Headlines on the nuclear deal with Iran look schizophrenic: for every optimistic headline about the benefits of a nuclear deal with Iran and the progress made towards reaching it, there is an equal and opposite headline about the pitfalls of such a deal and the problems of reaching it.
As the clock ticks towards the deadline, both sides are making great shows about turning away from a deal if need be: Obama is “ready to walk away from them” and “has no inclination to extend the talks beyond the deadline” and Rouhani “will not accept imposition, humiliation and the continuation of sanctions“.
Although Kerry stated that “there is no deal yet” The general feeling is that the outlines of a nuclear deal are a fait-accompli with one single gap: Tehran wants all sanctions removed at once while Washington wants a phased removal of sanctions.
But the deal doesn’t depend on Kerry, Zarif, Obama or Rouhani: their ideas and thoughts are meaningless compared to those of one man in Tehran – Supreme Leader Khamenei. And unfortunately, Khamenei is not easy to interpret because he is playing both sides of the fence and nobody really knows how Khamenei will act when a final nuclear deal is presented to him.
Khamenei supports a deal
Much is interpreted into Khamenei’s continued support for Rouhani’s efforts to sign a nuclear deal but the question remains why would Khamenei want a nuclear deal at all?
The simple answer is that a nuclear deal seems to be the will of the people: Rouhani was elected by the Iranian people on a promise for change in an effort to de-isolate Iran and lift sanctions. Rouhani has repeatedly played the “people’s will” card and recently boasted that a nuclear deal is supported by “over 80%” of the Iranians.
So, blocking a nuclear deal would put Khamenei up against the “will of the people” and although Khamenei’s authority does not emanate from the people since he was elected by a committee for life, Khamenei doesn’t want to lose the acceptance and support of his people at this stage of his life.
Khamenei is fully aware of his age and his mortality and the last thing he can want is to be an instigator for riots and a counter revolution in the winter of his life.
Bottom line, if the nuclear deal allows Khamenei to feel that his nuclear program and his pride are left unharmed he will probably support it.
Khamenei doesn’t support a deal
Unlike Iranians who want to free themselves from the yoke of sanctions, Khamenei views resistance against Western pressure not only as a necessary strategy but as a source of pride for the Iranian people.
Because for Khamenei, pride is much more important than the details of the nuclear deal. In fact, pride is a key word into Khamenei’s psyche: just as his vision of an Islamic Awakening is based on regaining pride lost to the “Imperialists/Colonialists”, his view on Iran’s nuclear program is based on the pride it offers the Iranian people internally and from their neighbors and supporters abroad.
For Khamenei, there are no “shades of grey” but only “black or white” as far as pride is concerned. Either he, and through him, the Iranian nation, is proud of Iran’s nuclear program or not. Bottom line, Iran’s nuclear program is an achievement that is not to be bargained away and any efforts to do so are seen by Khamenei as an attack against Iranian pride.
And once again, there is Khamenei’s age. Khamenei is fearful to sign a deal which might lead Iran to lose its pride in the future and taint his legacy to Iranians in the future. He does not want to be remembered as the Supreme Leader who weakened Iran in the face of the “arrogant” Westerners during his lifetime or after his death.
No one knows whether Khamenei will allow a deal to be signed and perhaps Khamenei himself doesn’t yet know. What is certain is that a deal which will tarnish his pride or his legacy will never be accepted.
In order for a deal to be inked, the nuclear negotiators on both sides should focus more on maintaining Khamenei’s sense of pride and less on the number of have to focus less on centrifuges.
Which makes sense for Khamenei but not for those who are worried about Tehran building a nuclear bomb.