Iran’s supreme leader is often opaque in his pronouncements on the Islamic Republic’s dealings with foreign powers. That’s why many observers deemed significant the unmistakably supportive tone of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Feb. 8 comments on the matter in a speech to Air Force cadets as multilateral nuclear negotiations approach an end-of-March deadline for the framework of a deal.
"I would go along with any agreement that could be made,” Khamenei said. Echoing U.S. President Barack Obama, Iran’s key executive decision-maker added, “Of course, I am not for a bad deal.” But then he agreed with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that “negotiations mean reaching a common point ... This means that one side would not end up getting all it wants.”
To Western ears attuned to Khamenei’s chronic skepticism, the remarks were, for the first time, more positive than negative and suggested he was preparing his hard-line political base for a landmark deal with the “Great Satan.”
Pessimists were quick to point out that Khamenei made other remarks that could constrain negotiators, such as calling for a single-phase “detailed” agreement and swift removal of sanctions. The goal of the P5+1 group of world powers that negotiates with Iran — the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia — has been to agree a political framework by the end of March. The technical details would be fully fleshed out in a second agreement by the end of June, whose implementation would be tied to a gradual easing of sanctions against Tehran.
It could be the case that Khamenei, by publicly signaling a willingness to compromise, hopes to win the blame game if no deal is reached. But the woeful state of Iran’s economy — exacerbated by low oil prices — and the enormous desire among ordinary Iranians for an improvement in living standards and better ties with the West, creates pressure on Tehran to accept ceilings on its nuclear activities for at least a decade in exchange for sanctions relief — and, potentially, a significant shift in Iran’s relationship with the United States.
Comments by Obama this week — and the marathon negotiations that have been taking place in Europe, including two more meetings last weekend between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif — also suggest that the two sides are closing in on a deal.
Speaking at a joint press conference on Feb. 9 with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama said, “The issues now are sufficiently narrowed and sufficiently clarified where we’re at point where they need to make a decision.” If, as Khamenei has stated, “it would be contrary to their faith to obtain a nuclear weapon,” Obama continued, “there should be the possibility of getting a deal. They should be able to get to yes.”
Rouhani, who with Zarif has spearheaded the negotiation process, has also been sending optimistic signals. He recently equated a nuclear deal with the kind of painful compromise made by the leader of Iran’s revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in accepting a cease-fire in the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War. Khomeini called accepting that truce “like drinking from the poisoned chalice,” but he did so nonetheless, giving up his goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, who had attacked Iran, because Iran was economically prostrate and continuing the war threatened the survival of the Islamic regime. Khamenei — who mentioned the 1988 cease-fire in his own speech — could use the “poisoned chalice” precedent to justify making concessions as well.
On Wednesday in a major address, Rouhani again spoke of a “win-win agreement in which Iran will show transparency in its peaceful nuclear activities.” He reminded listeners of Iran’s important role in the region fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and sought to tamp down domestic opposition to compromise by pointing out that only “Iran’s enemies” are opposed to a nuclear deal.
The U.S. has reportedly put forward several formulas for curbing Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity and stockpiles in a way that would ensure that it would take at least one year for Iran to repurpose its nuclear infrastructure to produce enough fissile material for a single nuclear bomb — a switch that current inspection protocols would quickly detect.
Perhaps the strongest indication that an agreement with Iran may be closer than ever is the increasingly desperate effort by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to block one. The Israeli leader opposes the premise of the compromise agreement being negotiated between Iran and the P5+1, which involves Iran accepting verifiable limits on its nuclear work that go beyond those required by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) for at least a decade but keeping intact much of its nuclear infrastructure under enhanced international scrutiny. Netanyahu insists that Iran can’t be allowed to have enrichment technology permitted under the NPT, because that could be diverted to create bomb materiel. That view was once shared by Western powers but is now seen as a nonstarter by the governments negotiating with Iran.
Netanyahu plans to address a joint session of Congress on March 3, despite many Democrats’ threatening to boycott the speech and mounting concern among mainstream U.S. Jewish leaders over the partisan impact of the event, after Republican House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu without clearing it with the White House — a breach of protocol.
Iran’s leaders could wrong-foot Netanyahu by announcing acceptance of a deal shortly before his speech on Capitol Hill.
But even if negotiations take a while longer to conclude, U.S.-Iran relations have progressed to the point that Netanyahu’s habitual rejectionism — like Iranians’ ritual chants of “Death to America” — have become anachronistic in the eyes of a growing pragmatic consensus in both Tehran and the West. Since the conclusion of an interim nuclear agreement in 2013, there has been a de facto truce between the U.S. and Iran on a number of issues besides Iran’s nuclear program, and it appears unlikely now that relations will revert to the hostility that prevailed before Rouhani succeeded President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Jim Slattery, a former six-term Congressman from Kansas who late last year became the first former or serving member of Congress to visit Iran, told the Atlantic Council on Monday that a majority of Iranians he encountered want a nuclear deal and a better relationship with the United States.
Even the officer who stamped Slattery’s passport when he arrived in Tehran was optimistic, Slattery recalled, telling him, “I hope you guys can get this nuclear thing worked out so we can meet some American women.”