As the Islamic Republic continues to suffer from devastating economic conditions and the coronavirus crisis, Ayatollah Khamenei has suggested that its leaders could enter into talks with the United States.
The Supreme Leader, who has been firmly against any negotiations with the US following escalating tensions over the last two years, has used religious rhetoric to justify his apparent willingness to put an end to the communications deadlock. Posting on Twitter, Ayatollah Khamenei referred to one of Shia Islam’s most important figures, Hassan ibn Ali, to indicate a change in policy.
"Imam Hassan Mojtaba [the second Shia Imam] is the bravest figure in the history of Islam,” he tweeted. “He was willing to sacrifice himself and his reputation among his supporters for peace, to safeguard Islam and protect the Koran, and to guide future generations."
The Leader’s religious reference conjures up a key moment in Islamic history, in which the second Shia Imam came to an agreement with Muawiyah, the Umayyad caliph, in 661 AD. The compromise was the ultimate gesture of peace, preventing a war between the Sunnis and the Shias, while at the same time securing the leadership of Umayyad, a Sunni. It constituted a significant sacrifice for the Shias, but is believed by Shias to be a judgment that protected the sanctity of the religion and ensured its resilience for the future.
Following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), by order of President Donald Trump, Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly refused to grant permission for discussions to take place between Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, dismissing the idea of the Iranian government negotiating with the Trump administration a "double poison."
But as Iran approaches the second year of fresh US sanctions, as oil sales and exports have fallen from nearly three million barrels a day to 300,000 barrels a day and its revenue out of the country’s reach, and as the coronavirus pandemic has further crippled the economy, Ayatollah Khamenei has had to change tack, conjuring "the peace of Imam Hassan" and the importance of sacrifice in order to protect the sanctity of the Islamic Republic. The current economic crisis has left Iran’s leaders with little power to improve the situation, much less make demands on the international stage.
A History of Evoking Religious Parables
Both Iran’s moderate and conservative politicians and strategists have often used Imam Hassan’s negotiation as confirmation that finding peaceful solutions with foreign enemies can be both practical and a show of strength. In fact, this is not the first time the Supreme Leader has linked this historical act with current events. He cited the peace agreement when Iran entered into secret talks with the US in Oman during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking of the need for"heroic softening" against the enemy.
Then, in August 2014, on the eve of President Hassan Rouhani’s first trip to New York after being elected, Khamenei conceded: “Diplomatic skills mean acquiring flexibility and power skillfully and promptly. Another definition for it would be heroic flexibility, for which Imam Hassan’s Peace Treaty is the most glorious historical example.” The “peace of Hassan” was used to justify the groundwork for the nuclear negotiations and the eventual lifting of sanctions.
In the political lexicon of the Islamic Republic, the "peace of Imam Hassan” is in direct opposition to the "Hussein uprising” — whereby Hussein Ibn Ali, the third Shia Imam, refused to compromise with Muawiyah's son, Yazid, and eventually lost his life in the Battle of Karbala. This Islamic reference to not giving in to the enemy, not compromising and staying true to one’s belief is also regularly used by influential Iranians to justify actions and behavior.
According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Supreme Leader has the "absolute authority of the jurist" (Velayat-e faqih, also referred to as the Guardianship of the Jurist) and so holds the real power in Iran, and is superior to the president, the head of the executive branch of government.
Yet, despite the dire state of Iran’s economy and the ongoing political, social and economic devastation caused by coronavirus, Ayatollah Khamenei's tweet does not necessarily mean he will endorse negotiations, not least because he posted it on the anniversary of the birth of the second Shia Imam.
All recent evidence suggests that Iran will not hold open talks with the Trump administration six months ahead of a US presidential election — the regime will want to see what happens in November. At the same time, any negotiations with the US — whether they are with the Trump administration or an administration led by Joe Biden, who was vice president during Barack Obama’s tenure and at the time the JCPOA went into effect — will not be an automatic process. Extensive preparations will be required on both sides, and wrangling will also have to take place within Iran’s complex web of political, religious and military powers.
The Leader’s tweet could indicate a willingness to make such preparations, or at least a hint that he is not ruling out the possibility of negotiations. And what better way to justify this decision to his supporters than to evoke noble examples of similar situations in Islamic history and literature?
Read more about political compromises and religious iconography in the Islamic Republic