Khamenei's Nuclear Dilemma

Iran's supreme leader is struggling to manage his hardline supporters.

As nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members, plus Germany) continue, both sides have offered hope that they’ll reach a comprehensive agreement. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Wendy Sherman, Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs who heads the U.S. delegation have both admitted that Iran has kept its promises under the Geneva Accord, signed between the two sides last November. The U.S. and its allies have also delivered on their part of the deal, hence providing Iran with slight, but still significant, relief from the crippling sanctions that they have imposed on Iran.

U.S. officials have expressed optimism that the final and comprehensive agreement will end the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. The Iranians, and in particular Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani, have been saying the same for quite some time. But, of course, drafting the text of the agreement is one thing, the demand by P5+1 that Iran must drastically cut back on the scope of its nuclear program and whether Iran agrees, are completely difficult, and potentially deal-breaking issues. It is here that the role of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is paramount.

The fact is Mr. Khamenei is trapped between a rock—the Iranian nation—and a hard place—his hardline supporters. The Iranian people elected President Rouhani in a landslide last June, and have been demanding uprooting of the vast corruption under Mr. Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a functioning and robust economy, better relations with the West, and a more open and tolerant political system that puts Iran on a firm and definitive path toward a true and inclusive democracy. Resolving the nuclear dispute with the West and lifting of the sanctions represent major steps in this direction. Mr. Khamenei has supported the nuclear negotiations. As far back as 21 March 2013, he signaled a fundamental change in his position regarding nuclear negotiations with P5+1, and has consistently said that he supports the negotiations as long as Iran’s nuclear rights are recognized and respected. In a speech on April 9, Mr. Khamenei emphasized again his support for the nuclear negotiations, although he also accused the U.S. of presenting an image of Iran’s nuclear program and goals that are far from reality.

But, the hard place—Iran’s hardliners that represent Khamenei’s main social base of support—is not interested in a nuclear compromise. The hardliners have been using every opportunity and excuse to attack the Rouhani administration, have likened the nuclear deal to the Holocaust, have claimed that Iran has made too many concessions for too little in return, and have used the Majles [the Iranian parliament] to create problems for the government by constantly summoning various ministers, and in particular Mr. Zarif, to explain his position. They have even threatened to impeach him.

Mr. Khamenei has also made statements that the hardliners, both in Tehran and Washington, point to as indications that he is not interested in a reasonable compromise. For example, between the signing of the Geneva Accord and the beginning of the new round of negotiations in Vienna in February, Mr. Khamenei expressed his lack of hope for the negotiations to succeed. In particular, he said on February 17 that although he supports the nuclear negotiations, he does not believe that the negotiations with the U.S. “will go anywhere.” The mainstream media in the U.S., the hawks and the Israel lobby that are looking for any excuse to scuttle the diplomatic process, quickly interpreted Khamenei’s speech as indicating his unwillingness to compromise. But, as explained elsewhere, Mr. Khamenei was misquoted: he supports the negotiations and is definitively interested in a diplomatic solution, but he is pessimistic about the prospects for better, nonhostile relations with the United States.

Likewise, Tehran’s hardliners, and in particular some of the leading commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] and intelligence officials in the Ahmadinejad administration, have also used Mr. Khamenei’s pronouncements to justify their opposition to the nuclear negotiations. The opposition became louder after the European parliament approved a resolution in which it criticized Iran for its human-rights record and proposed to open an office in Tehran by the end of this year, presumably to enable the European Union to monitor the state of human rights in Iran. One member of the Majles, Nader Ghazipoor, declared that “the Iranian nation will not accept the disgrace of having another ‘den of spies’ on its ‘sacred soil’,” a reference to the old U.S. embassy in Tehran. Other hardline MPs suggested that the resolution will negatively impact the negotiations and have even suggested withdrawing from them. There is also another suggestion in the Majles to fingerprint members of European delegations that travel to Iran, presumably to “humiliate” them.

The fact is, nuclear negotiations with Iran would not have advanced as far as they have if the Rouhani administration did not have Mr. Khamenei’s support. Therefore, the question is why Mr. Khamenei makes statements that might be interpreted as indicating his unwillingness to compromise. The answer, as already pointed out, is that he is trapped between rock and a hard place, and that the reasons for his statements that “please” the hardliners are twofold.