June 10, 2014 | Policy Brief

Where Does Iran’s Supreme Leader Stand on Nuclear Diplomacy?

June 10, 2014 | Policy Brief

Where Does Iran’s Supreme Leader Stand on Nuclear Diplomacy?

As the deadline for the expiration of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) nears, Iran and the P5+1 continue to work towards solving the various outstanding issues preventing a comprehensive nuclear deal. But finding fixes for these disagreements does not guarantee détente. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, may stand in the way.

In a speech to Iran’s Parliament (Majlis) on May 25, Khamenei boldly rejected reconciliation with the West. The address included his familiar call for “resistance economics,” amongst other themes of defiance and confrontation.

From the West’s perspective, it makes little sense that Khamenei would seek to poison the current negotiating atmosphere. After all, he approved Iran’s participation in the nuclear talks. And thanks to sanctions relief granted by the JPOA, Iran is reported to be “experiencing a modest albeit fragile economic recovery.”  Iran can expect more sanctions relief; too, should the deal go forward.

However, what might seem like contradictory imperatives for the Supreme Leader is in fact, mutually reinforcing. When deciding on the course for Iran’s atomic future, Khamenei will have to take into account Tehran’s turbulent politics, negotiating strategy, and most importantly his profound convictions. But even after that, it is entirely possible for Khamenei to desire an improved Iranian economy, while not budging on what has kept Iran isolated – its nuclear aspirations.

In other words, economic incentives may not be enough to keep Khamenei committed to the current path. To maintain the allegiances of his hardline political base, Khamenei has consistently fallen back on defiant language. In early January, the Supreme Leader asserted that Iran would “negotiate with this Satan, to deter its evil and solve problems.”  In February, speaking about nuclear diplomacy, Khamenei declared, “Right now I say they will have no benefit and will lead nowhere. But of course officials should apply their efforts.” In April, Khamenei proclaimed, “Not one of the country’s nuclear achievements can be shut down and no one has the right to bargain over them.”

But Khamenei may also have adopted such language for another reason: to extract better concessions from the West. Khamenei may calculate that the longer Iran holds out on key areas of contention, the more likely Iran will get additional concessions from P5+1 negotiators who are desperate for a deal. In his Majlis speech, Khamenei reminded Iran’s parliamentarians that the Islamic Republic “came into being through struggle, and has remained through struggle.” A particular area where Iranian steadfastness has paid off is its enrichment capability, which Iran retains at a lower-level despite numerous UNSC resolutions to the contrary.

However, the most likely impetus for Khamenei’s defiant speech was pure conviction. As Khamenei has said to the Majlis, “struggle and Jihad … are endless.” Picking up that theme on Twitter, he noted that, “This struggle will end when the human society gain[s] the power to get rid of the camp of arrogance headed by the US.” This is an outlook that has remained consistent through Khamenei’s 25 years as Supreme Leader. It may not change anytime soon.

Should a settlement be reached with Iran, it most likely would be limited to certain technical milestones. Any success will be mitigated by the ongoing rhetorical and ideological challenges posed by Iran's leadership. Thus, broad political accommodation may prove elusive, for it could readily be labeled “treason” by Khamenei.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is an Iran Research Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies


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