The Post-Iran Deal Mystery: What Will Khamenei Do?

We need to keep an eye on Khamenei. He can’t simultaneously be in favor of backing Rouhani’s call for moderation and stick to the old ways of the Islamic Republic.

The American public remains justifiably anxious about Iran’s nuclear program. No one in Washington expects that the nuclear agreement announced on July 14 will be a quick fix to thirty-six years of bad blood between Washington and Tehran. But polls show a plurality of Americans still support diplomacy with Iran over military confrontation. If I were sitting in Tehran, I would zoom on this twist as a timely opportunity. On the other hand, the American side should not expect any big policy U-turns, but encourage Iranian moderation whenever possible. This is what both sides need to do to make the nuclear deal survive the Obama presidency.

Khamenei’s evolution

No one man’s words and actions matter more in Tehran than those of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The good news is he is a realist. The bad news is that he has to undo decades of an anti-American worldview that has his signature all over it and has become the ideological backbone of the Islamic Republic. Still, if anyone in Tehran can steer the ship in a new strategic direction, it is the supreme leader himself.

And the evolution in Khamenei’s thinking in the last three years shows a political survival instinct that America can tap into. No guarantees here, of course, but it might just be worth a shot. Back in March 2012, only a handful of weeks before the most severe set of sanctions were imposed on Iran, Khamenei was undeterred. In his Persian New Year speech to the nation, he asked Iranians to buckle up. As he put it then, Iran will go it alone and isolate itself from the world economy rather than give in to demands to curb its nuclear program.

But the intensity of the sanctions that soon followed caught him by surprise. Within a year, the establishment apparatus that Khamenei oversees had approved the presidential candidacy of Hassan Rouhani, a centrist who vowed Iran’s return to the global mainstream. Not only that, but Khamenei soon after publicly swapped his emphasis on “national self-sufficiency” for “heroic flexibility.” This was about face saving and the intimation was clear: It was time for Iran to look for ways to get itself out from under the crippling sanctions or it would risk collapse from within.

Tellingly, Khamenei remarked about “heroic flexibility” to commanders of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), the most die-hard hawks in the Islamic Republic. And he did so a day after President Rouhani had expressed the same sentiment in a speech to the same IRGC commanders. The significance of the timing was resounding: Khamenei was backing Rouhani’s outreach to the world and he kept at it until a nuclear deal was signed twenty months later.

But given his domestic political status and track record, Khamenei’s ability to back more high-profile policy reversals is not infinite. On some key issues of concern to Washington, it is outright impossible to imagine a U-turn by Iran’s supreme leader. And Americans should be forgiven for feeling baffled by the Iranian state’s mixed signals. On July 10, as Iranian negotiators were fine-tuning the details of the historic nuclear deal with American colleagues at Coburg Palace Hotel in Vienna, Iran held its annual Quds Day.

This is a day of solidarity with the Palestinians and the chants of “Down with America” and “Down with Israel” were as loud as previous years. This state-orchestrated frenzy rightly begs the question about Iran’s built-in inability to move toward the path of moderation on key regional policy questions. It also raises questions about the strength of the consensus in Tehran to turn a new page in relations with the United States.

Build on the deal

In the next few weeks and months, critics of the nuclear deal will make the point in Washington that Iran’s intention was always only about having the sanctions removed, but not to change its intrinsic hostility toward the United States and her allies. It is to a great extent up to Khamenei to prove them wrong. He has already laid the ground. “If the nuclear negotiations process is successful, we can see where else we can potentially cooperate [with the Americans],” he said recently.

However, to expect Khamenei’s “heroic flexibility” to extend to the question of Iran’s nonrecognition of the State of Israel is to engage in wishful thinking. It would not happen, not while Khamenei is at the helm. But a middle ground might be possible.

During the presidency of the reformist Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Tehran moved closest to the consensus in the Islamic World on the question of Israel. It would recognize any peace deal that the Palestinians reach with Israel and would cease to undermine the peace process. Today, Tehran has absolutely nothing to lose by adopting such a policy on this critical question for the future of the Middle East.

Tehran’s largest Palestinian client, Hamas, has proven to be entirely unreliable as demonstrated by the bitter split over whether to support the Assad regime in Syria. Hamas’ political leader, Khaled Mashal, remains a persona non grata in Tehran.

Meanwhile, polls among Palestinians show that Iran, despite over two-decades of financial and military support for the armed resistance, is unpopular. According to Pew Research Center, Palestinian approval rate of Iran dropped by 21 percent between 2007-2015. No doubt the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s often-over-the-top depiction of Iran’s regional intentions makes it harder for Khamenei to tone down his anti-Israeli stance, but he can surely lead the process to at least deemphasize the issue of Israel in Iranian foreign policy. He would not do it for Netanyahu, but for the sake of Iran’s own national interest.

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