Ayatollah Khamenei and Obama in agreement

Both leaders are on the same page when it comes to an important aspect of the nuclear negotiations

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Obama have mostly appeared to be on opposite sides of the spectrum. Nevertheless, the recent speech by the supreme leader suggests that both leaders are on the same page when it comes to an important aspect of the nuclear negotiations; Both leaders are opposed to a bad nuclear deal.

President Obama previously pointed out that ”no deal is better than a bad deal.” Iran’s supreme leader consented recently stated, “The Americans keep saying no deal is better than a bad deal; we also agree with that.”

In addition the supreme leader gave a moral boost to President Rowhani’s nuclear team to continue with the nuclear talks. He added: “I would go along with any agreement that could be made. Of course, I am not for a bad deal. No agreement is better than an agreement which runs contrary to our nation's interests.”

The deadline for the comprehensive nuclear deal between the six world powers (known as P5+1; the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China) and the Islamic Republic is nearing. The nuclear negotiations, which have lasted for more than a year have already been extended twice and neither party seems to be willing to extend the talks for the third time due to the domestic pressure.

Two key players in the nuclear negotiations are Tehran and Washington. Given the notion that the leaders of the two major players- Obama and Khamenei- are in line, does that follow that there is hope in reaching an agreement on the outline of the final nuclear deal by March 24? Does that set the path for an agreement to meet the deadline for the specificities of the comprehensive nuclear deal by the end of June?

Although both President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei are on the same page, that a bad deal should be avoided, and although the supreme leader has suggested that he can accept a deal which includes compromises, this does not necessarily follow that they are on the same page when it comes to some crucial details of the nuclear talks.

The position of Ayatollah Khamenei has been modified as the nuclear talks have unfolded

Majid Rafizadeh

Ayatollah Khamenei’s conditions for a comprehensive nuclear deal have been repeatedly echoed by President Hassan Rowhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarid.

As of now, a central condition that the Supreme Leader has striven for is that economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic should be lifted at once. The lifting of sanctions should immediately go into effect when a final nuclear deal is reached. Most recently, Zarif stated at the Munich security conference that “all the sanctions must be lifted at once.”

On the other hand, Washington’s position is to phase out the easing of economic sanctions as the Islamic Republic shows that it is fulfilling the details of the final nuclear deal.

Unlikely compromises

It is very unlikely that the U.S. will make compromises that would result in the lifting of sanctions at once. Therefore, the question is whether the supreme leader will tactically alter his stance and accept gradual lifting of sanctions.

In addition, the second stumbling block is linked to the stages through which a nuclear deal can be reached by the end of June. Secretary of State John Kerry has pointed to the notion that a two-stage nuclear deal should be followed. This indicates that in the first stage an agreement should be reached between Iran and the six world powers on general principles by the end of March. In the second stage an accord can be struck on the nuances and details.

While Iran agreed on the two stages previously, the supreme leader has altered his position. Currently, the supreme leader appears to be strongly in opposition with the notion of a two-stage nuclear deal. Instead, he argues for one deal which includes both the general principles and details in one pact.

With regards to the two-stage nuclear deal, the supreme leader stated: “If there is to be any deal, it must have a single stage and include generalities and details together.” In addition, this reflects Ayatollah Khamenei’s long standing distrust of American behavior as he added, “Such a deal is not acceptable, because our experience of the opposite side’s behavior shows that mere agreement on the generalities will become a tool for making successive excuses over details.”

Other disagreements

In his most recent speeches though, the supreme leader did not point to other disagreements with respects to the level of enrichment and number of centrifuges that Iran can posses. His last stance suggests that two major disagreements are the timing to lift the economic sanctions and the stages through which a final nuclear deal can be reached.

Ayatollah Khamenei attempts to keep a balance between satisfying the hardliners as well as boosting President Rowhani’s efforts to continue with the nuclear negotiations.

More fundamentally, as a tactical shift, the position of Ayatollah Khamenei has been modified as nuclear talks unfold. It remains to be seen whether Iran’s paramount leader will agree to alter his stance on the aforementioned major stumbling blocks: the immediate lifting of sanctions and one-stage agreement.


Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar at Harvard University, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at [email protected].

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