On July 15, the day after Iran reached an agreement with P5+1 negotiators over its nuclear program, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei congratulated President Hassan Rouhani on the significant achievement, but warned that the text of the deal should be scrutinized carefully. Although Khamenei's words have been generally perceived as supportive, they also provided an opening for future criticism.
The Iranian media coverage of any issue is usually as complex, contentious, and varied as Iranian politics itself. For the nuclear deal, though, things have been surprisingly bland: criticism of the deal has been limited. Most discussions, in both moderate and conservative media, have been positive if somewhat tepid.
In the pro-reform papers, statements appeared just after talks ended in Vienna. The well-known daily Etemaad claimed that “the world has changed,” describing July 14 as the day of the “revolution of diplomacy.” Likewise, following Rouhani’s televised speech on July 14, reformist papers such as Roozan, Hamkari Melli,and Hamshahri announced the beginning of an era of cooperation that could “bring down the wall of mistrust” and improve Iran’s relations with the West. Across the board, the deal has been described as a potential victory of diplomacy over confrontation that could herald a new season of hope.
Both pro-reform and conservative media found two specific aspects of the Vienna agreement to like. First, they portrayed the deal as an explicit recognition of Iran as an international nuclear power, not least of which because it does not entirely prevent Iran from enriching uranium. This is a major source of pride for the media and public. Conservative newspapers such as Javan, Resalat, and Jomhouri Islami emphasized that “the resistance of the nation” against Western sanctions was crucial for this “victory without war.” The well-known pro-reform daily Ebtekar went even further by quoting former President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s comparison between the nuclear deal and the Liberation of Khorramshahr. The powerful reference to the bitter, decisive victory over the city’s Iraqi captors during the Iran-Iraq war shows how the nuclear deal has already become a new symbol of Iranian rhetoric against foreign aggression.
Second, Iranian media has heralded the removal of sanctions and the renewed potential for foreign investment. A few days after the deal was signed, Iranian media widely covered the arrival of French, German, and Italian ministers streaming into Iran to prepare the groundwork for closer economic cooperation. According to the pro-reformist Iran Daily, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will permit both Iran and the West to boost collaboration, and the removal of sanctions “will provide Iran with an opportunity to promote international trade ties.”
Positive coverage of the deal stems from a top-secret directive issued by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Any criticism of the deal that does exist found inspiration in Khamenei’s ambiguous comments and is found mostly on social networks and ultra-conservative media. Critical coverage has mostly focused on three different aspects of the deal, and has demonstrated the continued importance of anti-American rhetoric despite recent cooperation. First, media critics have chastised the agreement for undermining Iran’s nuclear energy program by giving too many concessions to Western negotiators. The ultra-conservative website Raja News, for example, focused on the “controversial” provisions of the deal. According to the website, which has strong ties with Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the deal violates the red lines previously laid out by Khamenei by significantly reducing the number of nuclear facilities in the country and removing of many of its centrifuges, as well as its stockpile of enriched uranium. Moreover, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps have argued that the agreement's provisions for international inspection of military sites and the retention of UN sanctions on Iran's ballistic missiles program threaten Iran's security.
Second, hard-liners have played up doubts about the United States’ trustworthiness. For example, the influential Kayhan, a daily newspaper with close ties to the supreme leader, warned against possible U.S. plans to use the agreement to empower Iranian moderates in order to bring about regime change in Iran.
Third, the ultra-conservative Basij paramilitary, complained through Facebook about the Iranian negotiating team. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and other negotiators have been criticized as too Westernized since they went to universities in the United States. For this reason, they have been accused of ignoring the principles of the Islamic Revolution.
Criticism from Iranian media has been limited so far for two main reasons. Supporting the deal is much more popular than skepticism due to the general perception of Khamenei's support and the euphoric reaction to the agreement witnessed from the Iranian people. In fact, many within the country see the deal as an opportunity to improve living conditions.
Iranian media’s predominantly supportive position, however, is not spontaneous. On the contrary, the positive coverage stems from a top-secret directive issued by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The two-page document, reported by the Iranian Students News Agency and later by BBC and Reuters, instructed editors to praise the deal since criticism, they feared, could undermine the historic achievement. Meanwhile, the Iranian censorship machine has stood ready to crack down on anyone that doesn’t follow the directive: between the end of July and the beginning of August, Iran’s Press Supervisory Board shut down the hard-line newspaper 9 Dey after it commented harshly on the deal, and warned both Kayhan and Raja News against their critical coverage.
The ministry, which reports to the Iranian president, has good reason to subdue criticism of the deal. Encouraging the divide over the Iran deal could weaken national support for Rouhani. Given Khamenei’s far from explicit approval of the deal, and the fact that his final say on the nuclear deal’s adoption is necessary, such support is crucial if Rouhani wants to have the agreement implemented. Moreover, it is reasonable to assume that Iranian hard-line rhetoric might make it difficult for U.S. President Barack Obama to push the deal through the U.S. Congress, as harsh criticism and anti-American rhetoric would increase conservative distrust of Iran’s intentions.
Of course, it comes as no surprise that Tehran has had a heavy hand in framing media perceptions of the nuclear deal. What is striking is that, unlike in the past, efforts to contain criticism have targeted hard-line media instead of reformist ones, thus indicating a fundamental shift in Iranian politics. Criticism has been manageable so far due to Khamenei’s perceived support for the agreement, but the potential for things to get ugly loom if the president’s position weakens. In this sense, Congress’ vote in September will play a crucial role: disapproval will blow up the deal, and allegations within Iran of Rouhani’s failure will increase the political weight of hard-liners. In this scenario, relations between Iran and the West will likely deteriorate quickly, and a violent showdown could follow. The hope among many Iranian observers is that the U.S. Congress will not give Iranian hard-liners the ammunition for such a battle.