Iran: What did Khamenei really say about the Lausanne Agreement, and Why?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s paramount leader, spoke out on Thursday about the framework agreement for Iran’s negotiations over its nuclear enrichment program with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5 + 1).

The speech is all over the place and seems to me to involve a lot of posturing without much substance. Presumably the speech was intended to mollify the hard liners upset by the enormous concessions Iran was alleged to have offered. At the same time, Khamenei did not want to crush the spirits of his negotiators. And, I think he is still pessimistic about the very possibility of a final deal by June 30 and is preparing the public for the possibility of failure.

Khamenei pointed out that there is as yet no detailed agreement. All that was arrived at in Lausanne was a framework agreement for the final negotiations. Therefore, nothing has really been decided. Khamenei said that people asked him to take a position on the nuclear talks. He replied that there is, as yet, nothing to take a position on.

But he then came back to say that he has full confidence in the Iranian negotiating team led by foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who reports to President Hasan Rouhani. He does not, he affirmed, have the slightest hesitation in their regard. He is supportive of the negotiating process.

It is just, he said, that the Americans have proven themselves over and over again to be snakes in the grass, duplicitous, deceiving, untrustworthy. Based on their past behavior, he said, he has to be pessimistic about the possibility of doing a deal with the USA, since there is a real danger it will renege on everything that is agreed upon.

He gave as an example of this American dishonesty the issuance by the White House of several pages of talking points about the agreement, which, Khamenei said, they issued unilaterally and without consultation with the Iranian side. Khamenei didn’t seem actually to take issue with any particular in the talking points. He just felt that to issue them as though they had been agreed on by Iran was dishonest.

That said, he is willing to be open-minded. Maybe this time the US has changed its spots and will do a reasonable deal and stand behind it. If the USA behaved that way, Khamenei said, it could change everything. So he is pessimistic, but still open to the possibility that the US will not act with perfidy.

He does insist, he said, on sanctions being removed immediately and entirely as soon as an agreement is reached. Otherwise, he said, what was the point of engaging in all these negotiations?

Khamenei’s demand for full and immediate end of sanctions is not reasonable, and won’t be offered, since the P5 +1 have trust issues of their own with regard to Iran. But since Khamenei went to such lengths to reassure everyone that he still was committed to the negotiations, he probably did not intend this demand to derail them.

One possible reply to him on this matter would be that the agreement is not complete when signed but when implemented. In a sense, the mere signing of the agreement won’t take us very much further ahead than we are now, a situation about which he is so non-comittal. So the first full day of the actual implementation of the agreement’s terms will in fact be the day that sanctions are removed.

My guess is that this bluster was intended to mollify the hard liners without actually offering them anything.

I think a realignment is happening in Iranian politics. The 2000s were a period of right wing populism under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khamenei had his hands burned by the Ahmadinejad faction of hard line populists. They provoked all that trouble in 2009, and mismanaged the economy with massive subsidies. By 2012 Khamenei was openly slapping Ahmadinejad down. Then the US kicked Iran off the bank exchanges and took Iran oil exports down from 2.5 mn b/d to 1.5 mn b/d. Since prices were high, it didn’t hurt the regime that much, but must have been concerning given what was done to Mosaddegh in 1953, when similar int’l oil sanctions prepared the way for a CIA coup.

Khamenei hates the reform camp but seems to have realized that he can’t count on simply being able to crush them. He can, in contrast, live with a centrist like Rouhani. Domestically, Rouhani is his way of deflecting what’s left of the Green Movement (which really shook Khamenei, perhaps even moreso after Mubarak et al were toppled by the Arab youth 18 months later). Internationally, Rouhani holds out the possibility of escaping the severe sanctions but keeping the nuclear energy program, which is Khamenei’s baby and which he sees as a guarantee that Iran can’t be held hostage by the international energy markets and great powers. But deploying Rouhani means slapping down Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) hard liners, which he did in February.

Hard liners are jumping up and down mad about what Rouhani & Zarif are alleged to have given away to the West, and my suspicion is that Khamenei’s demand for immediate end of sanctions is a way of tossing them a bone for the moment. If you read the whole speech he comes back and is still supportive of the process at the end, saying he is not for or against the deal since there really is no deal yet, just a framework agreement for negotiating the deal. But then that means he did not, contrary to the headlines, come out against the deal today.

Khamenei is not allying with soft liners. Rather, he is trying to put together a new coalition of centrists and pragmatic hard liners who can sideline both the reformist Greens and the populist far right, in essence transcending and leaving behind the key divisions of 2009. At the same time this new center-right coalition could just possibly do a nuclear deal with the P5 +1 that would turn around Iran’s economy. But this latter may or may not be possible.

