There are unmistakable signs coming out of Iran that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei is laying the groundwork for a possible deal with the United States. This shift began in February, when Khamenei reaffirmed his opposition to nuclear weapons on both religious and strategic grounds. The following month, Khamenei praised President Barack Obama’s “good and wise statement” at AIPAC that time for diplomacy still existed, conveniently ignoring that the U.S. leader had also indicated his willingness to undertake military action if necessary. As negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 got underway, Khamenei’s appointees in the clergy, judiciary, and media all sounded a note of optimism. It’s now being reported that Iran is willing to limit the scope of its uranium enrichment.
Most have speculated that Khamenei’s sudden willingness to compromise is the result of his desire to avoid the looming sanctions against Iran’s oil exports. Although there may be some truth to this, at least as important is surely Khamenei’s recent consolidation of power at home. By purging his political competitors, the Supreme Leader has eliminated a significant source of his past opposition to a deal – his fear that his internal opponents would most benefit from it.
When the Islamic Republic’s Constitution was amended in 1989, it simultaneously invested executive power in the Supreme Leader and the president, creating a fierce rivalry that has persisted to this day. Although the Office of the Supreme Leader was by far the more powerful of the two, its current occupant, Ali Khamenei, lacks the religious stature and charisma to be sure of his position. One consequence of this, as Iran scholar Said Amir Arjomand has noted, is that the leader and presidents’ policy preferences have become “increasingly determined by the constitutionally defined vested interest of the office they each held, rather than their personal will.”
Indeed, although Khamenei had been a pragmatist during his presidency, after becoming Supreme Leader he immediately went about refashioning himself as a staunch conservative. The reasoning isn’t hard to discern; the hardliner clerics on the right have the greatest interest in the preservation of the Velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist) system, with a Supreme Leader at its helm. Additionally, the Supreme Leader began strengthening the organizations that were directly answerable to him, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Judiciary, and Bonyads [economic foundations]. Notably, these groups are among the greatest benefactors of Iran’s isolation from the West.
In the same vein, all three post-Khomeini Presidents – Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-2007), Mohammad Khatami, (1997-2005) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-present) – have sought to overcome their constitutional inferiority by achieving a rapprochement with the U.S. The thinking went that if they could be seen as presiding over such a deal, their popularity at home would allow them to undercut the Supreme Leader.
Thus, whereas Rafsanjani cooperated with the U.S.-led coalition during the first Gulf War and steered a lucrative oil contract to the U.S. company Conoco, Khatami appealed directly to the American people on CNN and got Khamenei to sign off on the 2003 grand bargain proposal. Most telling of all is Ahmadinejad who, despite his ideological aversion to the West, emerged as a supporter of a nuclear deal.
While at times political and strategic realities have forced Khamenei to acquiesce in these efforts, he has remained opposed to a deal and has tried to stymie one whenever possible. In 2009, for instance, Obama reportedly secretly sent two letters to Khamenei pledging negotiations in good faith. Neither were answered. Later that same year, Khamenei rejected the fuel swap agreement Ahmadinejad negotiated with the P5+1, mainly because it was the president’s initiative and would have strengthened him at home.
Since that time, however, Khamenei has steadily eliminated all political competitors. This began with the purge of the Reformists, followed by the stripping of Rafsanjani’s position as the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts. Although initially content to allow Ahmadinejad to finish out his final term unmolested, the president’s continued intransigence finally led Khamenei to publically censure him. When it became clear Ahmadinejad’s most powerful backers in the clergy and military would side with the Supreme Leader, Khamenei began touting the elimination of the Office of the President altogether. Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad’s marginalization wasn’t completely secure until the crushing defeat his allies suffered in March’s parliamentary elections.
Notably, Khamenei’s speech reiterating his opposition to nuclear weapons came on the eve of these elections. Shortly thereafter, as if to demonstrate his newfound confidence, Khamenei surprised everyone by reappointing Rafsanjani to his one remaining governmental post. Rafsanjani quicklymadeheadlinesby declaring his longstanding support for direct talks with the United States. Some in the West misinterpreted this as Khamenei seeking to use Rafsanjani as an interlocutor to Washington. But the Supreme Leader would never confer such a privilege on his rival and, sure enough, Khamenei’s allies soon began disparaging Rafsanjani for allegedly trying to usurp the Leader.
While this signaled to domestic audiences that Khamenei was the driving force behind the upcoming negotiations, Khamenei ensured the P5+1 powers received the same message by conferring Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, with the title of special representative to the Supreme Leader. By contrast, none of Ahmadinejad’s officials were present when negotiations with the P5+1 powers resumed last month, and the president himself once again became an opponent of compromising with the West.
Besides getting the sanctions lifted, a rapprochement works in Khamenei’s favor in two ways. First, it would weaken the persons and organizations Khamenei aligned himself to consolidate his powers, particularly the IRGC. With their common enemies now marginalized, Khamenei has to consider the possibility that the IRGC might turn its sights on him someday. Absent the threat of the “Great Satan,” Khamenei could reduce the size of the IRGC’s bloated peacetime force. More importantly, the influx of international companies that would follow the lifting of sanctions would severely undercut the IRGC’s enormous economic largesse.
The aging Khamenei is also likely thinking of his legacy. Whereas Imam Khomeini is revered for toppling the Shah, creating the Islamic Republic system, and repelling Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1980, Khamenei’s tenure as Supreme Leader has been rather forgettable. While curbing some of the excesses of the Khomeini era, social and political rights remain restricted, the economy underperforms, and Iran is viewed with suspicion if not hostility abroad. As it stands today, Khamenei’s tenure as Supreme Leader is easily forgotten. By achieving a rapprochement with the United States, Khamenei would ensure himself an eternal spot in Iranian history.
Zachary Keck is an editorial assistant with The Diplomat.