THE BLOG
08/24/2015 06:35 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2016

Why the Nuclear Agreement With Iran Is a Defeat for Ayatollah Khamenei

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Ever since the Vienna nuclear agreement between Iran and P5+1 -- the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany -- was announced on July 14, the opponents of the agreement have been waging an all-out war against it. But, what the critics of the agreement are missing is one highly important point: the nuclear deal with Iran is a great defeat for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This bodes well for Iran's future and the Middle East's -- and even the security of Israel.

In May 2003, only a few months after Iran admitted the existence of its secret (but legal) nuclear program, former reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami sent the George W. Bush administration a "Grand Bargain" proposal. He had proposed to put the program under strict inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and to implement the Additional Protocol of Iran's Safeguards Agreement with the agency that grants the IAEA the authority for highly intrusive inspections. He also proposed to negotiate all points of contention between the two nations, including Iran's support for Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah. The Bush administration rejected the proposal.

At the same time, Khatami's nuclear negotiators, Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's current president and foreign minister, proposed to three members of the European Union (EU3) -- Britain, France and Germany -- which were negotiating with Iran on behalf of the United States, that Iran limit its centrifuges to a maximum of 3,000, less than half of what was agreed in Vienna, but under pressure by the U.S., the EU3 rejected the proposal in 2005.

A defeat for Khamenei and Iran's hardliners is good for the Middle East and ultimately for Israel and the United States.

So, Khamenei decided to set aside Khatami's moderate nuclear policy and to ratchet up his rhetoric against the United States, while expanding the nuclear program greatly. By the end of 2008, Iran already had more than 3,000 centrifuges working, compared with no centrifuges when Ahmadinejad took office in August 2005. The number of centrifuges nearly tripled to about 9,000 by November 2010. Through the presidential election of June 2005, against which there were charges of interference by the military, he helped Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to come to power. He then gave Ahmadinejad a free hand for expanding the nuclear program. He kept his silence when Ahmadinejad fired in 2007 Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, the relatively moderate Ali Larijani who is close to Khamenei, and appointed Saeed Jalili, a hardliner. When Ahmadinejad mocked UN Security Council resolutions as "worthless paper," Khamenei remained silent again. After Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust repeatedly and held a conference in Tehran in the fall of 2006 in which some well-known anti-Semitic figures participated, Khamenei supported him. After the fraudulent presidential elections of June 2009, Khamenei supported Ahmadinejad's "re-election," declared that his views "were closer" to Ahmadinejad's than the opposition's and ordered violent crackdown on the Green Movement. Even after a deep rift developed between the two men in 2011, Khamenei continued supporting Ahmadinejad's nuclear policy. The result was Iran's isolation, the impasse with P5+1 and imposition of the most crippling economic sanctions on the Iranian people.

Khamenei also failed in another front. The Ahmadinejad administration turned out to be Iran's most incompetent and corrupt government over the past several decades. Not a day goes by in which new revelations are made about the depth and breadth of corruption during the Ahmadinejad's years. Billions of dollars were plundered by Ahmadinejad's cronies. Even two of his vice presidents (Iran had eight VPs at the time) are in jail now. And, many believe that the revelations represent only the tip of the iceberg. Rouhani's First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri said as much when he recently declared that the government has not revealed all cases of corruption because "that would make the people to despair."

Khamenei's Retreat

The combination of a failed nuclear policy, the associated crippling economic sanctions and the incredibly corrupt and incompetent Ahmadinejad administration brought the nation to the edge of revolt, forcing Khamenei to retreat. Thus, to cover his failure, he began talking about "heroic flexibility" in the negotiations with P5+1, code words for retreating. His call for "resistance economy" against the pressure by the United States and its allies went unheeded. The fact that the retreat means returning to Khatami's moderate nuclear policy, a man despised by the supreme leader, makes it even more painful for him.

It is true that the Rouhani administration could not have pursued nuclear negotiations with P5+1 had Khamenei opposed them publicly. But, on several occasions over the past 21 months it appeared that with Khamenei's implicit backing Iran's hardliners were on the verge of terminating the negotiations. At one point the termination of the negotiations seemed so imminent that Rouhani threatened to resign if Khamenei did not stop his hardline supporters. And, Khamenei has still not endorsed the agreement publicly, waiting to see what happens to it in the United States in the confrontation between President Obama and Congress.

The fact that the retreat means returning to Khatami's moderate nuclear policy, a man despised by the supreme leader, makes it even more painful for him.

Khamenei's defeat bodes well for Iran. After the crippling sanctions and the shadow of a possible war with the U.S. are lifted, Iran's economy will begin to improve and Western investments will begin to flow into the country. With an improved economy and the absence of a threat to Iran's national security, democratic groups inside the country will be able to raise their voice and demand lifting of the security environment that has pervaded Iran since the Green Movement of 2009-2011.

Elections for the next Majles (Iranian parliament), as well as for the Assembly of Experts (a constitutional body that appoints the supreme leader) will be held in late February 2016. The hardliners are worried about a sweeping defeat by the reformists and supporters of the Green Movement. If they are defeated, which almost surely will happen if the nuclear agreement goes into effect, a new chapter will open in Iran, and the nation may finally be ready to push for lasting and deep reforms. If a moderate political system emerges in Iran, it will be good for the entire Middle East, including Israel.

The opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran must recognize this crucial point: a defeat for Khamenei and Iran's hardliners is good for the Middle East and ultimately for Israel and the United States. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 consolidated the hardliners' power in Iran. Congress should not give Khamenei a big victory just when he is in the jaws of defeat.

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Historic Iran Deal