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Related video:

PBS Newshour: “Iran leaders insist on specific timing of sanction relief for nuclear deal”

14 Responses

  1. Great analysis, as well as extremely pertinent.

    It seems to me what we have is a informal plan which hopefully will lead to a formal plan, whose completion could easily and naturally be delayed. Whatever formal plan we may agree to implement over the course of the next X years is really more of a process, which may need to be modified due to contingencies we can only hope to anticipate.

    A formal signing is nothing more than a milestone, after which it will be easier to shame the other side, and empower their own next steps if they renege, assuming the understanding is drawn tightly enough to do so.

    I’d very much look forward to a post from you or a contributor with a chapter and verse summary of relevant agreements entered into and broken. Both sides will have their rationalizations for doing so, but the basic facts presented in a historical context would provide a critical perspective on the issue of trust that seems to be so central.

  2. If you are right that Khameni’s speech is a sop to Iranian hardliners, it’s also unfortunately prime rib thrown to American hardliners and war boosters who unlike Informed Comment will not look closely at the speech for its possible political nuance but will cherry pick phrases to highlight Iran’s untrustworthyness in every way possible. I have trouble believing Khameni’s wording was directed only internally, and that no concern was given to how the world and US would hear it. Dangling the carrot of an actual end to sanctions is just a dangle until the carrot is in hand. Easing mistrust has to involve some actual carrot.

    • In a way, a degree of melodrama seems to be necessary whenever two parties want to do a deal but cannot let it appear to be too easy.

      Here we have to consider just what the parties would really be giving up. The utility of a weapons program for Iran could only be defensive and/or as an (expensive) bargaining chip. On the other hand, maintaining sanctions is costing the US/EU an enormous amount in direct and indirect opportunity costs. It is easier to have sympathy for the Iranian side, given their relative vulnerability, but maintaining the status quo is for both sides a loser.

      Not that this is going to be an easy deal to negotiate, to the point of agreement or in its implementation, but rather that the non-substantive political factors appear to be thornier.

  3. Information with what is really going on in the ME, is hard to find, but even when found is confusing, and a stretch to comprehend for the factions make it evasive, especially not knowing the history. US MSN is part of the problem when it promotes ignorance by ignoring facts.
    This article shows us how conservatisms work in this caste two different countries, US and Iran, not so different when one looks at the conservative idea of creating insecurity to build an aristocracy. My view for now on the subject.
    Thanks for the insight.

  4. The entire process is based on a lie. Both our agencies and those of the British, as well as the Israelis are aware that Iran has not been trying to develop nuclear weapons. Despite all this no one is speaking the truth. Shame on the media, journalists, and so-called experts on Iran. It is always about power and hegemony. It is unconscionable that so many people are suffering and dying because of the lies spread by the western powers. Everything the U.S. And Israel touches turns to blood, guts, and ashes.

  5. The message I got from what Khamenei said was he was trying to calm everyone down by providing a sane perspective against a tidal wave of ill-informed pontification. The Iranians have made it quite clear their engagement in these negotiations is to have the sanctions lifted. To that end they are prepared to forgo for a while a lot of what they are quite entitled to which is less of a challenge than it might be since they are not interested in a nuclear weapon anyway. If the sanctions are not to be lifted or they are to be treated in an arrogant and undignified manner then not only will they not agree to all this intrusive activity but they might well leave the table early. The concessions that have been put into this framework are entirely for US benefit, the only thing that interests Iran is the lifting of sanctions – but they are realists and if necessary they will have to continue to live with those for anther moon or two. They will have done their best.

    • Another point is that there are different kinds of ‘negotiation’. When both parties seek a number of things they can be traded one for another, In this case Iran simply wants the sanctions lifted while the others want countless different things so the process is more like adding this and that until a set of scales tip. As for distrust, all you need do is look at the DOS Press Briefings link to state.gov for April 8/9 to see the obscurities of the US position outlined by the President himself in a NPR interview. The spokesperson claims he could have expressed himself more clearly while the Iranians might well take the view that inadvertently he expressed himself all too clearly.

  6. Khamenei may have just recently spoke to a Native-American, or maybe an African-American. Better yet, he may have just got off the phone after talking to a Russian. Remember, the US promised that NATO would not place missiles any further than Germany. Whether we are talking about the ‘Trail of Tears’, or ‘Forty Acres & a Mule’, America has a bad record at keeping it’s word.

  7. On this Saturday morning in South Carolina money is being pumped into local commercials asking the viewers to contact Rand Paul and tell him he should not appease Iran in his campaign because…”One nuclear bomb in the hands of Iran is one too many!”

    Forget the hardline Iranians getting an agreement approved by our bought and paid for congress, democrats included, is going to be almost impossible.

