The original JCPOA was signed in July 2015 after Ali Khamenei repeatedly expressed pessimism on its prospects. Less than two years later Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the nuclear deal. Now with talks once again grinding into motion in Vienna, the Iranian Supreme Leader has said he anticipates US “indebtedness” to Iran for having proved him right.
Khamenei’s supporters have held up his correct “prediction” in 2015 as a sign of his profound knowledge of foreign policy and international relations. In fact, it was just another recent instance of Khamenei making a nation the victim of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Imagine. A man and a woman, who have never seen each other face to face, are going to meet for the first time. Based on a misunderstanding, a mutual friend of the two tells the woman that the man she’s going on a date with is a cold, isolated person. As a result, a prophecy forms in the lady’s mind. And during that first encounter, expecting a muted and difficult conversation partner, she treats him and her own words over-cautiously. The offers him no chance to offer pleasantries or warmth in exchange. The prediction that this man is and will be an isolate will come true.
These predictions are called self-fulfilling prophecies: situations in which actions based on an expectation ultimately lead to that expectation being realized. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is extremely good at them.
After 32 years under this Supreme Leader’s tumultuous rule, Iranians know “the enemy” is one of his most-used words and have practically ceased to hear it. The entirety of Khamenei’s mandate and decisions are based on the existence of, and struggle against, a hypothetical enemy. More often than not this is the United States.
At the beginning of the first nuclear talks that eventually brought forth the JCPOA, Khamenei gave his view: "I do not prohibit negotiations on certain issues. But I'm not optimistic, because my experience shows Americans are unreliable, irrational and dishonest." This and similar phrases were repeated over and over again by Khamenei right up until the moment a deal was struck between Iran and the P5+1. His words echoed in officials’ ears long after the US accepted lower-level uranium enrichment in Iran and agreed to lift international sanctions, even on unexpected items like the sale of passenger aircraft to Iran.
Less than a month after the JCPOA was signed, governments were – understandably – still laying out the mechanisms for how it would be implemented. In an unexpected speech, Ali Khamanei broke in: “It is not clear whether it will be rejected or accepted here, or whether it will be rejected or accepted there. Their intention was to find a way via this agreement to infiltrate our country. We will close this path decisively. We will not allow American economic influence in the country, neither political nor cultural. We will fight this infiltration with all our might."
Opponents of the JCPOA in Israel and the US, meanwhile, blamed the deal for millions of dollars flowing from Khamenei-controlled coffers into those of militant groups in the Middle East. The Supreme Leader stood by this while refusing to soften his stance on the US. “Whoever fights Israel, beats the Zionist regime and endorses resistance, we will support any way we can," he said.
Meanwhile senior IRGC commanders saw the JCPOA as an obstacle to developing a ballistic missile program. This was despite the fact that negotiators pointed out it imposed no restrictions on Iran's missile program – just the development of missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic, defended the JCPOA at home and overseas, at the same time as the University of Tehran’s missile program. He appealed to the “spiritual” power of the Islamic Republic, claiming Iranian missiles were not the most important way the country could foil foreign attacks. Opponents, including IRGC commanders, slammed this interpretation as they had during the talks, calling it “surrender” to the Americans.
Then the IRGC launched a missile test with slogans about destroying Israel written on the missiles in Persian and Hebrew. The JCPOA’s implementation was still a few weeks away, and Tehran’s “threatening behavior” was raised in the UN Security Council. Meanwhile on the other side of the globe, Donald Trump, who’d just announced his candidacy in the 2016 presidential election, called the JCPOA “the worst deal in history”.
Then the IRGC arrested Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American citizen, an executive at Crescent Petroleum and staunch proponent of the JCPOA and Iran-US cooperation. The reason for his arrest was initially given as countering US “infiltration”.
Even after Donald Trump’s victory, internal tussles continued in the Islamic Republic over the missile program and support for regional militias. Trump first called for a better deal with the Islamic Republic, then in May 2018 pulled the US from the JCPOA, reimposing all sanctions. The ensuing campaign of “maximum pressure” was enacted on the basis of Tehran’s behavior since the 2015 deal was signed. Khamenei's self fulfilling prophecy that the agreement with the US would be unsustainable came to pass precisely because of the actions of those under him, buoyed along by his own words.
It’s not just Westerners or JCPOA-sceptics that hold this view. Ali Motahari is the son of one of Morteza Motahari, a Shia scholar and theologian who played a key role in shaping the fledgling Islamic Republic – and in bringing Ali Khamenei onto the Revolutionary Council in the first days after the Shah’s fall. This paved the way for Khamenei to become Supreme Leader. Motahari’s son has now said: “Those responsible for the current situation in the country are those who tried to prevent the implementation of the JCPOA by launching missiles – which, of course, achieved their goal.”
Khamenei has already intervened in the first P5+1 talks to take place under Ebrahim Raisi, saying Iran needs fresh “guarantees” that not only the Biden administration but any future government of the US will not withdraw later. This is an impossible condition to set as future US administrations are not beholden to the previous ones. If Khamenei persists in this stance, a stalemate is likely. And thus the whims of an 82-year-old man continue to impact on the fates of tens of millions of Iranians, at home and around the world.