Two years ago, when the government of President Hassan Rouhani was pursuing a nuclear agreement with determination and enthusiasm, a question appeared in my mind: What would Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gain from such an agreement? One of his chief supporters, Revolutionary Guards Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, said, “We are negotiating for the lifting of the sanctions.” Khamenei himself said, “We are negotiating to ward off evil.” He could have meant sanctions, war, or both.
At the time, government officials, and especially Rouhani’s First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri, did not stop repeating that after the nuclear agreement, billions of dollars would pour into Iran’s economy. But Khamenei was not a businessman or the head of the Chamber of Commerce. So why would he delight in the prospect of Iran receiving billions of dollars, and thank government officials for making such economic prosperity possible?
Of course, as the leader of an ideological regime with large political, religious and military ambitions, he was in need of money. But this could not be the whole story. In domestic politics, successful nuclear negotiations would mean the success of President Rouhani and his moderate and reformist supporters – not a development the Supreme Leader would consider welcome.
Outside Iran, meanwhile, there were other issues, such as the old quandary over negotiating with the West and especially the US, as well as regional conflicts and other international crises. Initially, I thought that the nuclear deal or JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) would work as a test. Khamenei himself said that if the “test” was successful, then other issues could be negotiated as well.
Now, several months after the agreement, we know at least two simple facts about JCPOA. The first is that it is not the final result, but a roadmap for achieving results. The second is that the result will not emerge in the short term. Sanctions against Iran took at least four years to reach their maximum effect. Similarly, the lifting of sanctions will take at least two years to produce results, and this is something that even US President Barack Obama has tried to make clear.
If you have listened to Khamenei’s speeches following the nuclear agreement, you will have noticed that he has not been interested in such details.
First, he has presented JCPOA as the final result and says that this result of nuclear negotiations is not satisfactory. He calls post-JCPOA developments “a total loss,” suggests that the government did not do a good job in negotiations, and that it has been hoodwinked. Second, he has put great emphasis on the matter of sanctions. He is dealing with the nuclear agreement exactly like a businessman, not a leader. There must be reasons behind such an approach.
The first reason is that talking about the lifting of sanctions is a good political gesture. When Khamenei expresses worries about the lifting of sanctions he can boast that he is talking about the people’s interests. He is using this as a cover to suggest that his objections and his grumblings come not from his opposition to Rouhani’s government, but from his defense of national interests. He even tries to speak like an economic expert. He tells people that 60 percent of the productive capacity of Iranian industry is idle, warns about the results of negotiations with Western economic delegations, and goes into detail about the so-called “Resistance Economy.”
The second reason is that the economic consequences of JCPOA can be turned into an Achilles’ heel for the Rouhani government. Prior to the nuclear agreement, many analysts warned that the benefits of JCPOA would be slow to come, but government officials who were mindful of the February 26 elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, and wanted to fan the flames of public opinion, talked about a JCPOA “miracle.”
The Supreme Leader is now using heightened expectations to lay a trap for Rouhani’s government. Hardliners started the work earlier, but the Khamenei has now taken it up. This has side benefits for him as well. For example, it can influence the newly elected members of parliament, especially independents, and at the very least prevent them from publicly supporting Rouhani, thus denying him a solid base of support among MPs. In fact, the pro- and anti-JCPOA political lineup that existed before parliamentary elections continues, albeit in a “soft” format.
Before the nuclear agreement was signed, Parviz Amini, a favorite analyst of hardline media, repeatedly declared that Rouhani’s government was using the pre-JCPOA conditions as a means of “doping” domestic politics and that after the agreement was signed it would be over. On the other side of the political divide, Abbas Abdi, a reformist analyst, disagreed and argued that JCPOA was only the beginning of the stimulus. It seems that Khamenei is trying to give the lie to analysts like Abdi.
By acting like a businessman concerned about the economy, Khamenei keeps the “diplomacy” game in the economic arena and prevents it from being extended to other areas. Last year, as the nuclear agreement was drawing closer, the editorials of the hardliner newspaper Resalat argued that JCPOA would be a turning point in negotiations between Iran and the West, but that it would not be the end of the game. It seems now that Khamenei shares this concern. JCPOA, as far as he is concerned, must not become a bridge to bigger changes.
“Show me the money”
In their view the question is very simple. Rouhani’s government can only talk about pursuing a sequel to JCPOA in foreign relations if the results of JCPOA are themselves clear and impressive. The most impressive result of JCPOA should have been the lifting of sanctions, but now that the results have not been immediately impressive, the government cannot boast, and cannot argue in favor of similar agreements. Khamenei will not smile until foreign money starts to flow into to the market. It does not matter that the market is functioning, booming and trustworthy. The important thing now is the money. This businesslike message is effective.
A couple of nights ago, Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, tried hard to explain on state-run TV the technical difficulties of implementing JCPOA, and to remind the deal’s critics that the situation is not as bad as they claim.
He probably labored in vain, because nobody is supposed to listen to him or to people like him. The language of the government’s critics, led by Ayatollah Khamenei, is not technical but political. They not only turn a deaf ear to words like Araghchi’s, but use this is an opportune moment say “I told you so,” justify Khamenei’s lack of trust in the West, and rub it in the faces of government officials.
Two years ago the commander of the Revolutionary Guards said that apart from getting sanctions lifted, the other goal of the nuclear negotiations was to disillusion those who took an optimistic view of the West. Now they are trying to generate further disillusion by resorting provocations such as last month’s ballistic missile tests.
Khamenei is not against the nuclear agreement, but he does not want JCPOA to turn into a springboard for Rouhani’s government. He intends to prevent the government from following up the agreement with more diplomacy while using the existing record of diplomacy as a tool domestic politics. This is why he has become a JCPOA “businessman.”