    Viewing the Sunday morning political talk shows you are reminded of the run up to invasion of Iraq when only the warmongers were allowed to give their opinions

    • The same commercial is running out here in Las Vegas. I think Republican warmongers are trying to link Paul to Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran so they can destroy his shaky credibility and unite the war party. Then, they’ll try to do the same thing and link Hillary to Obama. It’s a risky strategy but what else can they do?

      Those anti-Paul commercials really surprised me. Rand Paul and Iranian nukes–who knew?

  8. Thank you for this accurate analysis that will correct some of the deliberate misconceptions and distortions in some comments published recently in the West, such as David Brooks recent uninformed OpEd in New York Times. Khamenei’s speech is quite consistent with what he has said before. On the one hand, he is saying that he does not trust the Americans because they have broken some of their former commitments. He could be referring to the additional sanctions imposed on some Iranian banks, companies and individuals after the Joint Plan of Action was signed. Some in US Treasury argued that they were not new sanctions but continuations of the old ones, which was quite disingenuous. It could be argued that in the same way that Khamenei’s remarks are intended at mollifying the hardliners, the US action was also intended to send a message to the powerful opponents of the deal in Congress that the administration was not going to go soft on Iran.

    Since the Lausanne agreement, the divergence in Iranian and US accounts about what was agreed has also been quite stark. Immediately after the end of the talks, the State Department published a detailed account of the agreement, which was quite at variance with the joint statement made by Foreign Minister Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. It should be remembered that Iran is negotiating not just with the United States but with the P5+1, and Mogherini is the spokesperson of that group, and presumably the statement endorsed by her is the only valid, mutually-endorsed account of the agreement. It could be argued that what the US administration has been doing by publishing its detailed version of the framework agreement has been to put their cards on the table for what they would like to see in the final agreement, and then to reverse engineer the forthcoming talks to that position.

    However, I believe that in their bid to mollify Israel and the hardliners in Congress both the State Department and President Obama are boxing themselves in and they will find that they not be to backpedal if they need to do so in order to reach a final agreement. The interviews given by President Obama and Secretary Kerry have been steadily moving closer to Netanyahu’s talking points.

    Although Khamenei’s remarks were mainly addressed to domestic hardliners, I believe that it would be a mistake to dismiss what he, as well as President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, have been saying about the sanctions and the scope of Iranian nuclear research and development. Khamenei pointed out correctly that he could not say whether he was for or against the agreement because so far there is no agreement but only a framework for a future agreement, with contradictory statements by both sides.
    The major problem in the United States about the nuclear deal with Iran is that it has revolved round the talking points provided by Netanyahu and his supporters in Congress and the US media, such as “Iran cannot be trusted”, “Iran’s possible weapons’ experiments”, “the breakout period”, “the number of centrifuges that Iran is allowed to have”, “the extent of nuclear research that Iran is allowed to engage it”, none of which has anything to do with the NPT. These are terms of capitulation imposed on a country that has been found guilty and defeated in a war and occupied, not the terms of negotiations between two or more sovereign states. So long as this attitude persists in the United States, I am afraid it will be impossible to reach a final agreement that will satisfy both sides.

  9. If our government didn’t routinely lie about the reality of atomic power–that it is heavily subsidized, uneconomic, and constitutes unacceptable risk, especially in an age of terrorism (cough*FUshima*cough)–it would be in a better position to insist that Khamenei accept as a substitute for civilian atomic power the new wave of solar technology, which within a decade will make even fossil fuels less competitive, let alone atomic power.

  10. Dear Professor Cole, thank you again for your analysis of the current negotiation. Please keep up your efforts. Look, you don’t go to war because a nation has the “capability” to do something they have not done. And if you may dispute that Iran has every legal right under the NPT to a peaceful if robust nuclear research and energy program, please read for yourself Article IV of the NPT. Which makes this issue abundantly clear.

  11. While an international agreement to agree sounds like progress, I don’t know of a case where it led to agreement. The right wing opponents are spurred to fight more, while the moderates go home. If Obama cannot get sanctions lifted now, it will not happen before 2016 or afterward. Very likely the US center-left is being thrown a bone to keep it in the Hillary Netanyahu camp, which will promptly reneg and blame Iran.

    This is quite consistent with the Cuba negotiation. Nothing Obama has said there precludes increased US surveillance, subversion, and sponsorship of oligarchy parties. And even if the USG did not, which would be unprecedented and astounding, Cuba would soon be controlled by the same oligarchy that controls the USG via the mass media and election funding.

    Any treaty is better than warmongering, as it acknowledges a small backing for cooperation, but where diplomacy cannot move quickly it seldom moves at all.

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