Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting with high-ranking officials in Tehran August 31, 2011.khamenei.ir/Handout/Reuters
According to most media observers, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's recent trip to the United States, and his phone conversation with President Barack Obama, went as well as could be expected. The New York Times called Rouhani "blunt and charming," and the BBC heralded a "new tone" to his remarks.
The response from the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader, however, was a bit more muted. During an Oct. 5 speech to military cadets, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed support for Rouhani's diplomatic efforts, but also called some aspects of the trip "not appropriate." "The American government is untrustworthy, supercilious and unreasonable, and breaks its promises," he said, asking "the trusted government (of Rouhani) to carefully consider everything before taking any steps … and not forget even for a moment Iran's national interests."
Was Khamenei suggesting that when Rouhani decided to take the phone call from Obama, he had forgotten about Iran's national interests? On the contrary, the Supreme Leader is playing a delicate political balancing act between supporting Rouhani's attempt to end international sanctions against Tehran and reassuring anti-U.S. extremists in Iran of his caution and resolve. The timeline of events, when coupled with other relevant facts, makes this clear.
So what changed, and what did Khamenei mean by his remarks? We can be confident about four points.
First: Khamenei has given Rouhani "full authority" to resolve the nuclear dispute but not to re-establish friendly relations with the United States.
Second: If the Zarif-Kerry meeting, or the phone conversation between Rouhani and Obama, had yielded some tangible results for Iran — say, if Obama had acknowledged its right to enrich uranium — Khamenei would likely not have mentioned Rouhani's "not appropriate" steps. (It should be noted that U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice did not commit the U.S. to recognizing uranium enrichment as Iran's right.)
Third: If, after meeting with Netanyahu, Obama had not spoken about the military option still being "on the table," Khamenei would likely not have reacted so negatively. But the Supreme Leader considers it unacceptable to speak about military strikes while Iran and the U.S. are in the middle of trying to address the issues between them. In particular, he sees such threatening language as extortion by Israel and its lobby on Capitol Hill. Obama had thus contradicted his promises within the space of a few days: He had declared at the UNGA that the U.S. is not pursuing regime change in Iran, but after meeting with Netanyahu he said he was not ruling out the military option — which, to Khamenei, keeps the possibility of regime change open.
Fourth: Just as extremists in the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf are doing their best to prevent a rapprochement between Iran and the U.S., extremist Iranians, both in the country and abroad, oppose one as well. Extremists within Iran see their influence as dependent on continued tensions between the two countries. Extremists from the diaspora that followed the 1979 Iranian revolution, such as members of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), believe that the only way they can come to power in Tehran is through regime change imposed by the U.S.
To juggle these political interests, Khamenei must carefully manage his own extremist supporters in two ways. First, he must demonstrate that he is their Supreme Leader, resolute and incapable of being bullied by threats from the U.S. and Israel. Second, if diplomacy fails to resolve the issues between Iran and the U.S., Khamenei must be able to claim that he had warned his followers about American untrustworthiness.
But what Khamenei must realize is that without direct negotiations with the U.S., the nuclear crisis will not be resolved and the most crippling sanctions that Iran has ever faced will remain in place. Without a national consensus and full support of the Iranian leadership, Rouhani's diplomatic efforts with the U.S. will fail. Rather than suspecting that Rouhani is trying to circumvent him, Khamenei must understand that if he does not offer the Iranian president his support, nothing will get done. Khamenei should help to pave the way for a meeting between Rouhani and Obama, so that the complicated negotiations can make headway and at least some of the sanctions can be lifted.
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