This article was published in collaboration with Slate.
The immense domestic political obstacles facing President Barack Obama as he tries to reach a nuclear deal with Iran by the Nov. 24 negotiating deadline are well documented. Less reported—but no less formidable—are the domestic political challenges facing the players on the other side of the table: Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Understanding these challenges—and the related nuances of Iran’s complex political discourse—is the key to understanding Tehran’s position on the remaining sticking points in the talks, ranging from the timing of the sanctions relief Iran would get to the number of centrifuges it would be allowed to keep.
Speaking at the Council of Foreign Relations last September, Zarif painted a sobering picture of the impact that failure of the current nuclear talks would have on Tehran’s foreign policy. “We started a process with the aim of changing the foreign policy environment of the country,” he said. “Now if in spite of our efforts to be accommodating, we fail, then the Iranian people have an opportunity to respond to our failure in about a year’s time.” He was referring to Iran’s parliamentary election scheduled for early 2016, and warning his New York audience that “another rebuff” to Iran’s attempt “to be open and forward-looking” could undermine political support for the redirection of the country’s foreign policy.