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Supreme Sensibilities: How Iran’s Khamenei Defines the Deal

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)[1] is slated to provide Iran with sanctions relief, unfrozen assets, and a return to the international banking system. Most important, should the Islamic Republic implement and fully comply with the agreement, it will also have a pathway towards the legalization of its nuclear program.

In his Eid sermon last month designating the end of the holy month of Ramadan, however, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei barely touched on those prospects. Rather, the supreme leader went to tremendous lengths to emphasize the merely transactional nature of the deal, and its vindication of the policy of “resistance.”

Khamenei – dismissing the Western narrative that a decade of coercive diplomacy and sanctions had brought Iran to the table – sought to reassure his audience that Tehran had negotiated the deal from a position of strength. Specifically, he singled out American politicians for boasting of having forced Iran to capitulate.

“You will see Iran’s submission only in dreams,” he warned. “From the beginning of the revolution until today, five other presidents lived in the wish of the Islamic Republic’s submission, but they either died or were lost to history.”[2]

Curiously, Khamenei stopped just short of a full endorsement of the deal. He did not, however, undermine it either.

Iran’s economic contraction and fiscal crisis over the last five years reveals the country’s dire economic straits, but Khamenei glossed over economics entirely. After all, to ignore economic realities is to toe the line of the founder of the Islamic Republic and Khamenei’s predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who famously proclaimed that the revolution was not about “the price of watermelons.”[3] Such thinking has held Iranian economic performance hostage to revolutionary ideals for over three decades.

Additionally, it remains crucial for Khamenei to describe any accord that involves the “Great Satan” as an Iranian sovereign decision. Accordingly, implicit in Khamenei’s sermon was the assurance that Iran’s acceptance of the JCPOA is not a return of the “poisoned chalice,” as his predecessor described accepting a UN ceasefire to end the Iran-Iraq War.

Similarly, Khamenei used the speech as a platform to flaunt long-held revolutionary themes of resistance, steadfastness, and perseverance. “[Their] result is that today these six powers have no option but to accept the spinning of several thousand centrifuges in the country,” he said. “What does this mean other than the strength of the nation of Iran?”[4]

Curiously, Khamenei stopped just short of a full endorsement of the deal. He did not, however, undermine it either. Rather, the supreme leader made clear that he would prohibit, in his words, any “abuse” of the agreement. Such remarks appear to be aimed chiefly at reformers who would use the deal as a slippery slope for change. Just recently, the former spokesperson of the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami expressed eagerness that following the nuclear accord, the Rouhani government would move to “liberalize” Iranian politics.[5] If past is prologue, however, the supreme leader has other plans.

Khamenei – dismissing the Western narrative that a decade of coercive diplomacy and sanctions had brought Iran to the table – sought to reassure his audience that Tehran had negotiated the deal from a position of strength.

Khamenei’s Eid sermon shone a light into post-deal thinking amongst Iranian hardline elites about Tehran’s foreign policy orientation – namely that the JCPOA does not augur the end of enmity with the US. Deal or no deal, he declared, “our policy toward the arrogant government of America will not change at all.”[6]

Khamenei also detailed the usual list of US transgressions against Iran over the last half-century, including the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the accidental downing of an Iran Air passenger flight in 1988. Such a list is intended to remind Iranian audiences that the nuclear deal was an agreement between enemies, not friends. After all, he told them, “the policies of America in the region and the policies of the Islamic Republic have 180 degrees of difference.”[7]

If anything, Khamenei’s speech may be an indication of a more intense era of US-Iranian strategic competition across the Middle East. Similarly, with an accord set to provide Iran with upwards of 100 billion dollars in sanctions relief, Khamenei sees the JCPOA as vindication, not repudiation, of Iran’s path.

The aging ayatollah knows well that safeguarding the revolution requires more than nuclear physics. It also requires a steadfast commitment to anti-Americanism. So long as Khamenei continues to guide Iran, transformation will remain elusive, and Iran’s unyielding enmity with the US will remain.

 


[1] For links to full text of the JCPOA, in addition to its numerous Annexes, see: “Statement,” European External Action Service, 14 July 2015, http://eeas.europa.eu/statements-eeas/2015/150714_01_en.htm

[2] For full quote and sermon, see: Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, “Khutbah-hay Namaz-e Eid-e Fitr” [Eid-e Fitr Prayer Sermons], speech given on 18 July 2015, Iran, http://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=30331

[3] For full quote by Ayatollah Khomeini, see: Kenneth M. Pollack, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran And America (New York: Random House, 2005), pp. 145-146, https://goo.gl/zBiqrD 

[4] Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei (2015).

[5] Quoted and translated in: “Iran Press Review: 03 August,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 3 August 2015, http://www.defenddemocracy.org/iran-press-review-03-august

[6] Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei (2015).

[7] Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei (2015).

CONTRIBUTOR
Behnam Ben Taleblu
Behnam Ben Taleblu

Behnam Ben Taleblu is an Iran Research Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), located in Washington, D.C.

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