Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

Second dose of heroic flexibility

Image Credit: A. Davey (Flickr) CC

Image Credit: A. Davey (Flickr) CC

No agreement came out of the high-level nuclear negotiations earlier this month. Nonetheless, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei seems satisfied with the application of “heroic flexibility” at these P5+1 talks. When Secretary of State John Kerry held the Islamic Republic responsible for not signing onto the major powers’ agreement, Khamenei’s team took to Twitter to reinforce the narrative that Iran had negotiated in good faith, while the French were ultimately to blame for the derailment of a deal. The head of the Ammar Base, a pro-Khamenei Iranian think tank, Hojjat al-Eslam Mehdi Taeb reflected this storyline:

“When Iran came to the negotiating table, Westerners were unable to continue their lies to the public, which is the cause of their inconsistency…. It is clear to our nation because our nation moves in the path of God, and as we go further, God makes the path smoother. It is the enemy who creates more bumps and challenges than before.” [Iran News Round Up, November 12, 2013]

Growing consensus at home

Following Supreme Leader Khamenei’s speech two Sundays ago, dozens of conservative organizations and influential hardliners (i.e. the managing director of Kayhan newspaper) announced their official support for the negotiating team in a joint statement after the P5+1 talks. This internal accord has likely reassured the Supreme Leader by demonstrating unity across a political spectrum that had been publicly divided over nuclear negotiations.

IAEA engagement

On November 11th, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran agreed to broader inspections of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites, namely the Gachin mines and Arak heavy water production plant. Iranian officials previously have stated that simultaneous IAEA and P5+1 negotiations could complement each other. This was the case following the failed P5+1 talks, when continued progress with the IAEA testified to the Supreme Leader’s willingness to negotiate. His willingness may be further evidenced by the recent IAEA revelation that Iran held enrichment steady while slowing down centrifuge installation and reactor construction following President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration. The concurrent easing of US sanctions enforcement might just indicate that Khamenei had condoned low-cost confidence-building measures to build the foundation for a future deal.

Potential spoilers

On the other hand, the murder of three Iranian officials over the past week may have stoked Khamenei’s fears of serious rifts surfacing between officials. Even though personal, rather than political, motivations have been attributed to the killings, as negotiations continue, these events have the capacity to illustrate to Khamenei the danger of internal disputes boiling over and disrupting the newly achieved and fragile unity at this critical juncture.

Externally, he is likely wary of attempts by Saudi Arabia and Israel to break up a deal that threatens their regional influence and strategic position. Both have been vocal critics throughout the negotiations, calling into question Iran’s sincerity.

The Supreme Leader will likely keep a close eye on the P5+1 reaction to yesterday’s allegations by Mujahedin-e-Khalq of a new secret nuclear facility in Iran. He is probably hoping for the same skepticism that met previous accusations by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. For instance, back in July, MEK charges that Tehran was constructing a nuclear facility under the Damavand mountains turned out to be unsubstantiated. Khamenei may believe that certain foreign actors are becoming more desperate to interrupt the upcoming second round of negotiations in Geneva.

Looking ahead

The Supreme Leader is hoping that the upcoming P5+1 meeting on November 20th will lay the groundwork for significant sanction relief. There has been no rhetoric from Khamenei or his aides to suggest that he is displeased with the performance of Rouhani’s team thus far. In addition to external threats from Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Supreme Leader may be concerned about the escalation of low-level internal conflicts. However, his recent history in easing political tensions should leave him feeling confident in the ability of his security apparatus to deal with any major disruptions. All things considered, it appears that the negotiators will have the Supreme Leader’s blessing when they sit back down at the negotiating table this Wednesday.

This is the second post in the new series titled “What is keeping the Ayatollah up at night?” 

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