Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

Iran Nuclear Deal Divides Reformists and Principlists Over Vision for Country's Future

Author: Andrew Gripp
Created: 06 August, 2015
Updated: 21 November, 2022
9 min read

On July 14, Iran agreed to a nuclear deal in Vienna that would greatly inhibit its ability to develop a nuclear weapon. The agreement, if it goes into effect, will not only cause Iran to forfeit most of its centrifuges and enriched uranium, but it will also establish an inspection regime that covers everything from Iran's two uranium mines to, in the words of Vox, "every single centrifuge in the country, as well as the centrifuge factories, the machines that could be used to make a centrifuge, even on imports of technology that could be used to build a machine that could be used to build a centrifuge."

Congress, which has been heavily lobbied by the administration and is actively questioning the deal's content and merits, has until September 17 to ratify the agreement.

While Americans continue to debate the merits of the Iranian nuclear deal, the historic agreement has exposed a key division within Iranian society – namely, between the Reformists (and their allies) and the Principlists over their respective visions for Iranian society.

It would be easy to overlook this difference given the general support for the deal by the government of the moderate, pragmatic, and Reformist-backed president, 

Hassan Rouhani, and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, the factions’ reactions to the deal show that there are still entrenched and significant differences regarding how both Reformists and Principlists see the deal fitting into Iran’s future – politically, religiously, economically, and culturally.

Reformists and moderates

Rouhani’s government sees the nuclear deal as beneficial for fostering regional cooperation. Reformists and moderates in Iran opposed the harsh, incendiary, and inflamed rhetoric of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which they felt unnecessarily engendered distrust and fear of the Islamic Republic.

Reformists and moderates want better relations with its neighbors and the West. After the nuclear deal was announced, for instance, the Reformist paper Ghanoun published an article entitled “The beginning of the end of Death to America.” The article piggy-backed on the idea floated in another Reformist outlet – published shortly after Rouhani came to power in 2013 – suggesting changing “Death to America” to “Death to Arrogance.”

This conciliatory message was on display in July 2015, when Rouhani's foreign minister Mohammad Zarif visited Iraq and called on countries in the region, including Sunni Arab states, to help “fight against the threat of extremism, terrorism and sectarianism” in reference to the threat posed by ISIS.

This inclusive approach reflects the religious orientation of the Reformists and moderates. Unlike the politicized brand of Shi’ism embodied by the conservatives and Principlists in Iran – whose headquarters are in the Iranian city of Qom – the Reformists and moderates are closer to the “quietist” tradition of Shi’ism, which is headquartered in the Iraqi city of Najaf.

The Reformists have a natural ally in Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shi’ite religious figure. Al-Sistani, like Rouhani and Zarif, wants to reduce sectarian tension and see the formation of a united civil state in Iraq. In 2014, al-Sistani called on Iraq’s Shi’a to take up arms against ISIS, but his message was rooted in the defense of Iraq’s sovereignty rather than sectarian warfare.

Finally, the Reformists favor the nuclear deal because it will remove the sanctions that for years have hurt Iran’s economy, especially Iran’s large youth demographic, which is largely sympathetic to the Reformists’ agenda.


The Iranian youth is also chafing under the strict control of Iranian culture by Iran’s mullahs. For instance, there have been dire warnings by conservative factions that Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ali Jannati, is too permissive regarding issues such as popular films and women musicians. In 2014, Hamidreza Moghadamfar, the socio-cultural deputy commander of the IRGC (the Revolutionary Guards tasked with defending the 1979 Iranian Revolution) said the ministry has allowed enemies of the revolution to “infiltrate our culture” through “cinema, media, books and literature.”

Conservative Principlists loyal to the Revolution have also criticized the ministry regarding the nuclear deal. Eighteen lawmakers called on Jannati to explain why the culture ministry ordered local media not to criticize the agreement.

While many Principlists follow the Supreme Leader in defending the nuclear deal in general – Khamenei called it an “important step,” many are critical of specific provisions and the motivations of the Rouhani government.

Seyed Morteza Rashidi, a popular Facebook commenter associated with the Basij – the paramilitary wing of the IRGC – wrote that "The deal, signed by enemies of the Revolution, is legally too flawed. It seems that Iranian negotiators are either traitors or uneducated individuals."

This reaction is grounded by a deep animosity toward the United States that is central to the conservative Principlists’ worldview. After the nuclear deal was completed, Khamenei said, “Some of the six opposing governments cannot be trusted” and that, "Even after this deal, our policy toward the arrogant US will not change."

This attitude marks a distinct difference toward foreign policy vis-à-vis that of the Reformists and their moderate allies. Principlist figures and institutions like the IRGC and its military called the Quds Force, believe in exporting the Revolution and supporting Shi’ite causes and governments in countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.

