July 22, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: Khamenei has his own tough sell on the nuke deal

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is still holding back from fully endorsing last week’s announced Iran deal: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). His reticence is smart and to be expected. Khamenei must appear above the fray of Iran’s internal politics while in reality he is intimately involved in their orchestration. We would not be on the cusp of finalizing a deal if the Supreme Leader had not been comfortable, even pleased, with the negotiations’ results.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Tehran October 18, 2010. (Reuters/Khamenei.ir)

However, the Vienna compact with the P5 + 1 still causes Khamenei several domestic headaches. First, the deal is not done. The agreement must overcome US congressional opposition and likely divergent interpretations over its terms and its implementation with the P5+1 and the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA). The Supreme Leader does not want to be seen as captaining a ship that might still sink. (That is what President Hassan Rouhani is for!) Khamenei’s office argued as much on the Ayatollah’s official website over the past weekend, quoting the Ninth Imam (Imam Javad) that “Revealing something before it is finalized will lead to its decline.”

Second, the agreement has crossed many of the red lines Khamenei articulated over the course of negotiations—from centrifuge numbers, to phased sanctions relief, to allowing military inspections. President Obama and Secretary Kerry face a similar challenge in Washington (for example, having to explain what happened to only accepting “anytime, anywhere” inspections of Tehran’s nuclear sites). The agreement’s defenders in Tehran, such as President Rouhani, Ali Akbar Velayati, and the head of Iran’s nuclear program Ali Akbar Salehi, have flatly denied they caved on the Supreme Leader’s redlines. Skeptical elites—who can, after all, read—find this argument unconvincing.

Major General Ali Jafari, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Commander, has most forcefully raised concerns about crossed lines:

"Some of the things that were contained in the draft were particularly contrary to—and in violation of—the Islamic Republic of Iran’s red lines, especially regarding armament capabilities, and we will never accept them."

Leading hardline commentator Hossein Shariatmadari, who is considered close to Khamenei, even claimed, “It is impossible that our Supreme Leader agrees with a deal that has crossed the red lines. The leader would not ask for the deal to be examined carefully if he had already endorsed it.”

Third, the fact that the agreement partially retained the conventional arms embargo (for five years) and ballistic missile restrictions (for eight years), rather than lift them entirely, re-ignited Iran’s fears of appearing susceptible to Western military coercion. Senior Iranian leaders want to make it very clear that nothing in the JCPOA will compromise Iran’s ability to build and deploy the missiles and other armaments the Islamic Republic needs to defend itself. Defense Minister Dehghan asserted Tehran’s ballistic missile program would move forward, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement claiming missiles were outside the purview of the UN Security Council and its resolutions.

Further, in selling the deal to Iran’s parliament, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif went so far as to argue the country can ignore the remaining arms and missile restrictions in the agreement.

"[Possessing] ballistic missiles doesn’t violate the JCPOA…it is a violation of a paragraph in the annex of the [UNSC] Resolution 2231 which is non-binding…this paragraph [of the annex] speaks about missiles with nuclear warheads capability and since we don’t design any of our missiles for carrying nuclear weapons, this paragraph is not related to us at all."

It will be interesting to see how the United States and the other P5+1 members square the circle on this one.

Fourth, Khamenei needs to temper rising expectations of a new openness to the West after the deal, especially any potentially cooperative relationship with the United States on other issues:

"Our policies towards the arrogant American government will not change in any way…The policies of America in the region are 180 degrees opposed to the policies of the Islamic Republic…Whether the agreement is accepted or not, we will not stop supporting our regional allies; the oppressed Palestinian nation, the oppressed people of Yemen, the nation and government of Syria, the nation and Iraq government, the oppressed Bahrain people, the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine; we will always support them."

However, the Supreme Leader is eager to demonstrate Iran is open for business. Since the nuclear agreement was signed, new business ventures have been announced and long languishing economic projects with Russia and India revived. This week Germany even sent a 60-person trade delegation to meet with President Rouhani, as well as Iranian business and political leaders. Germany’s Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs Sigmar Gabriel led the delegation, which included representatives from Volkswagen and Daimler.

Khamenei has shown no indication that he is about to pull back from the JCPOA. He is just being very careful in guiding this ship into port. Like President Obama, he is well positioned to override his domestic opposition and ram the deal through. The ayatollah just has a savvier exit strategy than the White House, should he need it.