Why Khamenei's Red Lines Aren't Only About the Nuke Talks

06/30/2015 04:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016

The June 30 deadline for the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group -- the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany -- to reach a comprehensive agreement has once again been extended. Both the supporters and opponents of the agreement in Iran and the United States have intensified their efforts. But a speech on June 23 by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has attracted wide international attention.

In the speech, Khamenei reaffirmed his support for the negotiations, but also repeated his demands and red lines. Briefly, he declared that:

  • he is opposed to severely limiting Iran's nuclear research for 10-12 years, but did say that he might be willing to live with a shorter period;
  • he demanded that all the sanctions against Iran, regardless of whether they were imposed by the Security Council, U.S. presidents, or U.S. Congress be terminated the immediately after the agreement is signed;
  • he rejected lifting the sanctions after Iran has carried out its obligations under the agreement, or after the International Atomic Energy Agency has certified that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful, because, in Khamenei's view, the IAEA is not "fair and independent" and such a certification requires inspecting every inch of Iran's territory;
  • he rejected any inspection of Iran's program beyond what the relevant international treaties allow, and
  • he rejected inspection of Iran's military sites or interviewing Iran's nuclear scientists. The same demands have also been posted on Khamenei's official website.

How Should His Speech Be Interpreted?

What are Khamenei's goals, and how should his speech be interpreted? Three scenarios are plausible:

One, Khamenei believes that if the negotiations fail, the world will blame the United States and its allies, not Iran, because Iran has made many major concessions, has accepted limits on its program and has given all the guarantees that it can regarding the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. Thus, even if he insists on his red lines, which would result in the failure of the negotiations, he believes fault will be assigned elsewhere, particularly given that the Obama administration is under tremendous pressure by the Republicans, Israel, Saudi Arabia and their lobbies in the United States to extract more concessions from Iran.

But, what Khamenei does not acknowledge is that even if the U.S. and its allies are blamed for the failure of the negotiations, the tremendous problems that Iran and Iranians are facing will not be solved. If the negotiations fail, Congress will immediately ratchet up the pressure on Iran by imposing more sanctions, denying Iran of the meager income that it earns now from exporting its oil. As President Obama has also acknowledged, continuing to impose more sanctions on Iran will eventually lead to war, transforming Iran into another Syria or Iraq, the consequences of which will reverberate throughout the Middle East.

Two, Khamenei's tough line is meant to strengthen the hands of Iran's diplomats in the negotiations. The red lines are not 100 percent firm. They, and the law passed last week by the Majles (Iran's parliament) that ordered the government to protect and "preserve Iran's nuclear rights and [scientific] achievements" are only for extracting more concessions from the West. Thus, Iran's diplomats can credibly tell their Western counterparts that if they do not soften their stance, particularly regarding the timing of lifting the sanctions, Khamenei, the Majles and the hardliners will not accept the agreement, and will move toward uranium enrichment at much higher levels and increase Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium.

Three, Khamenei is pursuing multiple goals, hence he has staged multipronged attacks. He still desires the nuclear agreement, but on his own terms. In the same speech he said:

All the officials of the Islamic Republic -- the government, the Majles, the judiciary, the security and intelligence organizations, and I too agree, are united in our belief that we should reach a nuclear agreement [with the West]. We also all agree that the agreement must be a dignified one, respecting and carefully considering the Islamic Republic's interests. We all agree that the agreement must be fair to the Islamic Republic.

Khamenei also explicitly emphasized his goal: "Our goal is for the sanctions to be terminated; we are seriously pursuing this goal."

It is clear that if the agreement is reached, then, in the short term the sanctions will be suspended gradually and, over the long term, they will be terminated if Iran carries out its obligations. The Rouhani administration and its diplomatic team will be credited with achieving this goal, but Khamenei is using Rouhani and his team to get what he wants.

Khamenei's Goals

The fact is that Rouhani and his administration are not to Khamenei's liking. Tehran hardliners claim that Khamenei is very angry at Rouhani's cultural policies. Practically every day the police and the judiciary prevent a music concert or some other artistic event that has been planned. Practically every day a speech by anyone who opposes the hardliners is cancelled, with plain clothes agents of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps attacking the lecturer. The hardliners even disrupted Rouhani's speech on the anniversary of death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini last week, and attacked Ali Motahari, a Majles deputy, brother-in-law of Majles Speaker Ali Larijani, and an outspoken critic of the hardliners. When in an iftar dinner by Rouhani, former reformist Mayor of Tehran Gholamhossein Karbaschi mentioned the Green Movement's leaders -- Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard and Mehdi Karroubi -- the hardliners that were present at the dinner protested loudly. The daily Javan, the mouthpiece of the Revolutionary Guard, strongly criticized the president for "having the supporters of the sedition's leader" -- meaning the Green Movement -- at the dinner.

Although the Ministries of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Education, and Science, Research and Technology (that run the universities) are not as progressive as Rouhani and his supporters want, they are also not to Khamenei's liking. Although the universities are not where they should be in terms of freedom of speech and criticisms of the state, Rouhani has succeeded in removing hardline university presidents appointed by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani also opposed a new law passed by the Majles that calls on the government to provide support to the hardliners that try to strictly enforce the supposedly Islamic laws for women's cover, mixing of genders in public places, etc. He refused to order its implementation by his administration, forcing Ali Larijani, the chairman of the Parliament, to order its implementation.

Elections for the next session of the Majles and the Assembly of Experts (a constitutional body that appoints the supreme leader) will be held in late February 2016, and Khamenei and his supporters are very concerned about them. They are worried that a coalition of the reformists and moderates under the unofficial leadership of former Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, as well as Hassan Khomeini, the ayatollah's grandson, and former Speaker of the Majles Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, a moderate, will exploit the nuclear agreement to take control of the Majles.

Several officials of the Rouhani administration have told me in private conversations that Ahmadinejad and his hardline supporters will spend about $3.5 billion for the upcoming elections, and that they have hired some 500 advisers throughout the country to plan their election campaign. At the same time, credible reports from other conversations I've had with officials indicate that the intelligence of the Revolutionary Guard has warned leading reformists that if they become active in the upcoming elections, they will be arrested

But, even more important than the Majles' elections are those for the Assembly of Experts. Khamenei wishes to have a docile assembly so that he can dictate to them his successor.

The hardliners have been claiming for quite some time that Rouhani will be a one-term president (his last four predecessors served two terms each). Thus, the goal of the hardliners and their supporters in the military is to get rid of Rouhani in the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2017. But, if a nuclear agreement is reached that does not respect Khamenei's red lines, but leads to lifting of the economic sanctions, Khamenei and his supporters will claim that, not only has the agreement crossed the supreme leader's red lines, but it is also worse than the Turkmenchay Treaty of 1828, according to which Iran ceded the control of the Caucasus region to the Russian Empire, considered a great treason by Iranians. The hardliners have also declared the Lausanne Accord the Second Turkmenchay Treaty. They will also claim that Iran must carry out its obligations under the nuclear agreement, because it is an international accord signed by Iran's government, but will also claim that Rouhani and his administration have committed treason against the Iranian people. In this way, the hardliners hope that they can topple the government even before 2017.

Thus, Khamenei's red lines are not meant to force failure of the nuclear negotiations. Rather, he and the hardliners want to benefit from the agreement economically, but also topple the Rouhani administration.

This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei.

Iran Celebrates Nuclear Agreement