For example, unlike Ayatollah al-Sistani who believes in defeating ISIS to maintain Iraq’s integrity, stability, and cohesion, Qom-based ayatollah Makarem Shirazi has stressed the sectarian nature of the conflict and promoted the use of Shi’ite militias – not the Iraqi state – in combating the Sunni extremists.

This position reflects the religious worldview of the Principlists. Unlike the comparatively inclusive quietists based in Najaf, who believe that a truly just theocratic government cannot be implemented until the return of the Mahdi (an apocalyptic figure in Islamic theology), conservative theologians based in Qom trust in the concept of the velayat-e faqih – “guardianship of the jurist.” According to this doctrine, developed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – the first supreme leader after the Iranian Revolution – properly educated religious leaders are best suited to govern a Shi’ite country until the Mahdi returns.

To advance the regime’s interests, Ayatollah Khamenei has recently advocated for increased investments in the country’s military. On June 30, 2015, he announced the contents of the Sixth Development Plan – a document that establishes the economic and budgetary priorities of the country over a five-year period.

The document reinforced his statements from April, in which he said that “All organizations, including the Ministry of Defense, the military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC], should increase their military and defense preparedness and increase their combative and mental capabilities on a daily basis. This should be taken as an official order.”

Rouhani’s government approved a one-third increase in the defense budget, including $7 billion for the IRGC and $2 billion for the traditional military.

This reliance on the IRGC – which defends the Revolution domestically and promotes it through force abroad – reveals another difference between the Reformists and Principlists regarding the nuclear deal.

While the economic conditions of the country have deteriorated under the sanctions imposed to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, the Principlists have defiantly claimed that they will not break the people or the regime. However, analysts have also noted that it is the IRGC that has benefited the most under the sanctions, since the curtailment of the private sector forced the country to increasingly depend on smuggling and on the economic wing of the IRGC – Khatam al-Anbiya.

Over the last decade, Khatam al-Anbiya has received billions of dollars in contracts and has been involved some of the countries most ambitious projects, including highway and tunnel construction, dam building, and the development of the South Pars gas field.

The IRGC and the Rouhani government have been at odds: while Rouhani has praised Khatam al-Anbiya for helping the country develop its infrastructure while under sanctions, he has called on the IRGC to abstain from engaging in partisan politics and to allow smaller firms to take on smaller projects and strengthen the private sector.

Some Principlists fear that the easing of sanctions will reduce the power of the IRGC at their expense and to the Reformists’ benefit.

As Alireza Ramezani wrote for Al-Monitor, “In the long run, ultraconservatives fear that the likely expansion of the middle class will pave the way for the Reformists to re-emerge — a red line frequently discussed among senior hard-line figures.”

In short, the nuclear deal shows what Iran’s main factions believe is at stake in the nuclear deal. The Reformists and moderates see it as an opportunity to enhance cooperation with its neighbors and improve the economy (to its political advantage), while the Principlists reluctantly accept the deal (yet seek to modify, limit, and soften it) and fear that it could weaken the country’s prestige and regional dominance and cause economic changes that could empower the country’s restive, aspiring, and increasingly Westernized youth.

Elected vs. Unelected Institutions

Another way to view this contest is in terms of Iran’s labyrinthine political structure: namely – between its elected and unelected institutions.

The Reformists’ strong performances in recent elections – culminating in the Green Movement of 2009 and its subsequent violent repression – has caused the unelected Guardian Council to increasingly disqualify candidates seen as inadequately loyal to the ideals of the Revolution, including conservatives who fell out of favor with Khamenei – among them, allies of former president Ahmadinejad. Even Principlists showed anxiety regarding the upcoming February 2016 elections when they passed a bill in the Majles this year that would have spared incumbents from being subjected to the Guardian Council’s vetting process (a bill that the Guardian Council predictably overturned).

Since the Principlists dominate the country's most powerful (and unelected) institutions – the rahbar (position of supreme leader), the Guardian Council, and the judiciary – Reformists know that their hope for change lies not in a single presidential or parliamentary election, but in more gradual social and generational change.

If the Principlists continue to suffocate dissent, the country may rise up as it did in 2009 and potentially overthrow the regime. However, if given the chance, the population could also effect the choice of a radically different supreme leader: the institution that supervises and selects the supreme leader, the Assembly of Experts, is popularly elected every eight years – next in 2016 and then in 2024. Supreme Leader Khamenei is currently 76 years old.

The nuclear deal – with its promotion of trust, reduced international tension, sanction relief, and economic prosperity – could benefit the country's idealistic youth and inspire a thirst for more political, economic, and social freedom as the country's aging mullahcracy slowly loses legitimacy.