Addressing the “Iran’s Economy” conference on January 4, Rouhani discussed the causal relationship between the nuclear negotiations and sanctions relief, and the government’s ability to improve the living standards of the Iranian public. Controversially, Rouhani emphasized: “our ideals are not dependent on the [number of] centrifuges,” signaling his readiness to give the P5+1 concessions in return for sanctions relief. Rouhani even threatened to “discuss the issue with the people” and organize a referendum should his nuclear diplomacy face domestic opposition, in order “to solve important affairs of the state.”
Rouhani’s call for a plebiscite on the nuclear issue must not be taken literally. The Supreme Leader is certain to nix the move, and nothing in Rouhani’s past record suggests he is a believer in democracy. However, the mere fact that Rouhani uses the word plebiscite reflects the president’s reading of the Iranian street: the Iranian public may no longer be willing to pay the price of sanctions for the regime’s nuclear ambitions. Rouhani has chosen, for the time being, to ride the popular wave, and shelve the nuclear ambitions – for a short while.
Rouhani’s threat was not lost to the domestic opposition. On January 5, Gholamreza Sadeqian, editor of Javan, an unofficial mouthpiece of the IRGC, celebrated Iran’s centrifuges as “touchstones of the country’s progress in the scientific and technological fields, both of which are among the ideals of the revolution.”
On January 7, Khamenei too reacted to Rouhani’s speech: “There are those who unwisely deny the [regime’s] scientific progress … Do not ruin this progress with unseasoned and faulty statements. Do not create doubt in the minds of the nation.”
While the debate highlights significant divisions in Iran at a key juncture in the nuclear talks, and perhaps even waning public support for the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, there is no indication that Supreme Leader Khamenei and the IRGC will adjust their nuclear ambitions. This does not bode well for successful nuclear negotiations.
By Ali Alfoneh
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