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Understanding Iran's supreme leader on the nuclear deal

- April 14, 2015

A handout photo released Feb. 8 by the official Web site of the Centre for Preserving and Publishing the Works of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shows him on stage during a meeting with Iranian air force commanders in Tehran. (Khamenei.Ir/HO/AFP)
This post is part of the “Iran and the Nuclear Deal” symposium.

On April 9, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered a speech in response to the framework agreement between the P5+1 and Iran that seeks to curtail the latter’s nuclear program. In his speech, Khamenei took a neutral stance on the framework agreement, stating that he “neither agreed nor disagreed because nothing has happened yet.” Khamenei also expressed pessimism over a final deal and reiterated his distrust of the United States. For many outside observers, his comments signaled that the nuclear deal was doomed.
Aside from the possibility that Khamenei may not want to show his hand before a final deal is concluded, what factors explain his rhetorical ambiguity, pessimism and distrust – and should we take him at his word?
The starting point for interpreting Khamenei’s ambiguous intervention is twofold: First, politicians – Khamenei not excluded – often issue statements for public consumption to conceal, yet advance a deeper agenda comprising a number of strategic calculations, personal motivations and policy goals. Second, as in the United States and elsewhere, official rhetoric should not be taken at face value, but rather analyzed through the lens of factional politics.
Khamenei has tacitly supported the framework agreement because he seeks an outright lifting of the economic sanctions. Since 2013, he has subtly backed President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in their negotiations with the P5+1. During the past two years, Khamenei has been kept apprised of all the details. The framework agreement in Lausanne would not have come to fruition without his consent.
Khamenei’s motivations have been clearly articulated from within his carefully hedged language. In his statements, Khamenei has repeatedly tied the outcome of a final agreement to sanctions being “lifted completely and at once.” Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, who previously opposed the negotiations, has gone one step further. Two days before Khamenei’s speech, Jafari fully supported the framework agreement on the condition that it fully recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium for scientific research and energy purposes. Like Khamenei, Jafari insisted that a final agreement should lead to an outright lifting of the sanctions. Jafari’s statements run counter to the expectations of many analysts outside of Iran. Analysts expected the IRGC to oppose the agreement on the grounds that increased international tension and economic sanctions have paved the way for greater, internal securitization and a more robust and profitable, informal economy – to the benefit of the IRGC.
Khamenei endeavors to lift the sanctions for economic and political reasons. Since the collapse of nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran in 2003, Iran has expanded its nuclear capabilities. In response, the United States and international community have imposed harsher sanctions on Iran. These sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy by curbing GDP growth to -5.8 percent and increasing inflation and unemployment to 35.2 percent and 20 percent respectively in 2013. Compounding these economic woes, Iran’s budgetary resources have been strained due to sagging global oil prices and the state’s continued provision of financial and military assistance to its allies and proxies during protracted conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
From the standpoint of domestic politics, Khamenei seeks sanctions relief to make the country easier to manage leading up to elections in 2016 for the parliament and Assembly of Experts, a publicly-elected council made up of over 80 members, who are responsible for electing, overseeing and, if necessary, dismissing the supreme leader. The elections for the Assembly of Experts will be particularly critical and contentious because they will determine Khamenei’s successor or the next supreme leader. Khamenei’s political calculus is that higher public satisfaction with an improved economy and closer ties with the Europe and the United States will give his conservative allies in the Guardian Council the flexibility to approve the most loyal candidates.
Though he tacitly supports the nuclear negotiations, Khamenei publicly maintains a neutral stance on the framework agreement while remaining pessimistic of a final agreement and distrustful of the United States for three reasons. First, as he has repeatedly stated since the signing of the Geneva interim agreement in 2013, Khamenei is unwilling to relinquish Iran’s anti-American and anti-imperialist ideology and identity. Over the last 36 years, this ideology and identity – which emphasizes national independence and resistance against foreign interference – has constituted Iran’s raison d’être. This ideology and identity enables Iran to maintain legitimacy among constituents at home and garner support in other parts of the Muslim and developing world. Quietly allowing the Rouhani government to reach an agreement while overtly condemning the United States enables Khamenei to strike an ideological balance while outflanking more extremist elements in government and society.
Second, by appearing ambivalent and not giving the framework agreement a ringing endorsement, Khamenei seeks to prevent Rouhani and Zarif from scoring a decisive, political victory at home before upcoming elections. In a negative yet gentle tone, Khamenei loyalists – notably the managing editor of Kayhan newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari, who is appointed by the supreme leader – have criticized Rouhani and Zarif for granting too many concessions to the West. Rouhani and Zarif, who are aligned with the moderate and reformist camp, advocate the easing of political and social restrictions – goals that conflict with Khamenei’s agenda. The moderates and reformists believe in strengthening Iran’s elective institutions over its so-called theocratic and non-elective ones, which are controlled by Khamenei and his conservative allies. In addition to alleviating economic sanctions and international isolation, Rouhani campaigned in 2013 on a pledge to release political prisoners and improve rights for all citizens – a policy the conservatives have been hard-pressed to endorse, yet one that would further mitigate popular discontent before the 2016 elections.
Third, Khamenei intentionally maintains an ambiguous posture to pacify the framework agreement’s staunchest critics: the hard-liners from Jebhe-ye Paydari (Resistance Front). The Paydari Front is composed of right-wing cleric and Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cabinet ministers, former nuclear negotiator and recent presidential candidate Saeed Jalili, and current parliamentarians and members of the paramilitary Basij, which is under the purview of the IRGC. Since the announcement of the framework agreement, parliamentarians from the Paydari Front have quarreled with Zarif.
Khamenei and other conservatives in the government and IRGC do not want the Paydari Front to completely undermine a final agreement that would bolster the Iranian economy and ostensibly render the country more manageable during upcoming elections. At the same time, Khamenei and the conservatives have not restrained the Paydari Front for three reasons. First, Rouhani and Zarif can leverage the hard-liners to make tougher demands and extract greater concessions from the P5+1. The American negotiators have adopted a similar strategy by leveraging hawkish congressional representatives, right-wing Israeli officials and recalcitrant Arab monarchs in the talks.
Moreover, for Khamenei and the conservatives, the hard-liners represent an effective counterweight against the political ambitions of the moderate and reformist bloc. In contrast to the latter, the Paydari Front believes in the continuation of the Guardianship of the Jurist – the idea that the government should be ruled by a leading jurist or supreme leader – and the supremacy of non-elective institutions over elective ones. This worldview is in line with Khamenei’s goals as he prepares to reconstitute the Assembly of Experts and determine his successor.
Finally, Khamenei has not publicly endorsed the framework agreement and overtly maintains an anti-American posture because these goals and values correspond to those of the Paydari Front, which has politically and financially benefitted from international tensions and economic sanctions. If Khamenei goes too far in openly supporting the agreement and advocating rapprochement with the United States, he runs the risk of alienating the hard-liners and their constituents. He also risks inviting mutiny and sedition from hard-liners within the political and security establishment during such a sensitive and uncertain time. In the end, Khamenei’s ambiguous posture is as much a reflection of his conflicting priorities as it is an attempt to delicately balance competing factions in an effort to strengthen and preserve his own legitimacy and power.
Eric Lob is an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University. Amir Hossein Mahdavi is a research assistant at Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies. Starting fall 2015, he will be a master’s student at Harvard University’s Center for Middle East Studies.