The popular perception in the West is that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, leads Tehran's hardliners against the administration of President Hassan Rouhani, particularly when it comes to the negotiations between Iran and the P5+ 1 group over Iran's nuclear program.
It is also claimed that Khamenei's apparent endorsement of the negotiations is only to prove his claim that the United States is not really interested in reaching an agreement with Iran, and that the Islamic Republic has the sincere upper hand.
But is it this true that Khamenei supports the hardliners in their opposition to the proposed nuclear deal? Accumulated evidence and Khamenei's own words and deeds suggest otherwise.
HARDLINERS ARGUE ACCORD IS A BAD DEAL
It is true that Iran's hardliners consider the Geneva Accord between Iran and the P5+ 1 group as an "extraordinarily bad deal" because, they claim, Iran made many concessions, but received very little in return. After the negotiations were extended on Nov. 24 for another seven months, the hardliners intensified their attacks on the Rouhani administration.
Iran's hardliners oppose the West ideologically, reject liberal democracy, and advocate Islamic fundamentalism. Opposing the West, and in particular the United States, is part of their identity. At the same time, the U.S. crippling economic sanctions against Iran has created many fundamentalist billionaires in Iran and, thus, lifting the sanctions will hurt them. A nuclear agreement with the West will also marginalize the fundamentalists in the political arena.
A good example of Iran's fundamentalists is Hossein Shariatmadari, the managing editor of Kayhan, the mouthpiece of the hardliners. He is a Khamenei appointee, and many believe that he reflects Khamenei's views. In his editorial of Nov. 23 Shariatmadari declared, "Achieving an agreement that would end the 14-year-old confrontation is not only unexpected, but also impossible."
In another editorial on Nov. 25, Shariatmadari triumphantly declared that the extension showed that he was right all along. He attacked President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and declared that the only tangible result of the negotiations has been the proof that the United States, as a "racketeer government," cannot be trusted, and that the Geneva Accord was a bad deal for Iran.
Like all Tehran fundamentalists, Shariatmadari enumerated the concessions that Iran has made: stopping the enrichment of uranium at 19.75 percent and converting its stockpile to uranium oxide (which would be very difficult to enrich further); slowing down its research on advanced centrifuges, and suspending the construction of IR-40, the heavy water nuclear reactor in Arak.
In return, Iran, according to Shariatmadari, received only $10.6 billion of its own money frozen in Western banks, and will receive $700 million per month over the next 7 months. At the same time though, Shariatmadari wrote, Iran's total frozen hard currency in western banks has increased to $130 billion from $100 billion at the time of signing the Geneva Accord. He also claimed that the U.S. has conspired with Saudi Arabia to create an oil glut, causing the collapse of its price from $120 per barrel to $70, hence reducing Iran's oil income further, and that "[John] Kerry and Obama cashed in all the concessions, but did not give Iran anything."
At the same time, Saeed Jalili, the ultra-hardline chief nuclear negotiator under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, "Continuing the sanction regime is the evidence of the continuing enmity toward the Iranian nation, and needs a proper response." The positions of the two hardliners could be interpreted as reflecting Khamenei's views.
A SMART DICTATOR
But, Khamenei is a smart dictator. He is concerned about the survival of the Islamic Republic and the clerics' power. Although U.S. economic sanctions cannot overthrow his regime, they have inflicted huge damage upon Iran's economy, causing widespread dissatisfaction, anger and poverty among many strata of the society. This undermines Khamenei's ambition and dream of making Iran a powerful world power. He is also keenly aware that military attacks by Israel and the U.S. on Iran will transform his nation into another Iraq or Syria.
Thus, Khamenei supports the resolution of the nuclear dispute and, thus, in his speech to a group of the Basij militia on Nov. 27, he put an end on the hardliners' attacks on the Rouhani administration. He first attacked what he called the "aggressive" policy of the United States for having excessive demands, calling it "not trustworthy." This was intended to mollify the hardliners before he endorsed continuation of the negotiations with the P5+1 group. He declared that the real goal of the U.S. is confronting "the powerful and advancing" Iranian nation through crippling sanctions but, according to him, even the American people do not trust their government.
Khamenei then explained why he thinks so: Obama's approval rating is at its lowest level; the rate of voters' participation in the U.S. midterm elections was very low; the government is confronting the protesting people in Ferguson and elsewhere, and the police are killing "400 innocent people" every year, which indicate "the gap between the American people and their administration."
Khamenei then turned to the nuclear negotiations, and said, "I do not oppose extending the negotiations for the same reason that I did not oppose them in the first place." He praised Iran's diplomats for "being firm, not caving in" and for "seriously trying hard." Khamenei said that the Western side, "particularly the United States," says "one thing in private meetings, and speaks completely differently in public," referring to the letter that President Obama sent him a while ago, and adding, "They change their positions all the time." Saying that Iran's diplomats "negotiate with solid reasoning," Khamenei declared that, "If the negotiations do not yield results, it is the United States that will be loser," because "they need these negotiations to solve their domestic problems [by distracting people's attentions from them]."
KHAMENEI PREPARING NATION
Khamenei also said that "Iran neither trusts the United States, nor does it need America's trust," and that "if they present logical arguments, we will not oppose them; we accept logic, and fair and wise agreements." In essence, Khamenei was preparing the nation for the eventual agreement that he believes will be coming.
Thus, not only does Khamenei approve the Geneva Accord, he also supports the resolution of the standoff over Iran's nuclear program in an equitable and just framework, one in which Iran's nuclear rights are respected and the economic sanctions are lifted, in return for Iran's guarantee of not pursuing nuclear weapons. Unlike Obama in the United States, Khamenei has the final say on Iran's foreign policy, and thus his support is critical to the success of the negotiations.
If the West, led by the United States, demonstrates flexibility in the nuclear negotiations and lifts the sanctions, a comprehensive agreement can be reached relatively easily, which will open up the way for resolving the crises in Iraq and Syria.
Improving the relations between Iran and the United States will lead to improvement in the state of human rights in Iran, just as the Helsinki Accords of 1975 between the West and East resulted in improved respect for human rights in the Eastern Bloc.
This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei.