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Why Khamenei was ambivalent about Rouhani's US trip

Commentary: Iran's Supreme Leader must appease extremists, but without scuttling his president's diplomatic efforts

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.

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To rewind: Before flying to New York to take part in the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Rouhani declared he had "full authority" to address the standoff with the U.S. and its allies over Iran's nuclear program. It was then officially announced that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would meet. The announcement was made just days before the meeting, but it did not provoke any opposition — in fact, it was greeted positively in Tehran.

Most Iranian officials also viewed Obama's speech at the UNGA positively: He declared that the U.S. is not pursuing regime change in Iran, and he did not threaten Iran with military strikes. Against all expectations, though, there was no handshake meeting between the two presidents. After Iran and the P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) convened, Zarif and Kerry met privately for 30 minutes. By the time Rouhani awoke on the last day of his New York stay, Friday prayers had ended in Iran and all the imams had declared they supported what he had done. Given that what is preached by the imams is conveyed to them by a council answerable to the Supreme Leader, it would seem Khamenei himself was satisfied.

During Rouhani's return trip to the airport on Sept. 27, he and Obama made history by speaking over the phone. On his arrival in Tehran, a group of hard-liners protested his trip and threw shoes at him, but the protests were very limited. Then, on Sept. 30, Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and declared that in dealing with Iran, the military option was still on the table. Khamenei's critical speech came five days later.

Khamenei must understand that if he does not offer Rouhani his support, nothing will get done.

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.

Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera America.

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