May 13, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: Nuke Talk Pressure Is Getting to the Ayatollah

I have noted previously the hypersensitivity to US military pressure that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei exhibited during a May 6 speech in Tehran. Perhaps just as important in that speech—but as yet not discussed—was something unspoken: "Everyone take note of this meaning. Our negotiators also, pay [close] attention! The red lines, the main guidelines that have been stated [must] always be observed, which is [letting out a noticeable sigh], I suppose, God willing, it is their desire and they [Iranian negotiators] will not cross these lines."

The sigh heard around Tehran. What was Khamenei’s sigh about? Was he expressing distrust in President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif? Is the Supreme Leader worried they will give in further on his redlines? Or is he expressing exhaustion following endless debates with his team over inevitable further compromises on at least some of his stated redlines?

There may be some credence to the former, but the latter is the more likely scenario. There have been no indications Khamenei has withdrawn support from Iran’s negotiators or the negotiations themselves. But Khamenei and other senior security leaders continue to stress redlines prohibiting inspections of all military sites and demanding immediate relief from all sanctions upon signing a deal. Both these positions are incompatible with the United States’ stated objectives. Iranian and P5+1 diplomats can find ways to finesse these disagreements so that all parties can save face, but not without at least some flexibility from Tehran. Rouhanihas argued that without “huge” amounts of foreign investment, economic growth will be “very difficult”. Rouhani and others in the senior leadership are likely pressing the Supreme Leader to conclude the negotiations, even if it means again fudging on his redlines. The Ayatollah is tired of this fight, and it shows. It does not mean he will not bend, though.

The sword-on-shield beating continues. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Deputy Commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami welcomed a war with America, and said the Iranian negotiators should leave the table if the United States employs military threats: "If they [the Americans] use their aircraft carriers…they know they will be destroyed; if they use their air bases…they will be burned; if they want to fly their aircraft in the sky, they know the floors and ceilings of heaven will be on fire."

Compromises on Khamenei’s redlines are coming, but Iran cannot look like it is bowing under US military pressure. As we approach the deadline for a nuclear deal next month, we should expect more inflammatory bravado and aggressive military posturing from Tehran.

Another crisis brewing in the Gulf of Aden? The Iranian Red Crescent Society announced a ship filled with humanitarian supplies left the port of Bandar Abbas on May 11, bound for Yemen. Iran has announced that Iranian warships will accompany the aid ship to Hodeida and IRGC Brig. Gen. Massoud Jazayeri stressed that an attack on the ship “will ignite the fire of war in the region.” Chairman of Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Parliamentary Committee Parliamentarian, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, later stated, however, Iran will send its aid through Djibouti, a move encouraged by the United States.

If true, this is a good sign Iran is being effectively deterred from escalating the confrontation. The United States and other regional powers have long suspected the IRGC uses legitimate humanitarian operations as a cover to smuggle weapons and munitions. Code Pink and other Western peace activist groups are reportedly aboard the Red Crescent ship. This unfortunately harkens back to the disastrous 2010 Israeli commando raid on the Turkish commercial ship Mavi Marmara (which was leading the so-called Gaza Freedom Flotilla carrying humanitarian supplies and peace activists) in the Mediterranean when it tried break the naval blockade around the Gaza Strip.

Riyadh and Washington should be extremely vigilant about this Red Crescent operation. But they should be smart about it too, and refrain from risky military action. There is no reason to fall into Tehran’s public relations trap.