Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei usually prefers to stay above the fray, intoning his policy directives from the pulpit in emotive or elliptical terms that only an Islamic Republic appartchik could decipher. But on July 7, with negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries underway in Vienna, Khamenei started talking hard numbers. His remarks are unprecedented both in their implicit intervention, from a perch in Tehran, over the talks in Vienna, but also because they relayed confidential technical details that have not been aired publicly, at least in Iran.
Khamanei began his Monday night speech, as is his wont, with a proverb: “The other side threatens you with death so you would be happy with a fever.” Then he swiftly went into highly technical details about remaining disagreements around Iran’s permitted level of enrichment.
“They want us to be content with 10,000 SWUs [separative work units] but they have started from 500 and 1000 SWUs. Our people say that we need 190,000 SWUs…they emphasize Fordo because they cannot get to it. They say you must not have a place which we cannot strike. Isn’t this ridiculous?”
Last December Khamenei said publicly he would not interfere in the negotiations and would leave the details to the diplomats. Now it appears he is playing an opaque game, either dictating terms to the Iranian team in Vienna or providing them the cover they need to stand firm around remaining issues of contention.
A source close to the negotiations told IranWire that the numbers Khamenei cited are precisely what American negotiators have put on the table, and constitute one of the confidential topics being discussed over the past few months. Two days earlier Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and the senior American negotiator, said that Iran must end up with a fraction of the centrifuges it currently runs, but she did not cite any numbers.
The source said that Khamenei’s statements are technically significant as well, and are in line with the terms of the negotiations, which deal with SWUs rather than centrifuge quantity.
SWU defines the capability to enrich that is derived from the number of centrifuges and their efficiency. For example one thousand AR1 centrifuges with the efficiency of 0.9 translates into 900 SWU, whereas 225 AR2 centrifuges with an efficiency of 4 translates into 900 SW.
According to a European diplomat who is a member of his country’s nuclear negotiating team, the accuracy of the numbers leaked by Khamenei is both astonishing and worrisome. The meddling seems to continue the ayatollah’s policy of “support carrot and meddling stick”.
The morning after Khamanei’s speech media outlets close to Rouhani’s administration highlighted one particular line: “All should know that I support the government.” Khamanei also said that he trusted the negotiating team and would do everything in his power to help them. His use of the word “all” is significant because it is a direct message to groups who oppose Rouhani’s government.
But there was one other “all” in his speech: “Like all previous governments.” It is only logical that pro-Rouhani media would not focus on the second implication of the word. Alongside the carrot of support Khamanei offers all administrations, of course, sits his pile of sticks, and this speech was no exception.
He first ordered the government officials to “take economic resistance seriously.” Then he told them that the government must be run based on “jihadi principles” and warned them “don’t sideline movements by the faithful with slogans about moderation.”
In recent months Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has sternly insisted on keeping the negotiating details confidential. He told MPs that he would not disclose such information even if he were to face impeachment. Now the Supreme Leader has pulled the rug from under him in a public speech.
It is clear Khamenei wants to leave no doubt about his regime’s red lines in the negotiations. The result is that now the Iranian negotiators have less room to maneuver vis-à-vis their Western counterparts.
Abbas Araghchi, spokesman for the Iranian team, tried to emphasize the supportive moments in Khamenei’s speech. “The trust of the Leader is our greatest asset and encourages us,” he Tweeted. “We assure him and all Iranians that we would not retreat from any of our nuclear rights.”
In his speech Khamenei also tried to lower expectations by repeating a theme that he has brought up at least three times in the past 15 months. The nuclear issue “is just an excuse,” for the P5+1, he said. “If it is not the nuclear issue they will come up with another excuse—human rights, women’s right, etc.”
“They say that the sanctions will stay,” he said. “They have now started to say that even if we reach a nuclear accord not all sanctions would be lifted. There are other things. This is what we have been saying all along.”
The significant remark here is “we have been saying all along.” It seems that for Khamenei a successful nuclear negotiation is only perhaps equally as important as proving the untrustworthiness of the United States.
In February, the Commander of the Revolutionary Guards Mohammad Ali Jafari cited two goals for the nuclear negotiations. “Either the sanctions are lifted,” he said, “or the authorities would give up on negotiations and pay attention to the country’s domestic capabilities.” On Monday night Khamenei clearly affirmed those two goals.
But in recent months the interference of the Supreme Leader has not been limited to the nuclear case. He has unabashedly interfered in economic and health policies, in women’s affairs and cultural policy, and in domestic politics, setting ever-increasing red lines for the Rouhani government. He has done all this while proclaiming his support for the government.
When Khamenei takes public positions on the policies of the government, he is not just expressing his personal views, but is also laying the groundwork for institutions which are loyal to him to pressure the government into falling in step.
The supreme leader has thrown the confidential details out into the open and marked his line in the sand, but what remains to be seen is who will suffer the repercussions. Will it only be the Rouhani government paying the price?