The first round of nuclear talks in Kazakhstan raised optimism on the prospect of reaching a diplomatic solution for Iran’s nuclear crisis. Sanctions are crushing Iran’s economy. Meanwhile, the turmoil in its ally Syria and the rise of Sunni Islamism in the Middle East is undermining Iran’s strategic position. The overall regional and domestic situation appears to have forced Iran to revise its nuclear approach. Therefore, not surprisingly, Iran started the first round of recent nuclear talks with a relatively milder position. As usual, the negotiations failed, but this time it was due to a different reason: the domestic concerns of Iranian leaders. As a senior diplomat in Brussels said: The internal power struggle has an impact on negotiation...The internal tensions have an influence on a process such as negotiations but we don`t even know who the [presidential] candidates will be." In a similar remark on the prospect of reaching a deal with Iran, former European Union’s Foreign Policy Chief, Javier Solana, stated that “we have elections in Tehran before the summer. It will be very difficult to get something going before those presidential elections.”
Since 2009, Western government officials, policymakers, and scholars have reached a consensus that the supreme leader of Iran is the final decision maker in nuclear policies, and that the Iranian ruling elites are unified and monolithic on their nuclear stances. This consensus makes the policy formulation easy, since it does not need to take into account domestic interlocutors. However, it overlooks the reality of Iranian politics. How can a presidential election that few claim is free and fair still influence the process of a negotiation that is assumed to be immune from the intrusion of domestic politics? The answer rests on the dynamic of power struggle in Iran’s factional politics, and the impact of the nuclear program on domestic politics.
The first use of the Iranian nuclear program to gain domestic support dates back to the 2004 parliamentary and 2005 presidential elections. In 2003, a coalition of reformists and pragmatists in the Iranian Supreme Council for National Security reached a deal with the EU3 foreign ministers for the suspension of uranium enrichment activities, thus preventing Iran’s case from being referred to the United Nations Security Council. Afterwards, to improve their electability at home, conservatives framed this deal as a sign of reformist weakness. Hardliners labeled President Khatami’s nuclear negotiating team as spies, traitors, and tools of the West, who sold out the rights and ambitions of the country. They even jailed Mousavian, one of Khatami’s top nuclear negotiators, and charged him with espionage.
Neoconservative rhetoric in the United States, such as George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech and the broader doctrine of regime change, also resonated with the conservative tone in Tehran. Conservative leaders in Iran repeatedly referred to Bush’s speech as a consequence of reformists’ submissive behavior regarding foreign and nuclear policies, and discredited a cooperative nuclear approach for the Iranian public. Given the fact that Iranians, like most other publics, historically like strong leaders, it appeared that the conservatives’ propaganda was successful in building a strong electoral base in some segments of Iranian society.
After 2009’s disputed presidential elections, Iranian conservatives faced a crisis of legitimacy, and they needed the nuclear program more than ever. Considering the poor economic performance due to sanctions and mismanagement, the nuclear program gained more domestic significance as one—and perhaps the only—thing that conservatives could deliver to Iranians. Moreover, hardliners, particularly in the security apparatus, utilized the situation to justify their control of society by highlighting foreign threats.
After the tremendous pressure of sanctions, a fissure among conservative elites emerged. Former president of Iran Hashemi Rafsanjani publicly called for a rapprochement with the United States to solve the nuclear crisis. Some traditional conservatives such as Larijani, Mohsen Rezaei, Ahmadinejad, and Mottaki also advocated his remarks and demanded a softer position on nuclear policies. On the other hand, hardliners in the Kayhan newspaper harshly responded to Rafsanjani’s view by accusing him of forcing the supreme leader to drink “a poisoned chalice” and undermine the role of Iran in the Islamic movement in the Middle East and North Africa. The Kayhan’s editorial column also dismissed other traditional conservatives as “eroded revolutionaries.”
Why did the hardliners intransigently insist on their confrontational nuclear stance? The dynamic of a power struggle among the factions provides an explanation. This factional struggle also accounts for the failure of any possible nuclear deal before the presidential election and particularly the last round of the nuclear talks in Kazakhstan. Reaching any agreement requires a suspension of enrichment activities at some level, and this agreement would undermine the hardliners by questioning their costly, confrontational nuclear approach and enable the reformists and pragmatists to gain leverage in domestic politics and particularly the presidential election. If they were to reach a nuclear deal with the West, reformists would reclaim the cooperative nuclear policy as their own and retaliate against the hard-liners’ accusations that they were cowards, submissives, and traitors. The reformists would argue that accepting the nuclear suspension deal they negotiated in 2003 was the result of a careful cost-benefit analysis based on the Iranian national interest and point out that, after all this adventurism in nuclear and foreign policies, which imposed tremendous costs to the country, conservatives in fact returned to the cooperative reformist foreign policy. Thus, in the reformists’ eyes, conservatives are responsible for the cost of adventurism in nuclear policies. This argument would weaken the hardliners and conservatives and intensify the crisis of legitimacy.
Competition between the conservatives has made the circumstances even messier. That is, in 2009 Ahmadinejad changed his nuclear approach and tried to reach a deal with the West on nuclear fuel exchange. However, the deal failed primarily because of conflict and competition among the conservatives. Conservative politician Ali Larijani, the speaker of Majles (the Iranian Parliament), was a leading opponent of that deal. Although mistrust of the West was the stated reason for Larijani’s opposition to that deal, most analysts argue that conservatives prevented Ahmadinejad from earning any credit on solving the nuclear crisis. Reaching a deal before the upcoming 2013 election would provide the same leverage for Ahmadinejad and his team, who are fighting desperately for their political survival.
Finally, if they were to reach a deal with the West, security forces and hardliners would no longer be able to suppress and control civil society by referring to external threat and pressure. Opening society in this manner would create a space for activists to run a campaign for their favorite candidate in the upcoming presidential election, which may lead to the emergence of a movement similar to the Green movement in 2009, which shook the power of hardliners.
Given the heterogeneous nature of the ruling elite in Iran, scholars of authoritarianism called Iran’s regime a “factionalized authoritarianism.” The “two-level games” in this factionalized authoritarianism clouded the understanding of Iran`s nuclear approach. That is, in addition to international players, domestic players also influence Tehran`s strategic calculations in the nuclear talks. On the one hand, a nuclear deal between Iran and the West can change the balance of power in Iranian domestic politics in favor of moderate forces. Therefore, hardliners try their best to impede the attainment of a nuclear deal, particularly before the presidential election. On the other hand, the ruling elite compete and fight with each other on who will receive the credit for a nuclear deal. This dynamic makes reaching a deal unlikely before the presidential election. The prospect of finding a diplomatic solution impacts and is also influenced by the outcome of upcoming presidential election. There is a possibility that a strong moderate president can check the power of military and security forces and employ his institutional capacity of president in the Supreme Council for National Security to convince Iran’s supreme leader of a nuclear deal with the West.
 Hossein Mousavian, The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2012), p. 169.
 Kayhan Newspaper, 4 April 2012 and 8 December 2012.
 E. Houchang Chehabi, “The Political Regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Comparative Perspective,” Government and Opposition 36 (Winter 2001): pp. 48-70.