There are few world leaders as powerful yet mysterious as Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Most of what has been written about him in English only adds to the confusion surrounding the man (Akbar Ganji's writings are a notable exception). The most common misinterpretation of him at the moment is that he is ideologically opposed to cutting a reasonable deal with the United States—the “Great Satan,” as America is known among some Iranian leaders—over his country’s nuclear program. But Khamenei wants a deal perhaps just as much as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is widely credited with being the more moderate force behind the current negotiations. Far from betraying the Iranian Revolution, Khamenei may view the negotiations as helping fulfill its ideals.
It’s clear that Khamenei is deeply suspicious of the United States and skeptical of both its intent and ability to come to terms with Iran. When President Barack Obama first extended a hand to the Iranians in his 2009 Persian New Year greeting, Khamenei immediately shot back. In a lengthy speech from his birth town of Mashhad, Khamenei went over the entire litany of American crimes against Iran—from support for the hated shah (overthrown by Khamenei’s predecessors in the revolution of 1979), to aid to Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war, to the downing of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, to years of sanctions. He cast doubt on the intentions of the United States, even under its new president. He went on to question Obama’s ability to shift America’s position on Iran. “I would like to say that I do not know who makes decisions for the United States, the president, the Congress, elements behind the scenes?” he asked.
Understanding the depth of this suspicion requires recalling that Khamenei has not merely read about the tortuous history of U.S.-Iran relations. As a close associate of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and a former president of Iran, he was there. He lived through—as a participant, not an observer—every dark chapter he cites in his speeches, from the hostage crisis to the Axis of Evil speech. His skepticism of U.S. intentions, rightly or wrongly, is a product of the four decades of baggage he carries on his shoulders.
Yet, in the end, that’s all he is: a skeptic. He is not an ideological opponent who will undermine, or refuse to accept, any deal struck by Iran’s more moderate negotiators.
In this year’s New Year’s message, he rejected Obama’s contention that some in Iran “oppose a diplomatic resolution” to the nuclear issue, while reiterating his refusal to give in to “bullying” from the West. “There is no one in Iran who doesn't want the nuclear issue to be resolved, and resolved through negotiations,” he said. “What the Iranian people don't want is imposition and bullying from America." These remarks were consistent with his earlier speeches, in which he has repeatedly left the door open to talks with Washington as long as it served the interests of the Iranian nation.
Khamenei seems far less fearful of negotiating with an ideological adversary than of entering those negotiations from a position of weakness. In the narrative propagated by the Islamic Republic’s leaders, the revolution saved the country from the shah’s policy of subjugating Iran to the West. The revolution’s aim was to restore the country’s dignity and independence, which could only be achieved, they argued, through the establishment of an Islamic republic.
In Khamenei’s own words: “Before the revolution, Iran was in the hands of the United States, its vital resources were in the hands of the United States, its political decision-making centers were in the hands of the United States, decisions to appoint and depose its vital centers were in the hands of the United States, and [the country] was like a field for the United States, the U.S. military, and others on which to graze. Well, this was taken away from them.”
If Tehran entered into nuclear talks with Washington while vulnerable, the United States would force it into an arrangement that would once again turn the Persian Gulf powerhouse into an American proxy, Iranian hardliners have told me. They have pointed to Egypt which, after signing the U.S.-brokered Camp David Accords normalizing its relationship with Israel, in their view gradually lost influence and standing in the Arab world. In this reading, Egypt, which once vied for leadership in the region, is today dependent on Israeli political support, U.S. military aid, and Saudi largess for its very survival.
But this is precisely why Khamenei does not oppose a “good deal” with world powers. For the first time since the Iranian Revolution, Iran can strike a deal with the West that would sustain and even recognize its independence from Western demands. Such a deal would also mark the first time in almost 200 years in which Iran negotiated with world powers over a major conflict—and didn't lose.
From 1813 onward, Iran’s interaction with world powers has by and large been one of continuous defeats. The Treaty of Turkmenchay in 1828 stands as one of Iran’s greatest humiliations in modern history; under the terms of that agreement, the Persian Empire ceded to Russia much of its territory in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Political speeches and media accounts in Iran have often compared previous rounds of nuclear negotiations since 2003 to the Turkmenchay Treaty, the implication being that what Iran would give up in those talks would be eternally lost, and any nuclear deal would be a mark of shame for whoever signed it.
The current regime, however, appears determined not to once again succumb to Western demands and lose territory (or, in this case, uranium-enrichment rights) that it can never reclaim. The difference now, according to what’s publicly known about the current talks, is that Iran is expected to retain its enrichment capability. Once the deal expires, Iran’s nuclear program will be treated no differently than Japan's or Sweden's.
Notwithstanding the Islamic Republic’s use of pan-Islamic rhetoric in its claims to leadership of the Muslim world, Khamenei is well aware of the power of Iranian nationalism. It was the current supreme leader’s predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, who cast Iran’s 1964 Status of Forces Agreement with the United States—in which the shah granted American military personnel in Iran the right not to be subject to Iranian law —as a “capitulation” and used it to portray the Iranian monarch as an American puppet. The public’s receptivity to the argument that this was a national humiliation enabled the ayatollah to use the force of Iranian nationalism against the shah—paradoxically, given the shah's otherwise strong public persona as a Persian nationalist—and pave the way for his ouster.
Nationalism is now the instrument Khamenei is preparing to use to sell the nuclear deal at home and quell any potential criticism. The reasoning is that after decades of confrontation, Iran has succeeded where other Middle Eastern countries have failed: It has forced the great powers to the negotiating table where its rights, independence, and dignity have been affirmed and respected. In the event of a “good deal” from Khamenei’s perspective, Iran will have forced the other side to compromise (on enrichment, for instance) rather than capitulating to the West.
Last month, hardline cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami offered a preview of Khamenei’s likely argument (or spin) in the event of a deal. Khatami called the 2013 interim nuclear deal a “triumph” and contrasted the Islamic Republic's current leaders to Iran’s previous rulers, claiming that under the Islamic government “the country has not been sold, is not sold, and will not be sold.” He went on to say that “whenever a war took place against the country over the past 200 years, its end marked the loss of parts of this country.” That, he claimed, had now changed.
This could very well be Khamenei’s legacy. The supreme leader is not expected to live much longer, and if his negotiators strike a nuclear deal that he favors, it could in his eyes be the realization of the promise of the Islamic Revolution.
Ultimately, even though it may be hard to stomach, it benefits the United States that hardliners in Iran have figured out how to present a nuclear deal as a win for themselves. It's certainly preferable to them behaving like Washington's hawks, who have wasted no opportunity to derail this opportunity for peace.