclear Talks?

Some reports suggest that conservative elements may be about to clip the wings of high-flying Iranian President Hassan Rohani.
Is Iran's conservative camp muscling in on Tehran's nuclear negotiations with six world powers?

Yes, if you listen to some hard-line lawmakers and media who are reporting that two conservatives have been added to a mysterious panel said to monitor the work of Tehran's negotiating team.

Not really, if you go by the word of those participating in the negotiations and media close to the government. In fact, they question the existence of any such panel at all.

One thing appears clear amid the murk: there are stark internal differences in Iran when it comes to the country's approach in talks with the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, plus Germany).

Officially, the country's president and former nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani, has been granted the authority to shape Iran's negotiating position. And with the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the president's team led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has worked out an interim deal in which some international sanctions would be relaxed in exchange for more Iranian transparency and concessions when it comes to its controversial nuclear program.

But hard-liners have been critical of the agreement reached in Geneva in November, describing it as a "defeat," accusing the negotiating team of making too many concessions, and claiming that Rohani and Zarif have left them in the dark.

Reports that conservatives have been added to an enigmatic panel that monitors the talks was widely interpreted as a sign that the hard-liners were seeking a bigger role in the negotiations.

The revelation came when senior lawmaker Esmail Kowsari, a member of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, announced the appointments of the unidentified conservatives on January 1. "The team supervising nuclear negotiations will be strengthened for the next round of talks," Kowsari was quoted as saying by Iranian news agencies. He said the team was created because the previous round of negotiations did not go fully in Iran's favor.

Shrouded In Secrecy

While Kowsari did not say who was on the monitoring panel, the hard-line Fars news agency and the semi-official Mehr news agency said it included senior officials and the heads of the three government branches -- the executive, the judiciary, and the parliament.

Kowsari said that, from now on, positions in the negotiations would be defined by the council and the nuclear team would have to implement them.

Another member of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee and a critic of the Geneva deal, Ahmad Bakshayesh Ardestani, claimed that the monitoring panel was formed at the request of Supreme Leader Khamenei. He said the "secrecy" of the nuclear team was among the main reasons for the creation of the body.

However, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, a senior member of the negotiating team, said on January 3 that he was unaware of the existence of any monitoring panel and any appointees that may have been added to it. "I have no information in this regard," Araqchi said when asked by Iran's official news agency, IRNA, whether a monitoring panel had been created to supervise the work of the nuclear negotiating team.

Just days later, on January 6, Deputy Foreign Minister for Consular Affairs Hassan Qashqavi was quoted by the daily "Sharq" as saying that there was no formal plan by the parliament to supervise the nuclear team.
Iranian lawmaker Esmail Kowsari
Iranian lawmaker Esmail Kowsari

Even some of lawmaker Kowsari's colleagues appear to have cast doubt on his claims that a monitoring panel exists. "We have to hear the comments of those who brought up the issue [regarding the council]," Alaedin Boroujerdi, the head of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee was quoted by IRNA as saying on January 5.

He said there was nothing new to report regarding the nuclear negotiations and that, even if a monitoring panel were formed, it wouldn't bring major changes. "We're trying to maintain the integrity and national unity in the nuclear issue so that the enemy doesn't think we have run into differences," Borujerdi said, while adding that the supreme leader guided the negotiations.

The semi-official ISNA news agency reported that the monitoring panel existed even before November's Geneva deal, and that it includes several members of the National Security Council. "This panel is mainly tasked with policy-making. Using the expressions 'supervisory team' or 'supervisory role' is not a precise interpretation for it," the agency wrote in a report issued on the weekend of January 4-5.

Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, believes Iran has not made major changes in the way it is handling the nuclear talks. "When it comes to managing complex negotiations, no one in Iran knows the ropes better than Hassan Rohani," Vaez says. "That's why the supreme leader entrusted him with that very task for two decades."

Same As It Ever Was?

The analyst says there is "no reason to change the current arrangement," under which the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) devises the nuclear negotiating strategy and the Foreign Ministry implements it with sufficient maneuvering room. "Traditionally, a smaller group within the SNSC has monitored the negotiations and occasionally briefed the supreme leader, whose approval is paramount," Vaez adds.

Vaez suggests that the comments regarding the formation of a monitoring panel by Kowsari and others represent a wish by lawmakers, rather than a change to the current formula. "The Foreign Ministry is accountable to the parliament, but in reality its role is dwarfed by that of the Supreme National Security Council," he says.

Mohsen Milani, a professor of politics and the executive director of Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida, says he hasn't seen "any evidence" that a new monitoring panel has been formed. According to him, however, all the talk about such a panel does suggest that there is growing internal disagreement and a great deal of mistrust when it comes to the negotiations.

Milani adds that, if the council has indeed been created, Rohani and his team could actually use it to their advantage. "If such a committee is formed, it would ultimately give the negotiators, Zarif and Rohani, some sort of immunity from harshly being criticized by the opponents of the interim agreement," he explains.

"In other words, if we have such a supervisory committee and if there is a final agreement, then, I think, it is going to be extremely difficult for the right-wingers and those who oppose the new agreement to be able to criticize and chastise Rohani and his negotiators," Milani concludes.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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