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Feb 14, 2015 3:43 AM

Political stakes high for Iran's president in nuclear talks

The Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Throughout the long negotiations over the fate of Iran's nuclear program, President Hassan Rouhani has withstood scathing criticism from hard-liners at home by sticking to his case that a deal with his country's longtime enemies will bring peace and prosperity.

So the political stakes are high for the moderate president as talks enter their homestretch toward a June deadline.

If he succeeds in sealing an agreement, Iran could see much-hoped-for relief from withering sanctions that are dragging down the economy at a time when the OPEC producer is trying to ride out a severe slump in oil prices.

An improvement in the economy could translate into a broader boost in domestic support for Rouhani and strengthen the moderate camp gain in parliamentary elections next year. Moderates are pushing for a less confrontational relationship with the West a break from the eight-year tenure of predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and seek more freedoms at home, including greater freedom of expression and easing of social restrictions.

Failure, however, only will bolster his hard-line opponents who are against that entire agenda.

"Rouhani was elected on, promoted and supported the idea that he would help the Iranian economy recover. And of course the nuclear agreement is tied to that because of the sanctions," said Dubai-based political analyst Theodore Karasik. "If there is no nuclear deal, the presidency will go back to a more ultraconservative leader under a nuclear Iran."

The U.S. and other world powers reached an interim deal with Iran in November 2013 that involved some sanctions relief in exchange for Tehran freezing its nuclear program. Talks have now been extended until the end of June, though negotiators aim to reach a framework for a deal by the end of next month.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sounded a hopeful tone earlier this week, saying a further extension of the talks wouldn't be in anyone's interest. President Barack Obama seems to agree, saying Monday that "we're at a point where they need to make a decision."

Zarif has borne the brunt of the hard-liners' most recent criticism, particularly over a walk he took with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during negotiations in Geneva last month.

Comments by Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the head of the Basij organization, the paramilitary wing of the powerful Revolutionary Guards, were typical of the outrage. He blasted the envoy for "showing intimacy with the enemy of humanity" and "trampling on the blood of martyrs."

Rouhani's team can afford to weather the criticism for now. They still have the crucial backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all major decisions in the Islamic Republic.

"Without Khamenei's consent, the negotiating team couldn't survive more than 10 minutes," said Tehran-based political analyst Saeed Leilaz.

Leilaz said many in the hard-line establishment are still struggling to accept what he called the "changing the tone of conversation" by Iran's leadership in its dealings with Washington. "It was a very severe and sudden change," he said.

Khamenei this week reiterated support for the negotiators, telling members of the air force in a speech that they are doing their best to "take away the option of sanctions from the enemy."

He chose his words carefully though.

"We think that no deal is better than a bad deal that is against our national interests," he said, adding pointedly that his country is not "desperate" on the nuclear issue.

Khamenei has kept his stance vague from the start. When talks began, he said he would not oppose them but did not expect success. Last month, he said the U.S. can't be trusted to lift sanctions and that Iran must develop an "economy of resistance."

"He basically wants credit if there is a deal, and doesn't want to be blamed if it doesn't work," said Michael Singh, managing director at The Washington Institute.

In an address Wednesday before thousands gathered in Tehran's Azadi Square to mark the 36th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Rouhani sought to minimize the role that sanctions played in driving the nuclear negotiations forward.

He said Iran instead came to the table "for the sake of logic and for creating peace and stability in the region and world."

Haleh Esfandiari, who directs the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said many Iranians will be disappointed if negotiators fail to reach a lasting deal.

"No deal means ratcheting up sanctions, more hardship," she said. "If there is no deal, it means Rouhani has lost and has lost big."

Leilaz, the Tehran analyst, agreed that Rouhani's political fortunes are ties to a deal.

"If Rouhani wants to win more seats in next parliamentary election ... then he really needs the deal," he said.

A lasting agreement would go a long way in improving Iran's relations with the United States, which along with Israel ranks as the hard-liners' top foe. But other points of contention remain.

Iran has detained Iranian-American Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian since July and he is expected to be tried soon before Iran's Revolutionary Court. The charges have not been publicly announced, but the court mostly hears cases involving security offenses.

A judge known for his tough sentencing, Abolghassem Salavati, has been assigned to hear the case, according to Rezaian's family. They called the selection "very disturbing" given European Union sanctions against the jurist, who has presided over several politically charged cases, including those of protesters arrested in connection with demonstrations that followed the 2009 presidential elections.

Key opposition leaders in those contentious elections, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest a reminder of the limits the establishment is willing to tolerate.

Analysts outside Iran say the journalist's detention could be the work of hard-liners who want to send a message.

"They're trying to undermine Rouhani," and tell him "while you're negotiating, we can do whatever we want," said Esfandiari, who was herself detained by Iranian security authorities in 2007.


Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed reporting.


Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck.


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