Hard-liners in Iran still hold sway in talks

Could undermine foreign minister’s efforts at outreach

TEHRAN — The Iranian foreign minister’s parting words in Geneva carried hopes that the United States and other world powers could begin closing the gap with Tehran on Iran’s nuclear program. He returns home with perhaps an even tougher challenge at finding common ground.

In a sharp counterpoint to the Western outreach by President Hassan Rouhani’s government, hard-line factions in Iran have amplified their bluster and backlash in messages that they cannot be ignored in any diplomatic moves with Washington, either in the nuclear talks or beyond.

They also hold important sway on the pace and direction of Iran’s nuclear program through the Revolutionary Guard, the single most powerful institution in Iran. Without its clear backing, the West and allies could grow skeptical about Rouhani’s ability to deliver on efforts to ease fears that Iran is moving toward an atomic weapon.


‘‘Iran’s hard-liners are the not-so-silent partners in everything that Rouhani has set in motion,’’ said Scott Lucas, an Iranian affairs expert at Britain’s Birmingham University. ‘‘The Revolutionary Guard is never a bystander in Iran.’’

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It is still unclear whether the Guard would agree to potential demands such as increased UN monitoring at nuclear sites. So far, however, there have been few smooth patches with Rouhani. His outreach has brought swift criticism from the Revolutionary Guard and its wide network, including a national paramilitary force known as the Basij.

Even the smallest gestures toward the United States by Iran poke at a nest of complications: Deep historical grievances, perceptions of national pride, and a culture of ‘‘enemy’’ resistance that runs to the core of groups such as the Revolutionary Guard, which is instinctively wary of anything that could chip away at its vast influence stretching from the military to the economy.

For Rouhani and his allies, it also means a possibly short leash.

Iran’s top decision-maker, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has allowed Rouhani to reach out to the United States. The goal is trying to address concerns over Iran’s nuclear program and getting economic sanctions rolled back in return.


Two days of talks in Geneva this week between Iran and envoys from six nations — the permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany — ended with optimism that at least some new paths have been opened to explore.

But all noted that the negotiations could drift well into next year, and it remains unclear whether Iran could offer verifiable concessions needed to end the deadlock. In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Iran had offered ‘‘a proposed approach’’ on moving the talks forward.

The West fears Iran’s uranium enrichment labs eventually could churn out weapons-grade material, and some in Israel and elsewhere worry the outreach and goodwill by Rouhani is merely a ploy to buy time. Iran insists it does not seek nuclear weapons.