Khamenei’s dilemma

Iran’s internal politics may constrain how far the supreme leader will go in repairing ties with the US

January 2, 2014 7:00AM ET
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivering a speech to members of the paramilitary Basij force at the Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran.

The Nov. 24 landmark agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has been portrayed as an Iranian victory. Much of the media commentary thus far has focused on how it could clear a path for the eventual resumption of normalized ties between the Islamic Republic and the United States.

Fueling this narrative, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who represented Iran at the Geneva talks, was hailed by some as a national hero. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani have also publicly exchanged congratulatory letters. Underscoring this giddy possibility for the future of U.S.-Iranian relations, Rouhani tweeted on Nov. 27 a short clip of excerpts from his inaugural speech, with English subtitles and set to modern and classical Persian music, titled “New Voyager,” in homage to a poem by the beloved Persian poet Hafez. The style of the video, with its black-and-white split-screen montage of Iranian celebrities echoing the words of the president’s speech, was a none-too-subtle nod to Black Eyed Peas’ 2008 “Yes We Can” video, designed to support then-candidate Barack Obama.

But behind this euphoria, sober realities of Iranian politics, which may hinder a genuine U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, pose a dilemma for Khamenei. The most obvious obstacles to a full-fledged normalization of relations are Khamenei’s intense mistrust of the U.S.’s motivations as well as his need to placate the regime’s die-hard and ideologically committed supporters. Ultimately, four main factors may set a ceiling on how far the Iranian regime is willing to bend to normalize relations with Western powers.

First, given Tehran’s bitter experiences with previous attempts at reconciliation, Khamenei has a deep and abiding distrust of the United States. There is no doubt that Rouhani’s attempts at resolving the nuclear dispute, overcoming Iran’s international isolation and bringing about the gradual dismantling of suffocating sanctions has Khamenei’s backing. For example, without Khamenei’s support, Zarif’s unexpected return to the political scene would not have been approved by the Majlis, Iran’s parliament. A reviled figure among conservatives, Zarif was removed from his position as Iranian ambassador to the United Nations in 2007 and was even prevented from teaching at Iranian public universities. But the Rouhani-Zarif charm offensive places only a veneer of congeniality over the supreme leader’s visceral and heartfelt mistrust of the U.S.

Beyond suspicions buttressed by strategic and ideological considerations, Khamenei believes that experience informs his deep distrust. In 1995, after Iran granted a $1 billion contract to develop an Iranian oilfield to the American oil company Conoco and pressured Hezbollah to release American hostages, then-President Bill Clinton canceled the contract, and Congress passed the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, which called for the imposition of sanctions on entities that invested more than $20 million in the Iranian petroleum industry. In 2001, President George W. Bush inducted Iran into the “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and North Korea, after Tehran collaborated with the U.S. to oust the Taliban and engaged constructively on the future of Afghanistan at the Bonn Conference, which devised a plan for governing Afghanistan after the removal of the Taliban regime. Two years later, the Bush administration scuttled Iran’s grand-bargain offer on Middle East politics, conveyed to U.S. authorities through the Swiss Embassy. Iran’s voluntary suspension of its enrichment program from 2003 to 2005 was rewarded with what the Islamic Republic viewed as a set of insignificant and insulting inducements, consisting of a U.S. offer to withdraw its refusal to allow Iran into the World Trade Organization and to remove prohibitions on the sale of spare parts to Iranian civilian aircraft companies in exchange for Tehran’s abandonment of what it has consistently heralded as its inalienable right (as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) to enrich uranium on its soil. To the extent that Khamenei expects a better deal from the current negotiations, it is only because of Iran’s mastery of the capacity to enrich uranium and the desire of the U.S. and its European allies to avoid another devastating war in the Middle East.

The second factor is the conflict of interest from the ideological dispositions of Khamenei’s allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the sanctions’ impact on their material benefits. The IRGC controls the majority of key smuggling routes, and decades of sanctions have led to the entrenchment of its interests in the black-market economy. It is a vast and diverse organization that does not speak with a single voice. But Khamenei has disciplined the IRGC tightly not to oppose Rouhani’s November accord with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) over the nuclear issue, and its members have — some of them reluctantly — fallen in line. Its emergence as one of the dominant players in the Iranian economy has positioned members of the IRGC as the key beneficiaries of sanctions relief and Iran’s integration into the global economy. However, the issue is also ideological. The upper echelons of the guards were handpicked by Khamenei on the basis of their ideological opposition to and deep suspicion of the United States. Therefore, if serious advances are made toward normalization of relations between the two countries, significant pushback from some within the guards’ ranks is expected.

