Dissing the deal: Iran’s supreme leader throws the nuclear agreement into new uncertainty

Hold the celebrations and pause those victory laps. One week after representatives from Iran, the United States, and five other world powers announced a breakthrough on framing a comprehensive nuclear accord, Iran’s supreme leader entered the fray with a speech that casts serious doubts on the deal. His remarks, echoed via social media, punctured hopes raised by last week’s last-minute announcement in Lausanne, Switzerland that a resolution to the long impasse was finally within reach. Although there is a legitimate debate over the intent and significance of the supreme leader’s statements, the one clear consequence is that they will further complicate President Barack Obama’s efforts to fend off domestic opposition to the deal.

The speech also deepened concerns about the divergence in the interpretation and marketing of the Lausanne accord — concerns that began to manifest as soon as the ‘framework agreement’ was announced last week. In the absence of an official text beyond the leading negotiators’ brief statement, it was apparent that there were major inconsistencies between the American narrative of what had been concluded in Lausanne and that articulated by Iranian officials. Yesterday’s remarks by Khamenei, as well as a separate speech by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, only deepened the gulf between the dueling two sides’ interpretations on several key issues, most notably sanctions relief.

For the most part, Khamenei’s main points were entirely consistent with his prior rhetoric on the nuclear negotiations, albeit with a few new flourishes.

  • Iran’s negotiators have his confidence — but not his direct involvement. As he has on previous occasions, Khamenei went out of his way to emphasize his support for the negotiators, led by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and this persistent reinforcement has surely helped contain internal opposition to a deal. Notably, however, in this latest speech, the supreme leader also took pains to stress his own disengagement from the specific terms of the bargain, saying that “sometimes it is said that the details of the negotiations are supervised by the leader, but this is not an accurate statement…I’m not indifferent to the negotiations, but until now I have not intervened in the details of the negotiations,” adding that “the details are within their [the negotiators’] competence.”
  • Washington cannot be trusted. This is, of course, stock and trade for Iran’s supreme leader, and he repeated only a select few of his vast catalogue of castigation of the United States. “The other side is stubborn, does not live up to its promises, and tends to stab in the back.” He specifically cited the fact sheet on the Lausanne agreement released by the White House as dishonest and deceitful, as well as other aspects of the U.S. negotiating strategy. In an interesting twist, however, Khamenei tossed in an unusual overture, noting that “if the counterpart stops its bad behavior, one could expand this experience to other issues” — in other words, appearing to crack open the door to additional cooperation between Iran and the United States.     
  • No deal is better than a bad deal. In recent months, Khamenei has borrowed the phrase first articulated in this context by President Obama, and he repeated again yesterday that “not accepting an agreement that is contrary to the interests of the Iranian nation and does away with the nation’s dignity is better than an agreement that humiliates the Iranian nation.”
  • Iran’s requirements for a deal are expansive. The supreme leader latest remarks appeared to up the ante on several key areas of any prospective agreement — sanctions and the inspections regime. He insisted that “sanctions must all be completely removed on the day of the agreement” and categorically rejected implementing sanctions relief through any process more involved than the stroke of a pen. Khamenei also forbade “infiltration of the security and defense realm of the state under the pretext of inspection.” Both requirements contravene the understandings, shared by both sides, that have underpinned the talks from the start and that were in fact reiterated by one of the lead Iranian negotiators in an interview published just this week. If they become new Iranian ‘red lines’ for an agreement, this would almost certainly derail any prospect of achieving a final resolution by June.
  • There is no deal yet. Khamenei previously rejected the multi-stage process that his own negotiators had signed onto in November 2014, that committed to a March target for hammering out the framework for a deal and a June 30th deadline for devising a full, final agreement; his opposition derived from his mistrust in any provisional deals. These latest remarks echoed that them. Khamenei dismissed talk of congratulations on the deal — and by implication, the praise showered by Iranians on the country’s chief negotiator — since last week’s announcement. “If the question is posed to me, are you for or against the latest nuclear negotiations, I would answer that I’m neither in favor nor opposed to it, since nothing has happened yet…What has happened until now does not guarantee the very principle of agreement, nor negotiations ending in an agreement, nor the substance of such an agreement.” Khamenei also seemed to dismiss the significance of the June 30 deadline for a final deal, calling it “nothing that cannot be changed.”

The supreme leader’s speech quickly amplified the already intense debate over the Lausanne framework. It came just at a moment when President Obama seemed to be beginning to make some headway in a precarious effort to hold off Congressional attempts to subvert the deal through legislative action, and it will inevitably make the administration’s task of finding a viable compromise for a bill that would give Congress an up-or-down vote on a deal even more difficult. To make matters worse, the speech appeared to breathe new life into a pre-existing bill to ratchet up sanctions against Iran preemptively.

Defenders of the Obama administration’s diplomatic outreach to Iran sought to argue that Khamenei’s kvetching reflected nothing more than domestic posturing, and they latched onto the less problematic aspects of the speech to portray it as a primarily neutral pronouncement. This is simply not accurate. But neither can it be asserted with conviction — yet — that the speech reflects a definitive shift in Iran’s negotiating positions.

In my view, the most alarming aspect of Khamenei’s speech, beyond his instinctive anti-Americanism, relates to his absolutism on sanctions. Instantaneous sanctions relief is neither logistically possible, given the complexity of the multiple legal regimes surrounding the array of restrictions currently imposed on Iran, nor is it strategically conceivable in an environment where trust is nonexistent. Conditioning sanctions relief on reciprocal Iranian nuclear concessions has been the bedrock of the multilateral negotiating process on the nuclear issue — a mechanism that mitigates risks and materializes assurances for both sides. Now, Iran’s two most important leaders have articulated an impossibility as their intended goal for the talks, one that has profound popular resonance and cannot be easily abandoned. That does not bode well for the effort to secure a comprehensive agreement by June, or for the United States’ position in any blame game that will ensue if diplomacy fails.