Sohrab Ahmari: An Iranian Insider’s View of the Geneva Deal

‘If the right to enrich is accepted, which it has been, then everything that we have wanted has been realized.’

(WALL STREET JOURNAL 26 NOV 13) … Sohrab Ahmari

The Obama administration and Western diplomats were elated by an agreement, negotiated over the weekend, to temporarily limit some aspects of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. The elation was shared by Tehran’s negotiating team, led by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, whose beaming smile and social-media savvy have been fixtures of the talks in Geneva. When the deal was sealed early on Sunday, Mr. Zarif took to Twitter TWTR +2.87% to announce: “We have reached an agreement.”

But there is another Iran, where government officials are generally unsmiling and Twitter is banned. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps rule this land, not Mr. Zarif or his nominal boss, President Hasan Rouhani. It is in this Islamic Republic where the results of President Obama’s nuclear diplomacy will be tested.

No Iranian news outlet more closely reflects the views of the supreme leader and the country’s hard-line establishment than the Kayhan newspaper. The editor of Kayhan— Hossein Shariatmadari currently holds the post—is directly appointed by Mr. Khamenei and is considered the leader’s representative to Iranian media.

On Sunday, I spoke on the phone with Payam Fazlinejad, a Kayhan writer and senior researcher and lieutenant of Mr. Shariatmadari’s. The 32-year-old Mr. Fazlinejad is also a lecturer who addresses Islamic Republic elites on the ideological threats facing the regime—themes he has expounded on in such books as “Knights of the Cultural NATO” and “The Intellectuals’ Secret Army.” While he emphasized on the phone that his opinions don’t necessarily represent those of his employer, Mr. Fazlinejad’s views are typical of those held by a large and powerful element of the Tehran regime.

Mr. Fazlinejad’s reading of the Geneva agreement mixes triumphalism and hard-nosed skepticism. “We need to be able to have an accurate view of what occurred and then assess it against the positions of the supreme leader and his guidance,” he says. “But as a general matter, if the right to enrich is accepted, which it has been, then everything that we have wanted has been realized.”

Last year, Mr. Shariatmadari, the editor of the newspaper, wrote that Iran has a right to enrich uranium up to 99%. The Obama administration insists that the Geneva agreement doesn’t enshrine a right to enrich uranium. Yet the deal permits the Iranian regime to continue enriching uranium up to 5%—a level that can be quickly escalated to produce weapons-grade material. Mr. Fazlinejad views the Geneva 5% concession as great-power acquiescence to Tehran’s enrichment program. “Now, the details—including the amount of enrichment and the specific enrichment locations and the technological shape of our enrichment program—are up to our technicians to determine,” he says.

Given that the Geneva deal is an interim, six-month arrangement, with a final agreement still to come, Mr. Fazlinejad suggests that Western leaders must “take into account that the supreme leader’s support for the negotiations and agreement has been conditional and by no means absolute. The leader instructed us that if the rights of the Iranian nation and the principles of the revolution are respected and the negotiating team stands up to the overbearing demands of the United States and the global arrogance”—the regime’s terms for the West generally—”then he would support their work.” On the other hand, if the agreement denies Iran’s absolute right to enrich, “then it is from our view essentially void.”

The Kayhan writer warns against perceiving any diplomatic agreement over Iran’s nuclear program as a first step toward broader rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. “The nature of the opposition of the Islamic revolution with the regime of liberal democracy is fundamentally philosophical,” Mr. Fazlinejad says. “It’s an ideological difference. It is not a tactical enmity, or one that has to do with temporary interests, which can be shifted and the enmity thus done away with. . . . So in contrast to all the punditry of late in the international media, which says that these negotiations are a step toward peace between Iran and the United States—those who take this view are completely mistaken.”

Western leaders, Mr. Fazlinejad says, are also misreading the meaning of Mr. Rouhani’s election in June and his foreign policy. Pointing to the Iranian president’s recent visits with the families of Iran’s “martyrs,” Mr. Fazlinejad says: “Notice how hard Mr. Rouhani’s government works to show itself to be loyal to the revolution’s ideological principles.” The new president “won’t make the mistake of thinking he can either distance the Islamic Republic’s leadership from its ideological principles or seek its ideological collapse.”

To drive home his point about the endgame of the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, Mr. Fazlinejad offers an analogy from the Islamic Republic’s early history, citing the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s statement regarding the 1987 United Nations Security Council Resolution 598, which paved the way for a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq War.

“In that message,” Mr. Fazlinejad says, “the imam made it clear that our military war against the arrogance in the form of Iraq’s regime is over. But he advised the youth and the political activists to ‘safeguard the revolutionary hatred and grievance in your hearts, look upon your enemies with fury and know that you will be victorious.’ ”

Khomeini’s statement, Mr. Fazlinejad says, “was a message of peace, signaling a permanent cease-fire. But at the same time it asserted the vitality of our struggle against the capitalist order. If anyone gets the sense from these negotiations, as [Foreign Minister] Mr. Zarif has, that we are getting closer to the West, he is as mistaken as Mr. Zarif.”

Mr. Ahmari is an assistant books editor at the Journal.

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