Thaw with Washington sparks political drama in Iran

A cascade of events Wednesday suggested there was no end in sight to the ideological skirmishes following President Hassan Rouhani’s outreach to the U.S.

Those overtures will be put to the test next week in Geneva when nuclear talks with world powers resume.

For Rouhani, the immediate prize would be winning pledges from the West to roll back painful sanctions in exchange for concessions on Tehran’s nuclear program. But, on a deeper level, Rouhani’s gambit also exposes sudden insecurities among the West-bashing factions that have shaped Iranian affairs for decades.

If Rouhani’s brand of diplomacy pays off in the eyes of Iran’s top policymaker, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it could bring sharper limits on the reach of powerful factions led by the Revolutionary Guard — which has already been warned by Khamenei to stay out of politics and let Rouhani’s overtures run their course.

The Guard will remain a pillar of Iran’s establishment no matter what happens with Rouhani’s efforts. But Khamenei’s directive to give Rouhani political breathing room was a rare roadblock for a group whose power and influence has expanded steadily in the past decade. The Revolutionary Guard’s network now extends beyond its fighting forces to cover sectors as diverse as the nuclear program and airport security.

Possible attempts by Khamenei to separate the Guard from the worlds of politics and foreign affairs would mark a profound change on how Iran interacts with the West, and offer more of flexibility in diplomacy.

“Opposition or frustration by hard-liners is a natural reaction,” said Tehran-based political analyst Saeed Leilaz. “But nothing can derail Rouhani’s policy of outreach to the U.S.” as long as Khamenei remains nominally in his corner.

Khamenei has previously said he’s not opposed to direct talks with the U.S. to resolve Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West but is not optimistic. Last week, he called the U.S. “untrustworthy.”

“There is a political will to reduce tensions with the U.S.,” said a Tehran political commentator, Hamid Reza Shokouhi. “This strategy is supported by the supreme leader.”

But that has not stopped critics of Rouhani’s government from making their complaints heard.

The nationally broadcast Friday prayers last week included the familiar chants of “Death to America.” A week earlier, protesters hurled eggs and insults and Rouhani’s entourage after he returned from the groundbreaking exchanges in New York.

It was capped by President Barrack Obama’s phone conversation with Rouhani in the highest-level dialogue between the countries since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

A major moment for Rouhani’s agenda will come next week in Geneva when Iranian envoys — led by Zarif — meet with delegations from the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany in a follow-up to discussions in New York last month.

Rouhani has made it clear he wants the U.S. and allies to pull back on sanctions, which have cut Iran’s vital oil exports in half and blackballed the country from international banking networks. But Iran has not announced what it will offer in return.

Last week, parliament overwhelmingly backed Rouhani’s initiatives. In an attempt to further push back against hard-liners, Rouhani has asked the government to conduct a poll on views of his U.N. visit and outreach to the U.S., spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht was quoted as saying by the state-run IRNA news agency.

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