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Iran's Nuclear 'Diplomatic Warriors' Are Back In Vogue

A wave of support for Iran's negotiators came after Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was reportedly branded a "traitor" by a hard-line lawmaker at a closed-door session of parliament in May.

"Diplomatic warriors" who defend Iran's interests, or "traitors" who sell out their country to enemies.

Both are recent labels given domestically to Iran's negotiators at sensitive international talks on a comprehensive nuclear deal that would curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

But with the June 30 deadline for a deal fast approaching, senior Iranian officials have appeared increasingly eager to present a united front, muzzle critics, and publicly back the negotiators, who are led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Defenders have included senior clerics, the head of the powerful judiciary, and several lawmakers who expressed concern that domestic criticism could undermine the Iranian negotiation team.

A wave of support for Iran's negotiators came after Zarif was reportedly branded a "traitor" by hard-line Endurance Front party lawmaker Mehdi Kouchakzadeh at a closed-door session of parliament on May 24.

Portions of a heated exchange between the two men were documented on a cellphone and posted online. In the poor-quality video, Zarif is heard reacting to a man, apparently Kouchakzadeh, who calls him a "traitor" and invokes the name of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has warned against negotiating under threat.

Zarif reacts by saying, "He calls me a traitor?"

The man responds, "I speak on his behalf."

The Iranian foreign minister then says angrily, "You have no right to speak on his behalf," adding that the supreme leader is the most influential voice.

A few days after the exchange, judiciary head Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani spoke out against undermining the nuclear negotiators since, he suggested, national interests were of the utmost importance. "Insulting negotiators or publishing closed-door parliament discussions with the negotiating team does not help the negotiations," he was quoted as saying on May 28.

Parliament deputy speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar also came to the defense of the nuclear negotiators. Speaking on Iranian state television, Bahonar said Iran's "enemy" was "cunning" and therefore the concerns of those who say they're worried over the nuclear talks were legitimate.

But he added that it was an "injustice" to accuse the negotiators of selling out Iran's interests.

'Fatal Poison' Of 'Discord'

On June 10, hard-line senior Qom-based cleric Nasser Makarem Shirazi warned over divisions over the nuclear talks. The cleric was quoted by domestic media as saying that "discord" was "a fatal poison" in dealing with "the enemies who wish to collapse [the] nuclear deal between Iran and the West."

Two days later, on June 12, hard-line cleric Ahmad Khatami went to great lengths during Friday Prayers in Tehran to express his backing for the negotiators, which he described as "the children of the Iranian nation." "They are warriors of the diplomacy front, and everyone should help them carry out their duties," he said, adding that nuclear negotiators should not be branded "traitors."

Friday Prayer sermons in Iran are said to hew closely to talking points provided by the office of Supreme Leader Khamenei, who has called the negotiators "children of the revolution" and given his blessing to the talks despite his stated distrust of the United States.

In a speech also on June 12 , Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi said the nuclear negotiators would "never" cross the red lines set by Khamenei, who has the last say in all state affairs in Iran.

Moslehi said that "unfortunately, while the supreme leader supports the nuclear team, some try [to pretend] as if in the negotiating process [the negotiators] have sold Iran's interests out to the foreigners." Moslehi also decried calls for public protests as unnecessarily sowing division.

Closing Ranks

Elements in Iran that have been critical of the negotiations had generally kept a low profile amid reported progress in the talks. But those naysayers have seemingly become more vocal amid hints of a stall in recent weeks and criticism by officials of what has been described as excessive Western demands, such as access to Iranian military sites.

Such criticism was alluded to in a May 20 speech in which Supreme Leader Khamenei said he would "not give permission for foreigners to come and speak with the scientists, the prominent and dear children of the nation."

Days after Khamenei's remarks, dozens of hard-liners took to the streets of Tehran, Mashhad, and other cities to protest under the banner "We Will Not Give Permission," a phrase they borrowed from Khamenei's speech.

More protests were reportedly being planned.

But on May 30, state media quoted Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli as warning that no demonstrations on either side of the nuclear argument would be allowed.

Meanwhile, public attacks on Zarif have continued, including by people suggesting via the Internet that while Iranians were fighting against Saddam Hussein's army in the bloody Iran-Iraq War, Zarif was breezily studying in the country they call "the Great Satan."

The criticism could increase as the deadline nears.

"If a good deal is reached, then there would be less criticism; but if they reach a bad deal, [negotiators] will come under greater fire," says a Tehran-based analyst who does not want to be named. At the end of the day, he adds, how the establishment sells any emerging deal will be the key.

In the abovementioned Friday Prayers sermon, Ayatollah Khatami said the government should not label any criticism or protest gathering as an attempt at "character assassination."

In fact, he said, such gatherings could give Iranian negotiators more leverage in their talks with Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany. But he added that the nuclear team should not be "weakened" by demonstrators.

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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.