Why Khamenei loses big from any nuclear deal

Nearly 12 years have passed since an Iranian dissident group first exposed the construction of two secret nuclear facilities – the Arak heavy water reactor and the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. Since then, these two sites, along with the fortified Fordow enrichment complex revealed in 2009, have nearly become household names, emblematic of fears that the Islamic Republic will soon threaten the region with nuclear weapons.

But after 12 years of military threats, sanctions, negotiations, and nervous speculation over a sudden dash towards nuclear breakout that never came, it is now clear that Iran’s nuclear drive is an end in itself, serving as a function of legitimacy for its conservative power bases. With the interim nuclear agreement set to expire on July 20, the Ayatollahs have been forced to consider ruling Iran without this external crisis which all but defines their leadership. For Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader ultimately responsible for keeping an increasingly discontented population focused on anything but his country’s poverty, corruption, internal ideological rivalries, and wasted potential – this is a frightening scenario. It should therefore surprise no one that Iran is trying to bait the West into ‘negotiating’ for an extension to the current interim nuclear agreement before it expires on July 20.

To survive, Iran’s mullahs and their military muscle must preserve the Islamic Revolution’s concept of ‘resistance’ toward United States.  Even after 35 years, resistance remains a central theme of every sermon given by the conservative clerics, every parade held by the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and every demonstration organized by the zealous Basij paramilitary militia.   These pillars of the Islamic Revolution have already lost out under President Rouhani’s reformist-backed administration, which has moved to limit their political power and strip them of lucrative economic holdings, which by the IRGC’s own admittance, “only” amount to 10 percent of Iran’s economy. The IRGC therefore understands that inking a nuclear deal with the West and ending Iran’s isolation will only grant Rouhani more backing from the middle class and embolden the President to further marginalize their influence.

In this context, Ayatollah Khamenei and his conservative support base care less about whether their coveted “right” to enrich uranium is recognized as part of a final agreement. Because without the daily warnings of military conflict or the foreign sanctions which have affected nearly every aspect of daily life, many Iranians will be left scratching their heads on what exactly is left to “resist.”

Since the interim agreement was signed, these fears have been flung onto the podiums and opinion pages of Iran’s public discourse in the form of unprecedented criticism towards and his negotiating team. Much of the criticism has come in the form of editorials from Kayhan, the most popular conservative newspaper which is often considered as a mouthpiece for the Supreme Leader. Kayhan’s attacks have been so frequent that its editor has been forced to deny rumors that he received orders from above to halt the newspapers public attacks against Rouhani.

Khamenei himself has been caught in the middle, forced to balance between the top-down pressure from his regime pillars and the bottom-up support for Rouhani.  In the post-Arab Spring era, Khamenei knows he cannot risk the public backlash of marginalizing or threatening Rouhani as he did with other defiant presidents, including Ahmadinejad or Khatami before him. Unable to seriously impede Rouhani’s negotiations on orders of the Supreme Leader, these elements have taken to challenging Rouhani’s efforts to reform civil liberties, increasing executions and cracking down on cyber activists.

Further compounding Khamenei’s predicament is the realization that his nuclear diversion cannot continue forever. With an increasingly jittery Israel and Saudi Arabia seeking to replace the U.S. threat of military force and high domestic support for the interim agreement, Khamenei must somehow carefully manipulate the West into extending the current talks. But if the West doesn’t agree to an extension, Khamenei will be forced to consider either agreeing to a substandard deal that will invite the wrath of his conservative power base, or risking a resumption of sanctions and military threats if Iran walks away from what could arguably be their last negotiating opportunity.

The Obama administration and its European allies shouldn’t play Khamenei’s waiting game by granting another extension. They should call his bluff and force an agreement which will both significantly distance Iran’s nuclear breakout period as well as strengthen Rouhani’s administration against the IRGC and the conservative Ayatollahs. Because even if Iran signs a seemingly-favorable nuclear agreement, Khamenei and his conservative allies will find a way to keep the nuclear crisis alive, albeit in a far more dangerous manner which would send opponents Israel and Saudi Arabia to ratchet up threats of military action.

It is well understood that any deal would enable Iran to preserve at least some of its enrichment infrastructure, leaving the regime with the option of simply expelling inspectors whenever domestic tension rises. This is without taking into consideration the possibility that the regime has, or may decide to construct another secret facility as it has done in the past. Another avenue would be to expand the IRGC’s ballistic missile capabilities, which have remained irresponsibly un-threatened by Western negotiators to the ire of Iran’s regional adversaries.

As they head home from a rare round of bi-lateral talks with Iran in Geneva, it would serve American negotiators well to understand that the muscle behind the Iranian regime simply can’t afford to let Rouhani resolve this crisis.

Whether a deal is signed or not by July 20 makes no difference, unless that deal forces the regime to dismantle the majority of its advanced enrichment infrastructures, the Arak heavy water reactor and curb its ballistic missile program. Without these measures, only the resounding threat of a military strike will keep Khamenei from grazing his finger on the nuclear trigger as he has done for the past 12 years.


About the Author
The author is a security and political analyst.