Ed Kilgore at the Political Animal Blog has a good summary and additional commentary about an article by Abbas Milani and Michael McFaul at The Atlantic, What the Iran Deal Debate Is Like in Iran, on how moderates inside the government, many opposition leaders, a majority of Iranian citizens, and many in the Iranian American diaspora feel about the P5+1 world powers nuclear agreement with Iran. The Iranian Debate on the Iranian Nuke Deal:
To hear most critics of the Iranian Nuclear Deal, it will strengthen Iran’s conservative, Israel-hating regime and crush the aspirations of those who want to modernize, democratize, or demilitarize that country. But this optic does not accord with the debate on the deal within Iran and in the (mostly) regime-hating Iranian Diaspora, as explained in some detail at the Atlantic by Abbas Milani and Michael McFaul.
Those supporting the deal include moderates inside the government, many opposition leaders, a majority of Iranian citizens, and many in the Iranian American diaspora—a disparate group that has rarely agreed on anything until now.
First and most obviously, the moderates within the regime, including Rouhani and his close friend and political ally, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, negotiated the agreement, and are now the most vocal in defending it against Iranian hawks. Rouhani crushed his conservative opponents in the last presidential election in 2013 in part because he advocated for a nuclear deal. This agreement is his Obamacare—his major campaign promise now delivered. Former Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, as well as moderates in the parliament and elsewhere in government, have also vigorously endorsed the accord. During the negotiations, Rafsanjani, for example, celebrated the fact that Iran’s leaders had “broken a taboo” in talking directly to the United States. Since the agreement was signed, he has said that those within Iran who oppose it are “making a mistake.”
Second and somewhat surprisingly, many prominent opposition leaders also support the support. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a popular presidential candidate in 2009 who is now under house arrest for his leadership of the Green Movement protests against Ahmadinejad’s reelection, backed the pursuit of the agreement, albeit with some qualifications. He’s joined by other government critics, some only recently released from Iran’s prisons. Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human-rights activist and Nobel Laureate now living in exile, expressed the hope after an interim agreement was reached in April that “negotiations come to a conclusion, because the sanctions have made the people poorer”; she labeled as “extremists” those who opposed the agreement in Iran and America. Akbar Ganji, an Iranian journalist who spent more than six years in prison in Iran, also praised the agreement, writing that “step-by-step nuclear accords, the lifting of economic sanctions and the improvement of the relations between Iran and Western powers will gradually remove the warlike and securitized environment from Iran.”
Meanwhile, the Iranian opposition to the deal is strongest precisely among those elements of the Iranian power structure U.S. opponents to the deal cite as its beneficiaries:
This coalition is formidable, and includes former President Ahmadinejad, the Iranian leader who denied the Holocaust and called for the elimination of Israel. Fereydoon Abbasi, who directed Iran’s nuclear program under Ahmadinejad, and Saeed Jalili, the former nuclear negotiator, have repeatedly sniped at the deal. In a biting interview, Abbasi ripped into every facet of the talks, saying that the negotiators, “especially Mr. Rouhani … have accepted the premise that [Iran] is guilty.” Several conservative clerics and IRGC commanders have expressed similar sentiments. One prominent critic of the deal claimed that of the 19 redlines stipulated by the supreme leader, 18 and a half had been compromised in the current agreement. Many publications considered close to Khamenei—including most noticeably the daily paper Kayhan—have been unsparing in their criticism.
Conservative opponents of the deal tend to emphasize its near-term negative security consequences. They point out that the agreement will roll back Iran’s nuclear program, which was intended to deter an American or Israeli attack, and thereby increase Iran’s vulnerability. They have denounced the system for inspecting Iranian nuclear facilities as an intelligence bonanza for the CIA. And they have issued blistering attacks on the incompetence of Iran’s negotiating team, claiming that negotiators caved on many key issues and were outmaneuvered by more clever and sinister American diplomats.
So who’s a better judge of the impact of this deal for bad elements in Tehran? Americans and Israelis or Iranians? Are we supposed to believe Iranians are carrying on a national charade in which supporters of the deal pretend to be opponents and vice versa?
Also this week, the New York Times reported on a journalist from The Forward, an American Jewish pro-Israel publication, reporting from Iran. Reporting From Iran, Jewish Paper Sees No Plot to Destroy Israel:
The first journalist from an American Jewish pro-Israel publication to be given an Iranian visa since 1979 reported Wednesday that he had found little evidence to suggest that Iran wanted to destroy Israel, as widely asserted by critics of the Iranian nuclear agreement.
The journalist, Larry Cohler-Esses, assistant managing editor for news at The Forward, an influential New York-based newspaper catering to American Jews, also wrote that people in Iran were eager for outside interaction and willing to speak critically about their government. A Jewish Journalist’s Exclusive Look Inside Iran.
While he heard widespread criticism of the Israeli government and its policies toward the Palestinians, Mr. Cohler-Esses wrote, he also found support among some senior clerics for a two-state solution, should the Palestinians pursue it.
“Though I had to work with a government fixer and translator, I decided which people I wanted to interview and what I would ask them,” Mr. Cohler-Esses wrote in the first of two articles from his July reporting trip. “Far from the stereotype of a fascist Islamic state, I found a dynamic push-and-pull between a theocratic government and its often reluctant and resisting people.”
Mr. Cohler-Esses’ reporting, coming as Congress prepares to vote on the nuclear agreement next month, presents a more nuanced view of Iran compared with the descriptions by a number of Jewish-American advocacy groups that consider Iran an enemy state.
* * *
“Ordinary Iranians with whom I spoke have no interest at all in attacking Israel,” Mr. Cohler-Esses wrote. “Their concern is with their own sense of isolation and economic struggle.”
Among some senior ayatollahs and prominent officials, he wrote, there is also dissent from the official line against Israel.
“No one had anything warm to say about the Jewish state,” he wrote. “But pressed as to whether it was Israel’s policies or its very existence to which they objected, several were adamant: It’s Israel’s policies.”
While he emphasized that there was no freedom of the press in Iran, “freedom of the tongue has been set loose.”
“I was repeatedly struck by the willingness of Iranians to offer sharp, even withering criticisms of their government on the record, sometimes even to be videotaped doing so,” Mr. Cohler-Esses wrote.
He added that members of Iran’s Jewish population of 9,000 to 20,000 people, “depending on whom you talk to,” were unafraid to complain about discriminatory laws.
He called them “basically well-protected second-class citizens — a broadly prosperous, largely middle-class community whose members have no hesitation about walking down the streets of Tehran wearing yarmulkes.”
* * *
Mr. Cohler-Esses was given a seven-day visa late last month, which he had to use within 30 days, she said. His request to extend the visa was denied.
It is unclear whether the government’s decision to grant the visa was related to hopes of positive American portrayals of the nuclear agreement, which was completed in Vienna on July 14.
Ms. Eisner said she had worried about sending Mr. Cohler-Esses to Iran, given its harsh treatment of Iranian journalists and its prosecution of Jason Rezaian, a correspondent for The Washington Post, on charges including espionage, a pending case that has been sharply criticized internationally.
When Mr. Cohler-Esses finally departed Iran, Ms. Eisner said, “we were all breathing a great sigh of relief.”
The Forward has yet to take a definitive editorial stand on the nuclear agreement, but Ms. Eisner said one was planned before the congressional vote.
I will try to catch Mr. Cohler-Esses’ second report of his two part series.