In a speech earlier this week, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, set a fierce mood for the latest round of talks between Iranian negotiators and six world powers over the country’s nuclear program. Amidst hopes — and fears — that this week’s Geneva dialogue would produce an interim accord to halt Iran’s nuclear advances in exchange for modest sanctions relief, Khamenei took the stage before 50,000 members of Iran’s Basij paramilitary organization and delivered a blistering address.
The speech has already drawn notice in the media over Khamenei’s description of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “rabid dog,” a phrase that provoked an eruption of “death to Israel” chants from the audience. However, this quote alone does not adequately convey the substance or tone of Khamenei’s latest jeremiad. For that reason, I’ve excerpted several portions of the speech below.
Perhaps the more relevant issue is ascertaining what it means that Khamenei felt impelled to go heavy on the invective at this particular moment in time. Was it an effort to insulate himself from any perceived softening by the regime as a result of an impending nuclear deal? Or perhaps the opposite — was Khamenei hoping to rally right-wing subversion of the negotiations? One fellow Iran analyst has posited that the Supreme Leader’s widely-noted comment that he does not “interfere” in the nuclear negotiations was in fact an explicit effort to distance himself from, and ultimately subvert, any deal.
Clerical Kremlinology is a tricky business, and any of these theories is certainly possible. Still, I think there is a tendency to overinterpret the Supreme Leader’s remarks, consistent with whatever broader theory of Iranian politics you happen to find most credible. Over the years, I’ve collected hundreds of pages of Khamenei’s speeches, many (but not all) of which are helpfully assembled on his website with multiple translations, and they provide a fascinating window into his worldview. While there’s no question that Khamenei’s most recent rhetoric was particularly belligerent, the truth is that the Supreme Leader said nothing Wednesday that he has not said before. Even his September remarks endorsing the notion of “heroic flexibility,” a phrase seen as a signal of support for more flexible nuclear diplomacy, were couched in trademark tongue-lashing of U.S. policies.
So there should be no mistake here: Iran’s ultimate authority is an individual who is profoundly convinced of American immorality, greed and wickedness; who detests Israel; and who anticipates the ultimate triumph of the Islamic world over what he sees as a declining West and illegitimate Israel. That mindset does not contravene whatever progress can be achieved in negotiations with Iran, nor should it exclude any diplomacy that advances the world’s common interest in forestalling an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. After all, arms control agreements are seldom required among mutually sympathetic states, and a robust set of constraints and verification measures on Iran’s nuclear program can be enforced irrespective of its leadership’s abhorrent views.
At the same time, the beleaguered advocates of bilateral diplomacy between Washington and Tehran should not casually dismiss the continuing reliance on such epithets. For any nuclear deal to be durable, Iran’s highest leaders must be invested in — not merely coerced to accept — the outcome of mutual reassurance and threat reduction. Khamenei’s remarks, which included wild-eyed accusations of American war crimes, make a mockery of that objective. After all, there seems little doubt that if a U.S. head of state were to express similar rhetoric as the two sides were engaged in serious talks, Iranians would be sufficiently affronted, at least temporarily, to derail any progress toward a deal.
On this basis, the initial American responses to Khamenei’s broadside — which a State Department spokesman called “unhelpful” and an unnamed senior U.S. official attending the Geneva nuclear talks described as “uncomfortable and not warranted” — were to say the least insufficient. Secretary of State John Kerry improved a bit in response to deservedly indignant questions on Capitol Hill. The administration’s desire to safeguard the ongoing diplomacy is understandable and unfortunately too necessary, given Congressional opposition, but Washington must demonstrate sufficient integrity and dexterity to continue defending U.S. values, interests and allies over what will likely be months of intense bargaining over a comprehensive nuclear deal.
Excerpts from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s speech on November 20, 2013
“We want to serve and be kind to all human beings. We want to have friendly and kind relations with all nations, even with the nation of America, although the American Government is an arrogant and enemy government, a malevolent and spiteful government toward the nation of Iran and the Islamic Revolution system.”
“However, we do not have any animosity toward the nation of America. They are like every other nation…We are against the arrogance. We fight against the arrogance…The government of the United States of America is on the top of the arrogance in the world. We must know the arrogance, we must know the characteristics of the arrogance, we must know the function and the orientation of the arrogance, in order to be able to arrange our behavior wisely before it.”
“One of the features of the arrogant regime is considering itself superior over others… the result is that they reserve the right of meddling in the affairs of other people, other nations. …all in the world must give in to, accept, and submit to that. If others do not accept that what it [arrogance] considers a value, it gives itself the right to meddle in their affairs, impose on them, bully them, put pressure on them. This consideration of one superior than others causes them to claim trusteeship for the affairs of other nations, to claim world management, to consider themselves the leader of the world.”
“You hear that in the speeches of the officials, the statesmen of America, they speak of the Government of America in a way as if it is the master of all countries. We cannot allow this to be done…They speak about our region in a way as if they are the owner of this region. They speak about the Zionist regime in a way as if the nations in this region are forced to accept this imposed and forged regime. They treat independent nations, independent governments in a way as if they do not have the right to live. This consideration of superiority over others, other countries, other human beings, this is the basis and the greatest problem of the arrogance. The result is that another characteristic, another characteristic is achieved for the arrogance, and that is not accepting the right [of others]. They neither accept reasonable talk, nor accept the rights of nations.”
