Ashton’s visit underlines the nuclear negotiations versus human rights dichotomy in Iranian politics

European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton’s visit to Iran has once again helped demonstrate the dichotomy between P5+1-Iran nuclear negotiations, which most of the Islamic Republic’s political currents appear to have a tentative consensus on, and the issue of human rights in Iran, which is likely to be a majour arena of domestic conflict. For the time being, hardliners are not trying to sabotage nuclear negotiations but they are trying to undermine the domestic human rights agenda.

As we have argued in the past, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s often divergent political currents appear to have formed a tentative consensus on the need to conduct nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, which consists of the United Nations Security Council permanent five members plus Germany, over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Rather than a sudden change brought about by the Hassan Rouhani’s surprise election as president in June 2013, this is a process that seems to have begun well before his presidency with back-channel talks between the United States and Iran in Oman, motivated by the impact of economic sanctions and other considerations.

This tentative consensus on the need to at least engage in nuclear negotiations does not necessarily entail a broader consensus on Iran’s other key issues, such as human rights and how to improve Iran’s economic situation. In fact, the former has become a majour arena of political conflict between President Rouhani, who was in part elected on a platform of improving the human rights situation in Iran, and Iran’s ruling Principalist establishment. The existence of a dichotomy between the tentative consensus on nuclear negotiations on one hand and the conflict on the issue of domestic socio-political issues on the other appears to have been confirmed by Catherine Ashton’s recent visit to Iran which ended on 09 March 2014.

During her visit Ashton was received warmly by representatives from across Iran’s political spectrum and centers of power, including President Rouhani, speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani, judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Ali Shamkhani, his predecessor and now the supreme leader’s representative to the SNSC Saeed Jalili, and foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader Ali-Akbar Velayati. This public show of support by such widely divergent Iranian political figures for nuclear negotiations contrasts starkly with the reaction to Ashton’s human rights themed meeting with Narges Mohammadi, a very prominent lawyer and human rights activist, and Gohar Eshghi, the elderly mother of blogger Sattar Beheshti who died in police custody, among others at the Austrian embassy. Her visit demonstrated the multiple tracks of E.U. foreign policy toward Iran, which at present includes not only nuclear negotiations and economic relations but also human rights. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also weighed in on Iran’s human rights situation, complaining that there has been little improvement under Iran’s new president:

“The new administration has not made any significant improvement in the promotion and protection of freedom of expression and opinion, despite pledges made by the president during his campaign and after his swearing in.”

Unlike Ashton’s nuclear negotiations related meetings, which appear to have been generally positive, her human rights-linked meetings were received very negatively by Iran’s Principalist establishment. At a meeting with senior judiciary officials soon after Ashton’s Austrian embassy meetings, judiciary head Sadegh Larijani was scathing toward her, declaring that: “Contacting seditionists in [her] current trip and [making] statements after this trip was disrespectful toward the regime.”  He also questioned whether the Rouhani administration had known that she would be holding human rights meetings, saying that “recent behaviors were strange, because [Iranian] foreign ministry officials declared that they were not aware of certain meetings that took place,” but that based on some reports Ashton had told the foreign ministry that “the condition of making this trip centers on human rights meetings.” He asserted that it would be disastrous if the foreign ministry had in fact colluded with her in this affair and made a thinly veiled threat toward the Rouhani administration:

“Where in the world do they let a foreigner enter, go wherever they like, and meet whomever? Is this a lawless country? If it is the case that such a trend will continue, and actions are taken against the country’s security and expediencies in such trips, the judiciary will enter into action, and the consequences will be with the foreign ministry in the future.”

Ali Larijani, speaker of parliament and Sadegh Larijani’s younger brother, fumed that the action of the E.U. representative was “ugly” and “sneaky”, asking  the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MoIS) to attend to the matter. Mohammad-Reza Bahonar, Larijani’s deputy in parliament, was also harshly critical of Ashton’s human rights activities and the Rouhani administration’s failure to prevent them:

“If the sirs do not have the competence to defend the regime’s policies, we must consider alternatives. The parliament will follow up on this matter and these types of behaviours are clear interference in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and will blur the road [to detente between Iran and West] ahead  and could close-off this path.”

Ali-Akbar Velayati, the new head of the Center for Strategic Research (the Expediency Council think-tank which Rouhani used to lead) and senior foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader, was equally harsh, but in retorting against Ban Ki-moon’s comments on human rights in Iran. Velayati lashed out:

“As far as I know Ban Ki-Moon, compared to other secretary-generals of the United Nations thus far, has not shown an independent personality. Ban Ki Moon is someone who is completely at the disposal of the Americans, and whatever the Americans want to say from the platform of the United Nations they will say to Ban Ki Moon and he will say it [on their behalf]…Because of the current secretary-general’s lack of independent positions, he is nearly the most incapable secretary-general in the history of the United Nations from 1945 to the present and he has done nothing effective to resolve the crises of the Islamic world.”

These political figures do not represent the most hardline elements of the regime’s Principalist establishment, but are indeed in some ways Traditional Principalist moderates and ostensibly support the Rouhani administration’s nuclear diplomacy. But their support of the latter process does not extend to the president’s other priorities, especially human rights. The supposed parallel drawn between U.S. foreign policy hawks who want to derail negotiations and Iranian hardliners who allegedly want to do the same is probably a false one. This is not to say that the most extreme regime elements, such as Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi and his parliamentary faction the Persevering Front of the Islamic Revolution (PFIR), are not genuine skeptics of nuclear negotiations. But these are for the most part marginal voices. At least at this point in time, there does not appear to be a concerted effort to sabotage nuclear negotiations as some believe.

A battle is brewing on the domestic front over human rights, but this is more about what happens after a end-state nuclear agreement rather than the nuclear negotiations themselves. The fear on the part of the Principalist establishment may be that the end of Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation following such an agreement, while benefitting everyone, will nonetheless embolden and strengthen the hitherto marginalized Centrists, Reformists, and the Green Movement. In this sense, we could see the battles and tensions of the Reformist era replayed.