Khamenei has to play a careful game to ensure that diplomatic progress doesn’t lead to an irresistible accumulation of demands from the Iranian people.

The third factor is a growing fear among government elites that the removal of sanctions and a momentum toward international integration may empower the Iranian middle class at their expense. Years of suffocating sanctions and then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s economic mismanagement have reduced a once vibrant Iranian middle class to a shadow of its former self. Despite near-unanimous consensus on the need to curb, if not eliminate, the powers of Iran’s unelected supervisory Council of Guardians, the middle class lacks the strength and resilience to sustain a successful challenge, as demonstrated by the quelling of the 2008 Green movement protests.

But if the economy improves, the middle class will inevitably start demanding reforms and challenge the Council of Guardians’ iron grip on the Islamic Republic. The middle class has consistently shown disdain for the thwarting of popular will by those who claim to represent the will of the Almighty. The core middle class hopes that, over time, Iran’s gradual integration into the global economy would embolden the cohort. It is no accident that the two icons of the Green movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, along with Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, remain under house arrest despite Rouhani’s campaign promises of political reform.

The regime has another, even more ominous wild card to worry about. The traditionally loyal working class has been severely affected by the economic decline during Ahmadinejad’s eight years in office and the crippling sanctions. There are fears that resentment among the working class could find synergy with the grievances of the middle class. This could lead to a nightmarish scenario of a truly broad-based revolt against the regime. While improvement in the economy from sanctions relief will undoubtedly lessen their discontents, Khamenei has to operate with extreme caution the political levers that could lead to economic and political empowerment of both groups.

Finally, Khamenei is acutely aware that the current regime’s power base — loyalists within the working class — is deeply rooted in anti-U.S. sentiment. While the conscripted rank-and-file members of the IRGC may back a popular public call for reform, the same cannot be said of the Basij, Iran’s volunteer militia force. Khamenei has indoctrinated the regime’s ardent and passionate supporters, who are essential to its survival, to view themselves as the embodiment of pure Muhammadan Islam engaged in a cosmic struggle against the “great Satan.” To maintain their loyalty, Khamenei has to keep them energized. He has consistently maintained that normalization of ties with the U.S. would be detrimental to Iran. He is wary that U.S. agents will infiltrate Iran’s most sensitive institutions, as they did during the shah’s regime, while sullying the minds of the nation’s impressionable youth. This is why conciliatory gestures from Rouhani send shivers through the conservative establishment and its supporters.

We should not be surprised, then, if Khamenei and his allies rein in Rouhani sharply, should further progress be made toward U.S.-Iran rapprochement beyond a minimally acceptable accord designed to transform the interim P5+1 agreement into a genuine deal resolving the nuclear dispute and resulting in the gradual lifting of sanctions. The real issue at stake is not whether the new Iranian president is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called him, but rather whether the exigencies of Iranian domestic politics can be finessed in such a way that they do not derail the negotiations — or, should negotiations prove successful, in such a way that they result in a broader normalization of ties with the U.S. While Khamenei may agree to a deal to resolve the nuclear dispute, he will have a much harder time consenting to a broader normalization of ties with the U.S.

The rise of Rouhani was a shrewd and pragmatic maneuver by Khamenei. But the supreme leader now has to play a carefully calibrated game to ensure that diplomatic progress doesn’t lead to an irresistible accumulation of additional demands, not just from the international community regarding improvement of human rights, abandonment of Hezbollah and recognition of Israel but also, more important, from the Iranian people. Ultimately, Khamenei’s real dilemma might just be the mobilization of an empowered middle class (with possible working-class support) and its potential demand for social and political reforms, including Khamenei’s relegation to the position of ceremonial figure. 

Dariush Zahedi is the director of the Berkeley Program on Entrepreneurship and Development in the Middle East at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Scott Field is a visiting scholar at the Institute for International Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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