On U.S. claims to moral superiority:
“[T]hey dropped two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To justify their crimes — that they dropped these two bombs on these cities and killed hundreds of thousands — they claim they wanted to end the war. If we Americans had not dropped these bombs the war would continue and instead of two hundred thousand, two million would have died. Thus, we performed a service by dropping these bombs. They maintain this in their official propaganda. Sixty five years have passed since then, and they have constantly repeated these words. These are strange, bizarre claims of the arrogance. In summer of 1945 when the bombs fell on the two cities and a great crime was committed, But during that spring the main axis of the war Hitler had already committed suicide. Mussolini, Italy’s president — the second axis of the war — was captured and terminated. Japan — the third axis of the war — had announced that it was ready to surrender. There was no more war, but the bombs exploded. Why? Because the bombs and had to be tested some place; they had to be experimented. Where to test them? The best chance was on the pretext of the war to drop these bombs on the innocent people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thus, they can determine whether they had built them correctly or not, to determine whether they would work correctly or not….”
“They claim that they support human rights. But they hit Iran’s passenger plane in the air and killed over 300 passengers. They even did not apologize and granted medals to the person who committed that crime…”
On the nuclear negotiations and his relationship with President Rouhani and Iran’s executive branch:
“First of all I insist on the support for officials who have taken responsibility for carrying out the work. I support the government, and I support officials who work inside and outside the country. It is our duty. [We should support] all the governments. I personally at some stage have been an executive official, I have experience in this field and I am aware of its scale, I sensed the hardness and difficulty of work in its entire essence. I know that the management of a country is hard work and therefore they [officials] need support and I support and help them. This is one side of the issue and it is definitive.”
“On the other hand, I insist on the acceptance of the rights of the Iranian nation including the nuclear rights. I believe that we should not yield the nuclear rights of our nation even one iota. Of course, we do not enter into details of these negotiations. There is a red line and a limit. This limit should be observed. I mentioned this point to the authorities and they are obliged to observe this limit, not to fear the enemies’ and opponents’ bluster and not to feel qualms.”
Expanding on his previous reference to “heroic flexibility”:
“We used heroic flexibility. Some interpreted it as quitting ideals and targets of the Islamic system. Also, some of the enemies made it a means to accuse the Islamic system of withdrawing its principles. These were not right. These are misunderstandings. Heroic flexibility means artistic maneuver to achieve the goal. It means that in any way and any case, in any kind of devotion, one who has devoted his life to God, in any kind of move and behavior toward various Islamic ideals, must use various methods to get to the aim….Any kind of move either forwards or backwards like a battlefield must plan for reaching pre-set goals.”
“Everybody should know that the sanctions imposed against the Iranian nation are mainly caused by America’s arrogant hatred, by America’s enmity, which is similar to the enmity of the camel. They are firm to pressurize the Iranian nation hoping that they will be able to defeat the Iranian nation. They make a mistake. The Iranian nation will never surrender to anyone because of pressure. You do not know this nation well. This is a nation, which thanks to the divine blessing and power is able to withstand the pressure and to turn your threats and pressure into the opportunity for him. The Iranian nation will do this with the help of God. “
“They believe that sanctions are tools to destroy the Islamic system. However, their mistake is that they are not familiar with the Iranian nation, with our faith and unity. It is their failure that they have not learned a lesson from previous mistakes…Their sanctions have not reached the purpose, it has not been effective. Now they have to impose military threats, which is very disgusting. Instead of military threats, go and repair your economy, do something so that your government does not close down for 15-16 days.”
“In fact, the Zionist regime is a regime that has roots that are very feeble. The Zionist regime is doomed to oblivion. The Zionist regime is an imposed regime which is formed by force. None of the formations or creatures which are formed by force is durable, and neither is this one. Those persons who are indebted to the Zionist capitalist regime in some shape are dishonored by this miserable Zionist regime. Unfortunately, some European countries cringe before this creature, which is not worthy of the name of a human being, before these leaders of the Zionist regime, who look like beasts and who cannot be called human. They apply to them [Israelis], abase themselves and cringe before them and humiliate their nations.”
“Well, if we say we want to move forward, does it mean that the Islamic system is a warmonger? Does it mean that the Islamic system intends to challenge all nations and all countries? Does it mean so? Sometimes it is said by enemies of the Iranian nation, including the menacing dirty mouth of the rabid dog of the region in the Zionist regime…They say that Iran is a threat to the whole world. No! This statement of the enemy is exactly against the Islamic philosophy and teachings. Those wicked and wickedness-creating forces are threats to the world; those that have shown nothing except wickedness, such as the fake regime of Israel and some of its supporters.”
This back and forth — an Iranian attack on Israeli posts on the Golan and a widespread Israeli response against numerous Iranian targets in Syria — was not a one-off flare-up or a case of hot heads prevailing. This is part of a structural conflict unfolding between Israel and Iran in Syria.
For all of us who care about preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb, what’s the best way to keep preventing that? [The JCPOA is] not perfect, but it’s something. These conventions are never based on the premise that all the parties are telling the truth, it’s about enforcement mechanisms. No arms control agreement is based in trust.