This week the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran delivered a startling reproach to the outgoing Rouhani administration in its final weeks of office. During his last meeting with Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet on Wednesday, July 28, Ali Khamenei criticized the group’s past confidence in "the West", stating: “The next government must use this experience.”
The remarks fell in the context of a discussion about the future of the JCPOA, which remains as uncertain as ever. By mutual agreement, but also on the instruction of the Supreme National Security Council, no further talks in Vienna will be held until after the inauguration of President-elect Ebrahim Raisi.
At the much-publicised meeting on Wednesday, Khamenei informed the cabinet – where Foreign Minister Javad Zarif sat before him in the front row – that: “Whenever you made our affairs contingent on reaching an agreement with the West and the US, you were unsuccessful and unable to advance.” He added that Rouhani’s government had succeeded in some other areas when it relied on domestic potential, but gave no examples.
Khamenei then described the US's nuclear negotiation strategy as “malicious” and untrustworthy, adding the experience of the past few years showed “the West” would “strike a blow wherever they can”. He later went on to reiterate the same points to his nearly 900,000 Twitter followers, declaring: “Others should use the experience of Mr. Rouhani’s govt. One experience is distrusting the West.”
In the end, then, Khamenei chose to reduce eight years of management of the country by Rouhani’s appointees to the status of a cautionary tale. Before anything else, he framed it as being a case study in favor of his own preferred, more divisive brand of politics. It was a humiliating act, and not wholly unexpected – but was it unprecedented?
Ali Khamenei’s Farewell Speeches to Cabinets: A Potted History
Despite all the political theatre in the final months of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Ayatollah Khamenei’s last remarks to Ahmadinejad's final cabinet were notably less harsh than those mete out to Rouhani’s on Wednesday.
When the time came in 2013, Khamenei said of Ahmadinejad’s top executive team: “Everyone realizes that the esteemed president and his colleagues in government had a very high workload, and [worked at] speed, compared to all other periods. This is a point that should not be overlooked."
Before Ahmadinejad, Mohammad Khatami’s tenure had also ended in 2005 with the collapse of a hoped-for nuclear deal. Khamenei infamously ordered Zarif to write an eight-page letter announcing the unsealing of Iran’s nuclear installations, which stopped any further dialogue with Europe in its tracks, at least in the short term.
The Supreme Leader insisted that this should take place while the Khatami administration was still in power. He later defended this decision in 2007, stating: “I said at the time that if officials wanted to continue with this process of uninterrupted demand, I would enter into the matter myself. I did so. I said the process of retreat must be stopped and become one of progress. The first step had to be taken by the government under which the retreat took place.”
Despite this, though, his final remarks to Khatami’s cabinet were also surprisingly fair. “Fortunately,” he said, “your government has not been idle in recent months - we concede this. You worked until the last, and this merits thanks and appreciation."
Ali Khamenei also praised the fact that as he saw it, Mohammad Khatami come into direct conflict with the unelected state. "Many people, from 1997 – from the very beginning of the formation of this government – wanted to put Mr. Khatami in a position of confrontation with the regime. But Mr. Khatami strongly resisted."
Why the Vitriol for Rouhani's Team?
Khamenei also used the address on Wednesday to spread his own claims about the direction of the recent nuclear talks. With characteristic non-specificity, he said: “The Americans have set a condition. They say, ‘If you want the sanctions to be removed, we should include a clause in the agreement which states that we must negotiate and agree over certain matters in the future. If you do not accept this clause, we do not have an agreement at the present time.’ What is this clause? This clause is a pretext for their future interference.”
Curiously enough, the Wall Street Journal recently reported the opposite: that Iran wants to include a clause in the JCPOA talks in Vienna that would make any future US withdrawal conditional on UN approval. Such a guarantee would be impossible because the JCPOA is an agreement signed between governments, not a law.
Meanwhile Abbas Araghchi, the deputy foreign minister, and other officials have publicly stated that the Supreme Leader told them not to negotiate on the initial lifting of sanctions. The 2021 talks were to focus exclusively on nuclear issues. This would naturally have made progress impossible, as some of the sanctions relate to human rights violations and terrorism, not Iran’s nuclear program.
Khamenei has expressed regred over his own involvement in the past. In August 2018, after Donald Trump took the US out of the JCPOA, he said: “On the matter of negotiations, I made a mistake and at the insistence of the gentlemen, I allowed this experience – which, of course, crossed the red lines. The Imam [Khomeini] forbade negotiations with the United States, and I forbid it too."
Despite this declaration, the Supreme Leader then grudgingly allowed talks to resume at the start of 2021. His new pronouncement on Wednesday that “domestic plans should absolutely not be made conditional on the West, because they will fail” might therefore just as well have been directed at himself. But as usual, he made no reference to his decisive role in the talks having been allowed to resume.
Apart from the JCPOA, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic expressed his dissatisfaction with the Rouhani administration in unspecified “other areas”. He said: "Mr. Rouhani's government's performance has not been the same in different areas. In some cases it was as expected, but in others it was not."
In recent days, the IRIB and pro-regime media have explicitly blamed Rouhani and the 10th parliament for the current unrest in Khuzestan, as well as the water crisis. These issues, like the nuclear deal, long predate Rouhani’s eight-year tenure. But they did all germinate in the 30 years Ali Khamenei has been Supreme Leader.
The speech on Wednesday can therefore be read as a neat attempt by Khamenei to deflect any blame from himself – and one that, he and his entourage seem to have calculated, is now unlikely to cost them a thing because of the lack of a solid support base in Iran for Rouhani and his ministers.