Photo by Mojtaba Salimi
Middle East / Iran

The Khameni Complex

Ever since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran in 2013, the West has looked towards Iran with a renewed sense of hope. Rouhani, a centrist armed with a platform of reform, represents perhaps the best promise of resumed relations with Iran since that country’s Islamic revolution in 1979.

Prior to his election, tough sanctions imposed by the United States over Iran’s nuclear policy threw the nation’s economy into turmoil, and, as a result, put immense pressure on the Iranian government to reopen diplomatic relations with the West. The severity of the sanctions pushed Rouhani during his presidential run to say, “It’s very beautiful if a centrifuge revolves, but on the condition that the country is revolving as well.” It would seem, then, that the political climate under Rouhani provided the United States with the opportune moment to push for a negotiated reduction in Iran’s nuclear capability.

Yet political analysts after the 2013 election were wise to be skeptical of whether such an opportunity really existed. Efforts from within Iran to re-establish solid diplomacy with the West were, of course, bound to be rebuffed. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei still reigns as Iran’s true head-of-state, and leads formidable resistance among the political elite against liberal reforms and resumption of relations with the West.

This was to be expected. Khamenei was a leading figure in the revolution that expelled Western influence from Iran, and has harbored an intense distrust for the United States and its allies ever since. What was not expected, however, is the extent to which the Khamenei-Rouhani relationship has been visibly tense, to say the least.

Soon after Rouhani returned from an unprecedented visit to New York only a month after assuming office, Khamenei openly chastised Rouhani’s diplomatic efforts. According to Iran’s state news agency, after the Iranian president took a phone call from President Obama, Khamenei released a statement saying, “Some of the things that took place during the trip to New York were not quite desirable”. Onlookers feared a breakdown in upcoming nuclear negotiations, as Khamenei, not Rouhani, directs the country’s national security agenda.

Luckily enough for the United States, self-preservation eventually proved more important than ideology for Khamenei. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a powerful branch of the military tasked with protecting the state’s Islamic ideals, has long been semi-nationalizing key industries in Iran and enjoys a large stake in Iran’s economy. Western sanctions against Iran specifically targeted the IRGC, a group in which Khamenei takes great personal involvement and appoints his greatest allies. Economic malaise as a result of these sanctions weakened the group considerably, and as nuclear negotiations began in October of last year, it was well known that both the Corps and Khamenei had much to gain from the removal of sanctions.

When the first stage of a deal was inked in late November that year— conceding a halt in uranium enrichment in exchange for a reduction in sanctions— the tone was expectedly congratulatory. Khamenei and Rouhani exchanged letters commending each other for their efforts and the relationship between the two appeared to improve. It was even believed Khamenei was working to suppress some voices of discontent against Rouhani.

Political unity between the two— either imagined or substantial— would not last long. In February 2014, following a particularly heated debate over uranium enrichment, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, controlled by Khamenei, refused to air a live public address on the issue from Rouhani. Soon after, conservative voices jumped on Rouhani for calling hard-liners opposed to nuclear talks “semi-illiterate.” Challenges were also made to Rouhani’s authority in conducting foreign policy. According to Al-Jazeera, Khamenei indirectly called out Rouhani through a commentator, claiming, “there have been more threats against Iran [by the United States] in the last six months than in the last six years.”

The relationship between Rouhani and Khamenei was further strained, when, this spring, the Khamenei-controlled Foreign Policy Commission demanded that two conservatives from parliament be added to Iran’s nuclear negotiation panel. Soon after, Khamenei was quoted as calling a comprehensive nuclear deal close to “impossible.” Obstruction, not support, became the norm from Khamenei in the spring.

This shift is not without a rationale. Khamenei was glad to work with Rouhani to improve the economic situation in Iran during dire straits, but a shift in external and, subsequently, internal factors would dissolve this common bond.

The United States knew when talks began in November that sanction relief would dissipate political pressure within Iran to push through a nuclear deal. The economy of Iran, however, appeared to be in such dire straits that the U.S. position of strength in the negotiations would not be challenged. Yet equal hunger for a deal in the U.S. has led to granted extensions to Iran and continued unfreezing of Iranian capital held abroad. According to the Atlantic, sanction relief has given Iran a respite: inflation has slowed and the Iranian rial has made a comeback in currency markets. Khamenei, now emboldened by an improved economic situation without having made a deal with the West, no longer has a need for an alliance with the reformist Hassan Rouhani.

Nuclear talks, delayed by an extension granted on July 20, are set to resume this fall. One year into his presidency, Rouhani will have to challenge Khamenei’s obstructionism if he is to achieve his goal of normal relations with the West. This will not be easy. Sanction relief has made Rouhani’s job of garnering support for a comprehensive deal much more difficult, and the Supreme Leader himself has shown little motivation to help the cause.

There is little reason to believe that a deal will be reached this fall, but there is also little reason for the West to give up hope on Rouhani. If a deal fails to be reached within the next few months, the U.S. and its allies will inevitably reimpose sanctions that Iran cannot bear for many more years. Sooner or later, Khamenei will have to cooperate fully with Rouhani and open up Iran to the West diplomatically. If not, he risks making his own people pay a very high price for ideology.