Much attention has been devoted in the English-language press in recent weeks to the Western debate – exuberant support, staunch opposition, and everything in between – about the nuclear deal with Iran.
But in Iran, despite an initial media ban on criticism of the deal (which resurfaced again last week), the press is hard at work reporting on a different debate – the internal one, which began with careful, measured criticism by Iranian conservatives on conservative outlets, and quickly evolved into controversy and more vocal opposition amid accusations of censorship.
Some reports in the Iranian media this week clearly showed that the debate had risen a notch. For example, a recent report on Digarban cited the most senior imam of Mashhad, Ahmad Alamolhoda, bemoaning the silence of the Majles, or Iranian parliament, on the “bad” nuclear deal that would exacerbate the “Western penetration” of Iran. The deal, he was adamant, would break no less than three of the red lines set down by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The imam’s statement was preceded by a nearly identical statement by ultra-conservative Iranian MP Mahmoud Nabavian, who complained that Majles chairman Ali Larijani was preventing criticism of the nuclear deal – which Nabavian, like Alamolhoda, claimed had crossed the Iranian leadership’s “red lines” – in parliament.
Opposition was registered beyond Iran’s borders, too: in Lebanon, for example, a Shi’ite politician criticized the nuclear deal on camera, according to the website Nowruz Iran. But it is the Iranian public sphere that this crucial debate has played out at its greatest width, depth and vigor, according to The Atlantic’s Abbas Milani and Michael McFaul – “engaging everyone from the supreme leader to the Iranian American executive in Silicon Valley, from the taxi driver in Isfahan to the dissident from Evin Prison.”
Interesting that the criticism stems from opposing camps and reasons. The criticism from within Iran criticizes the crossing of the Iranian red lines. The criticism from outside of Iran usually criticizes the crossing of Western red lines (or “too far reaching compromises”).
Does the internal Iranian criticism reflect a fledgling democracy? Not quite. At the lack of free press in Iran, it may be a reflection of the fact that the Supreme Leader has an interest in this release of steam. Or a sign that even though “Iran is a dictatorship,” in Milani and McFaul’s words, other groups and politicians (from hardliners to reformists) now play an active role (or tug-of-war) in shaping its policy.