Behind Khamenei's Recent Red Lines for a Nuclear Deal

06/27/2015 12:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2016

In his fiery remarks on June 23rd, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delineated major red lines in nuclear negotiations. According to his official twitter account, the seven items listed as red lines cover four basic areas: sanctions relief, sunset provisions for uranium enrichment, R&D and access for International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) inspectors.

The red lines undoubtedly contrast with the framework agreement that was reached in Lausanne, according to the fact sheet published in April by the U.S. State Department. However, immediately following the U.S. State Department's publication of its fact sheet in April, Iran publicly disagreed with its contents. This was apparent when Ayatollah Khamenei declared that the fact sheet showed "devilish" American intentions.

Now, Khamenei's delineation of red lines has left many observers and politicians scratching their head, wondering why the Ayatollah would adopt such an aggressive posture as the Iran nuclear talks enter the last lap of this marathon. According to many experts, these red lines could most likely break the deal altogether.

There may be multiple explanations for these remarks.

Domestic public appearance

Perhaps the most popular explanation among experts and politicians, including the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is that the statements were designed for domestic consumption. "We are not going to be guided by or conditioned by or affected or deterred by some tweet that is for public consumption or domestic political consumption," Kerry reacted to the comments.

In other words, based on this argument, Ayatollah Khamenei issued the red lines to maintain stature among conservatives, as the leader that continues to spearhead resistance against the "global arrogance" led by the United States. However, this explanation is flawed.

If a deal is soon reached and Khamenei's red lines are crossed, his stature would severely suffer, likely resulting in dire consequences that might ultimately ensue. Those that dispute the notion of simple posturing for domestic consumption are his conservative supporters, primarily the security-military apparatus. What would they think of Vali-e Faqih (Guardian jurist), the symbol of revolutionary Islam, if a deal is struck and the red lines set by him are crossed? How can the Ayatollah explain that for the conservatives? Does he lack enough authority on the negotiating team or did his public opposition to apparently-negotiated terms amount to hollow rhetoric?

Effort to scuttle a deal

Another explanation is that as we near the precipice of negotiations, i.e., the actualization of a nuclear deal, Ayatollah Khamenei may be worried about the consequences of compromise on the nuclear issue so he set these strict red lines to torpedo the possibility of any deal.

A resolution to the nuclear crisis may lead to normalization of relations between Iran and the U.S. It is true that Iran seeks better relations with America to reduce threats to its survival, but the leadership harbors strong reservations about normal relations.

Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly asserted his opinion that because the Iranian establishment rejects foreign domination, the U.S. ultimately seeks regime change in its own effort to establish a puppet government. Drawing on experience from the 1953 coup, Ayatollah Khamenei contends that normal relations would prepare the grounds for infiltration by Americans' intelligence and spies who seek links to opposition inside Iran, undermining the nezam (state).

Additionally, normal relations will most likely lead to cultural exchanges which could erode religious beliefs in Iranian society and ultimately undermine the influence of the Islamic system.

Actualization of a nuclear deal could also be problematic from another angle. Iran's leader has repeatedly said, "I'm not optimistic about the talks and they will not get anywhere, but I'm not opposed to them." Therefore, the successful conclusion of nuclear talks would call into question the political vision and judgment of the Supreme Leader.

Saiid Ghasemi, a former commander of the IRGC and one of the leaders of the hard-line vigilante group, Ansar-e Hezbollah once remarked, "If the [nuclear] talks conclude we must say goodbye to the [the system] of Veyat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist)," which is the foundation of Iran's Islamic system.

Despite all of the arguments which support scuttling a deal, Iran's ravaged economy threatens the very survival of the state. A poor economy could cause not only domestic unrest, but it also threatens its foothold and influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as a means to confront the US, Israel, and Arab threats. Iran desperately needs sanctions relief and access to its estimated $100 billion in blocked assets.

In fact, Ayatollah Khamenei's dramatic shift in approach toward the US, abandoning the years-long policy of banning talks with them, was motivated by understanding the dangers of continuing such policies, and the perpetuation and intensification of sanctions that would result. Therefore, the theory that the Ayatollah made his most recent remarks to abort the talks defies logic.

Overconfidence

The last explanation is that Iranians are greatly overconfident and perceive that conditions are in their favor and that they can exploit the opportunity to impose their demands on the other side. Sobh-e Sadegh, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) publication, once explained the logic behind this stance as follows:

"The Iranian side ... has been able to create a necessary crack in the body of sanctions. The eagerness of economic centers to conduct business with Iran reveals that the crack is irreparable and it is highly unlikely, if not impossible to return to the past situation."

This sense of overconfidence also emanates from the widely popular perception among high echelon Iranians, including Iran's leader and former president and current chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, that Americans need a nuclear deal more than Iranians. The Iranians believe that they must take advantage of this opportunity and adopt a maximalist position to ensure that world powers reduce concessions to the bare minimum, if not altogether.

The world may learn whether this is a miscalculation within days.