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Iran: Celebratory mood overshadows hardline criticism
November 27, 2013, 6:35 am

It was like an explosion of relief and, in some quarters, euphoria.

Within seconds of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeting that he had reached an interim deal with the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany over his country’s nuclear programme, Iranian social media burst with congratulatory messages.

Many Iranians anxiously following the negotiations, and airing frustration and fears of failure as talks dragged on, jubilantly flooded social media feeds with comments such as “finally, some good news in years,” and “I’ll sleep happily tonight, knowing that things are going to work our fine,” about the first meaningful step in years to end the standoff between Iran and the West.

The deal that was signed in Geneva turns the page in Iran’s ten-year-old nuclear saga, filled with episodes tainted by a decade’s worth of mistrust, accusations and missed opportunities. “A deal at last,” a popular exiled journalist wrote on her Facebook page.

“The threat of war and sanctions will hopefully go away.”

Hundreds sent warm and supportive messages through social media to Javad Zarif, who has endeared himself to an overwhelmingly young Iranian audience by his savvy social media presence and engagement tactics.

Few ventured to express utter disappointment, but skeptics – including some known members of the exiled opposition of the Islamic republic – were quick to warn that such an agreement, solely focused on alleviating concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, would only embolden the Islamic regime to commit more human rights violations and tighten its grip on social and personal freedoms in the country.

“What happened to the human rights? Not a concern anymore?” wrote a Facebook user under a long thread of positive comments about the nuclear deal.

Blaming the sanctions … or Ahmadinejad

But the skepticism appeared to be overshadowed by positive sentiments of Iranians desperately seeking a way out of the current standoff, manifested most visibly in the shattered economy and the ordinary Iranian’s deteriorating quality of life.

Some even criticised a BBC Persian correspondent for sounding so negative in his reports from Geneva, where the talks were held. It felt like there was an unwritten mandatory smile policy in force, to express unity with the people inside Iran.

Iranian pro-reform newspapers reflected the positive mood. Editorial staff of Etemad, a popular reformist daily, stayed up all night to get the news of the deal and be the first newspaper to bring the news to the masses on Sunday morning.

Their headline, on a half-page backdrop photo of the foreign ministers posing in Geneva, read “The sun of agreement shines on Tehran”.

Etemad’s editor-In-chief said on his Facebook page that the paper was reprinted three times in response to public demand.

And the public that clearly demanded the good news, have good reasons to be happy. Many Iranians blame the international sanctions – a tough regimen imposed on Iran to force the country to halt its nuclear programme – for their constantly worsening economic condition.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the negotiating team were seen as heroes by many in Iran [Xinhua]

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the negotiating team were seen as heroes by many in Iran [Xinhua]

Understandably, they think the deal will help bring some relief from the sanctions and pave the way for economic improvement.

Those in the know, however, beg to differ. They argue that hardline, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s poor handling of the economy, and not foreign pressure, is responsible for the hardships felt by Iranians of different walks of life.

They are wary of premature celebration, and caution that a lot more than a single agreement is needed to change the downward course of Iran’s economy.

President Hassan Rouhani, too, seems to have a clear idea of the core economic issues at home.

Obviously, the country’s teetering trade sector has to be reactivated and rejuvenated in order to create economic growth. Shortly after the deal was brokered in Geneva, Rouhani sought to reassure the country’s private sector, insisting that sanctions would ease, and called them to go back to doing business.

“I say to businessmen, now it’s your turn.” he said in a presser. “The structure of sanctions will be broken by implementation of this agreement.”

“Whether others like this phrase or not, cracks have appeared in the structure of the sanctions as of last night and they will grow wider as time goes by,” he said, apparently in response to several comments made by US President Barack Obama, who insisted that sanctions would remain in place.

Obama also sought to reassure Israel, which has angrily dismissed the deal as a “historic mistake”, and Arab allies in the Persian Gulf, who are skeptical about the agreement.

“The broader architecture of the sanctions will remain in place,” Obama said, adding that if Iran does not fully meet its commitments during the next six months, “we will turn off the relief and ratchet up the pressure.”

Hardliners’ criticism vocal, but toned down

Strangely enough, the US allies in the Persian Gulf region and the Israeli government are not the only skeptical parties, as Iranian hardliners appear concerned about the nuclear deal, albeit for a different set of reasons.

Most conservative media in Iran have been playing down the efforts and achievements of the Iranian negotiating team, so much so that Iran’s state-run television, IRIB, did not seem to care to air any footage of the ordinary Iranian’s excitement over the deal.

“Some citizens said they turned the state TV on, but they did not see any signs of happiness, cheers or even images and comments that could show the importance of the matter to the audience,” moderate news website Entekhab noted.

An Entekhab reader complained that “the state television only broadcast remarks of Obama, who was clearly trying to appease American extremists, trying to leave a bitter taste in people’s mouth.”

Iran’s most prominent hardline newspaper Kayhan, which like the IRIB, is managed by a director appointed by the supreme leader, magnified the comments of the US Secretary of State John Kerry saying that the US has not recognised Iran’s right to nuclear enrichment.

Kayhan’s Monday editorial deduced that “The conflicting remarks of the Americans shows that they are reluctant to recognise the rights of Iranian people.”

Hardline news websites followed suit. Some compared the Geneva deal to a notorious 19th century pact called Turkmenchai between Iran and Russia that gave up major parts of Iranian territories.

Others called it a bitter candy, which Iranian negotiators dared to trade with “pearls”, a metaphor often used to indicate the preciousness of Iran’s nuclear achievements.

Iran’s powerful supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has also been vocal in his skepticism of the West’s intentions in dealing with Iran’s nuclear issue, but he has also publicly backed the negotiating team, and it has forced most hardliners who claim to be the true followers of Iran’s leader to wind down their harsh rhetoric against the nuclear deal for the moment.

But their calm may not last very long.

Iranian negotiators may have achieved a lot so far: They have made a deal with the US, helped gain relief to a minor part of the sanctions while keeping Iran’s nuclear apparatus intact.

More importantly, they have given hope to many Iranians. However, there is no doubt that if they fail to realise total elimination of all international sanctions within the next six months, they will have to expect many overdue blows from their hardline critics.

It is not clear whether the popular support for Rouhani will help him survive such a brutal bashing – if and when it happens.

But it seems like at this juncture of time both the president and his supporters, in spite of all the uncertainties that the future may hold, are willing to take their chances.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.