The headlines on the ongoing talks between Iran and the P5+1 and the resulting walk-outs gave way last week to Reuters’ stunning and extensive exposé on Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini. Reuter’s series focus on Khamenei’s economic power but in the end it is not only about money: Khamenei is powerful economically because he is all-powerful period and vice versa.
Because, in Tehran, when Khamenei says “jump”, all simply ask “how high?”. He is a king maker or breaker and his will is Tehran’s future. Unfortunately, he is also very conservative and seems to be the brink of paranoia and megalomania.
Rouhani’s Tightrope Act
Since his election, Rouhani was labeled by himself and the media as a moderate…well, at least a relative moderate. Rouhani’s agenda for change in order to alleviate the sanctions does not sit well with Khamenei but the supreme leader has loosened the leash he held on Rouhani’s predecessor, Ahmadinejad.
Since Tehran’s political system gives the supreme leader the final say in every major political decision , be it a change of policy or negotiations with the west, he remains the one that has to be convinced that peace is a better alternative.
So while Rouhani and Zarif are wheeling and dealing in Geneva, Khamenei is content to stay in Tehran, knowing that without him, there will be no deal. Judging by his aversion of the west, there are serious doubts that a deal can satisfy the P5+1 as well as Khamenei as this Washington Post article reminds: “Khamenei has been laying the groundwork to walk away from any deal by warning that the West is untrustworthy and will not deliver on its promises — the same reasons he gave for walking away from the earlier nuclear deals”.
Because like all powerful men, Khamenei has to control his basis for power and that means he needs to keep the IRGC on his side. And if anyone was wondering where the IRGC stands on the negotiations, they were the first to praise Zarif for walking away from the negotiation tables.
Deal or No Deal?
The elusive deal with Iran may seem to be in the hands of “moderate” politicians who understand how to communicate with the West but the truth is that without Khamenei, there will not be any deal.
Two key questions remain:
- What are Khamenei’s expectations? How much of his pride and power is he willing to relinquish in order to offer the Iranian people a possibility for a normal life? The chances of a deal that will meet Khamenei’s expectations are definitely slim because Khamenei is hawkish enough to lead Iran on a path to martyrdom out of pride.
- What are Rouhani’s expectations? Does Rouhani really believe that he can put together a deal that will satisfy Khamenei or does he know that this is a futile exercise and he is just buying time? The second option is the scarier one because if it is true, it would be the biggest scam since Hitler convinced chamberlain to proclaim “peace in our time”.
In any case, the West should be warily optimistic about Iran’s “open arms” and not jump back on ship just yet. In this light, the UK’s diplomatic revival with Iran might be premature.