Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is famous for giving tirades of speeches about crucial political developments, chose not to take an immediate stance when a nuclear framework was reached between Iran and the six world powers (UN Security Council members and Germany) in Lausanne.
Before the recent nuclear framework was reached, Kahamnei continued to preach that the US could not be trusted, while he also supported Iran’s negotiating team to continue with the talks.
Before making any hasty public statements, Khamenei closely watched the domestic reactions from hardliners, senior military officers, moderates, principalists, and the public.
Learning from his mistake in the 2009 debated elections that divided Iran’s political sphere and led to popular resistance against the government, Khamenei weighed all the cards and developments before immediately taking sides this time.
Without doubt, every detail and nuance of the nuclear negotiations process was discussed with KhameneiMajid Rafizadeh
He is cognizant of the fact that the nuclear negotiations led by President Rowhani and foreign minister Javad Zarif have been a decisive matter across Iran’s political spectrum. The domestic split and decisiveness plays right into the interest of the Supreme Leader as well.
The most crucial factor in determining the direction of the nuclear talks, and whether a deal will be reached by June 30th, is the position, redlines, and pronouncements of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In other words, if the Ayatollah desires to have a deal, a deal will be concluded.
Having said that, it is crucial to understand Mr. Khamenei’s doctrine regarding the nuclear negotiations and related domestic politics.
Ayatollah Khamenei has sent the sophisticated, educated, and soft face of Iran to nuclear talks. His major objectives, as I mentioned at the beginning of the nuclear talks, are achieving several crucial issues:
1. The removal of financial and banking sanctions on the Islamic Republic as soon as the final agreement is reached. He might compromise on the lifting of sanctions in a period of a year, but less likely 10 or 15 years. Achieving such an objective is cost-effective for the political establishment of Iran geopolitically, economically and strategically. As Mr. Khamenei stated "All sanctions should be removed when the deal is signed”.
2. The lifting of sanctions should not be contingent on IAEA confirmation that Iran is complying with the terms of the deal.
3. Iran’s regional policies, military sites, and defense system should not be negotiated. As he pointed out yesterday “The country’s military officials are not permitted at all to allow the foreigners to cross these boundaries.”
The ayatollah is cognizant of the fact that when the UNSC sanctions are removed, it would be very challenging for the five permanent members to reach consensus on how to “snap back” the sanctions, even if they are “automatic”. For example, what technical parameters will lead to the return of sanctions? will the sanctions kick back based on Iran defying the terms? Which technical terms? Who will interpret Iran’s nuclear activities as defiance? Will the Russians, Chinese and Americans have the same position?
The immediate lifting of sanctions will also provide the Ayatollah with another advantage. Iran’s nuclear program will not be curbed for a long time in the event Tehran decides to walk away from the terms and resume its nuclear ambitions. Forbidding the international inspectors from the military sites will also allow covert activities to remain undetected.
Yesterday, the Supreme Leader pointed out that "I neither support nor oppose the deal. Everything is in the details, it may be that the deceptive other side wants to restrict us in the details."
His message might be an attempt to satisfy the hardliners and give his blessing to the Rowhani’s nuclear team at the same. He needs both the moderates and hardliners to ensure his hold-on-power. His speech is also an attempt to give more political leverage to Iran’s nuclear team in the next round of negotiations so that Rowhani’s team will be capable of getting more concessions from the US.
Khamenei and domestic politics
Hardliners have been quick to criticize the recent nuclear deal for being too restrictive. Hossein Shariatmadari, the managing editor of the influential hard-line newspaper Kayhan and close advisor to the Supreme Leader, told Fars News Agency, "we gave away a saddled horse and received broken reins in return." Similiraly, other hardliners such as Esmail Kowsari, a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, pointed out that no new news came from this nuclear deal and Iran’s nuclear team only wasted the nation's time. He added, “we were expecting the [Iranian] negotiation team to act stronger”.
On the other hand the moderates celeberated the deal and boasted about their accomplishments. Zarif tweeted “Iran/P5+1 Statement: 'The EU will TERMINATE the implementation of ALL nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions.' How about this?”
In comparison to the time when the interim deal was struck, Rowhani’s negotiation team has also been cautious about how to create their narrative. Zarif will be brought before the Majlis to answer some crucial questions. As his recent comments on Iran’s media suggest, he will deliver several messages: reiterating that Iran maintains its right to its nuclear program, nuclear-related and financial sanctions will be lifted, and that he will endorse the supreme leader’s efforts.
Khamenei’s silent approval
Without doubt, every detail and nuance of the nuclear negotiations process was discussed with Khamenei. It goes without saying that Abbas Araghchi, the chief nuclear negotiator, is closely connected to the Supreme Leader's office.
In addition, without the blessing Khamenei, President Rowhani and Foreign Minister Zarif would not have enjoyed the political legitimacy to reach a framework with the six world powers. This follows that Khamenei is indeed in favor of the deal even though he may be publicly criticizing the United States.
In addition, the senior cadre of Iran’s military intuitions are aware of the Supreme Leader’s approval of the framework. That is why Hassan Firouzabadi, the Armed Forces chief of staff, congratulated the Iranian nuclear negotiating team and praised their success even before the Supreme Leader issued any official and public statement.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Supreme Leader are in need of the moderate Rowhani camp to regain full economic capability by having the crippling sanctions lifted and ensure the hold-on-power of the ruling establishment and Iran’s prime role in the region. In other words, President Rowhani and Zarif can be viewed as the soft face the Islamic republic.
More fundamentally, Ayatollah Khamenei will employ a soft face of the government (Rowhani’s technocrat team) solely for the nuclear issue. In several speeches recently, he had made it clear that he is sending a team only to discuss Iran’s nuclear dossier and nothing else, implying Iran’s regional policies, defense system, support for Shiite proxies, and political influence in several regional countries.
On the other hand, the Supreme Leader needs the hardline core of the system as well to continue pursuing Iran’s regional hegemonic objectives, place Tehran at the center of the Middle East geopolitics, and suppress domestic oppositions.
He also utilized the hardliner as a powerful tool to keep undermining the president’s office preventing the president from claiming more power. This lesson was acquired when former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad crossed the line and utilized the power of the president’s office. This inadvertently led to undermining and challenging the Supreme Leader.
In addition, it is worth noting that without the approval of the Supreme Leader, hardliner figures would not publicly criticize Iran’s negotiating team. Khamenei’s acquiescence aimed at pressuring Rowhani’s team to obtain the best possible nuclear deal for the government.
Iran’s Supreme Leader has been successful at keeping the balance between the hardliners and moderates through his silences or speeches, subsequently continuing to project and reassert his ultimate rule in the nation.
Iran’s hardliners, moderates and Majlis will closely follow Khamenei’s doctrine and political game ensuring his paramount rule. Unlike the politics in Washington and Congress, Iran’s Supreme Leader does have the ultimate say over the Majlis and across Iran’s political spectrum.
In closing, It depends on the Supreme Leader’s political, strategic and economic calculations as to whether a final deal can be reached by the end of June or another alternative should be pursued. His position might change depending on Iran’s economic outlook.
If Khamenei wants the deal, it will be reached. And so far, he is for it albeit on his terms.
Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC.