Negotiating with Tehran is never an easy job due to the deluge of mixed signals of good will, promises, threats, evasions, insults etc… from all the leader/players (moderates and hardliners) as well as from each leader.
This is crucial and best exemplified in the person of Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – not only is he the final decision maker for life, he is also a master at sending mixed messages regarding his intentions on, well, pretty much everything.
Does Khamenei Want a Nuclear Deal?
Take the most burning issue concerning Iran right now, the nuclear talks: earlier this week, Reuters published a news piece saying that “Khamenei hints he’s ready to accept fair nuclear deal”, while on the same day, the BBC ran its own interpretation to the supreme leader’s speech, choosing to headline their article with “Ayatollah Khamenei says ‘no deal better than bad deal‘. Same speech, different meanings.
Here’s a snippet of his speech that shows just how hard it is to read Khamenei:
- “I would go along with any agreement that could be made” – YES.
- “Of course, I am not for a bad deal” – MAYBE.
- “No agreement is better than an agreement which runs contrary to our nation’s interests” – MAYBE NOT.
- “The Iranian nation will not accept any excessive demands and illogical behavior” – NO.
Khamenei’s “nuclear fatwa” is a great example of his communicated ambivalence: The nuclear fatwa categorally denies the development and use of a nuclear arsenal (YES) but the fatwa is not written nor is it approved by parliament (MAYBE NOT).
Khamenei promises the world that Iran is peaceful by nature (YES) while at the same time he takes care to mention in nearly every speech his hatred for Israel and his plans to destroy it (NO).
So, he supports a nuclear deal (YES) but is ready to blow up negotiations (NO). He supports Rouhani (YES) but supports hardliners (no) as well. He can be optimistic (YES) and pessimistic (NO) in the same sentence.
Freestyle Interpretations of Khamenei
Not only are the P5+1 leaders and negotiators baffled by Khamenei’s double talk: his leaders at home scramble constantly to interpret his intentions. Following his last speech on the issue of a nuclear deal, the Kayhan newspapers, which is traditionally viewed as Khamenei’s mouth piece supported by hardliners, ran an article that highlighted Khamenei’s comment regarding the wish for a “one-time comprehensive deal” while omitting his further comments regarding Iran’s current concessions following the interim deal. Khamenei did not shed any light on the newspapers’ interpretation.
The Iran newspaper, run by Rouhani’s administration ran an article that not only focused on Khamenei’s support for a nuclear deal but also criticized the articles backed by the hardliner media stating “their economic and political interests are not [aligned] with the negotiations and an agreement” – and once again, Khamenei remains silent.
In the end of the day, despite the fact that he will retain his position for life, Khamenei is the ultimate politician who is acutely aware of his base of power. Every word is calculated so he can retain his political power with hardliners (his traditional base of power) as well as with the people of Iran by backing Rouhani’s (his ever-changing base of power) plans for change.