Khamenei, the Hassan and Hossein doctrines, and “heroic flexibility” versus “heroic resistance” in nuclear negotiations

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s domestic and foreign politics were rocked by the largely unexpected election of Hassan Rouhani as president in June 2013. Despite the election of the Centrist Rouhani, who promised change and especially the resolution of the nuclear crisis, questions remain over how the new president’s promises could translate into concrete changes within Iran’s complex political system. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wields enormous power and until recently was not seen as necessarily being a proponent of the policy changes sought by Rouhani. Following Khamenei’s speech on 17 September 2013 to the 20th General Assembly of Commanders and Officials of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), however, in which he suggested that he could be in favour of “heroic flexibility” in nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, the United Nations Security Council’s permanent five members plus Germany, there is now renewed hope for a breakthrough in these negotiations.

Using the analogy of wrestling, a martial art with centuries of rich history in Iran, to characterize Iran’s participation in nuclear negotiations, Khamenei stated that: “We are not against correct and logical diplomatic actions, whether in diplomacy or domestic politics. I am in favor of that thing which years ago was labelled as “heroic flexibility”; in some places flexibility is very necessary, is very good, and is very much not a problem.” He was, however, quick to warn that Iranians should be mindful that any “heroic flexibility” on Iran’s part was in the context of a larger conflict with an opponent: “…this wrestler [Iran] grappling with his opponent, and in some places showing flexibility for technical reasons, should not forget who his opponent is; he should not forget what he is doing.” Khamenei said that keeping this context in mind “is the main requirement” for showing “heroic flexibility”.

“Heroic Flexibility”

What does Khamenei mean by “heroic flexibility”? His usage of the term appears to originate from a book by Sheikh Razi Al-e Yasin (1869-1953) which Khamenei translated into Farsi in 1970, titling it “The Peace of Imam Hassan [PBUH], the most splendid heroic flexibility in history”.

The book in part deals with the political leadership of Hassan ibn Ali (625-670), the second holy imam of Twelver Shi’a Islam practiced in Iran, the son of the revered central figure of Shi’ism Ali ibn Abi Talib and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Imam Hassan is known in Shi’a history for negotiating peace with Muawiyah I (602-680), the Sunni founder of the Umayyad dynasty (661-750) and a reviled figure in Shi’a Islam. While Imam Hassan’s peace with Muawiyah is seen as being somewhat controversial by some given that Shi’a Islam has historically viewed itself as a religion of protest and resistance, in his introduction to Sheikh Yasin’s book Khamenei attempts to show why Imam Hassan was in line with Shi’a doctrine in making this decision. Khamenei calls Imam Hassan’s peace with Muawiyah as “one of the hardest incidents” that the Shi’a imams ever experienced, laying any fault at the feet of the misguided actions of the imam’s followers. He goes on to say that:

“Imam Hassan, with this peace-making, endured such intolerable hardship that no one would be able to tolerate it, except with the help of God. However he endured this great trial with perseverance and firmness, and emerged from it proudly and victoriously and having reached his goal – meaning respecting the command of God and the Qur’an and the Prophet and the Good of Muslims.”

In his introduction to the book, Khamenei targets: “Those who accuse him [Imam Hassan] of seeking the easy way and of being averse to danger, and also those Shi’a who under the influence of excitement and emotion, wishing that he persevered in Jihad against Muawiyah and gained immortality through martyrdom and victory by going on the same path that his brother went on Ashura.” He singles out such people as not understanding what took place and insists that no value should be given to what they say.

Heroic flexibility in this context thus appears to allude to the use of flexibility with an opponent, even a mortal one, by for example giving concessions in negotiations or making peace, which is done in the service of the greater good. In highlighting the Imam Hassan doctrine of heroic flexibility, Khamenei may be attempting to use what he considers a parallel in Shi’a history to Iran’s current predicament vis-a-vis nuclear negotiations to demonstrate that showing flexibility with an opponent is justified in certain circumstances.

The Hassan and Hossein Doctrines

Khamenei’s seeming interest in the Imam Hassan doctrine of heroic flexibility contrasts with the Imam Hossein doctrine of heroic resistance Khamenei had been advocating for years prior. Hossein ibn Ali (626-680), the brother of Imam Hassan  and the third imam of Shi’a Islam who was martyred on the plains of Karbala along with 72 of his followings at the hands of the Muawiyah’s son Yazid and a far larger Sunni army, is a symbol of martyrdom and resistance in Shi’a Islam and is celebrated and mourned on two of Shi’a Islam’s most important holy days, Ashura and Tasu’a. In fact, in 2000 Khamenei had specifically said that no one would be able to create the circumstances to force Iran toward Imam Hassan’s doctrine of “heroic flexibility”: “They cannot impose an incident like the peace of Imam Hassan on the Islamic world. Here, if the enemy places too much pressure, an incident like [Imam Hossein’s] Kerbala shall occur.”

Obviously, something has changed to convince Khamenei to begin discussing (and implementing?) Imam Hassan’s doctrine of heroic flexibility. Are economic sanctions, the threat of a military strike, and/or domestic pressures, circumstances which have prodded Khamenei in this direction? This may be the case. Yet in using a parallel from Shi’a history to discuss the possibility of showing flexibility in nuclear negotiations, Khamenei may not so much be addressing foreign audiences as his own hardline domestic base in an effort to convince them that flexibility in nuclear negotiations is not anathema to Iran’s interests. It may thus not be a coincidence that Khamenei made these remarks in a gathering of the IRGC’s senior leadership.

Is this Khamenei’s version of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s famous “poisoned chalice” speech? It may be, although with some caveats. Something has changed following Rouhani’s election, but the window of opportunity in which Khamenei and his cohort of hardliners may be willing to show flexibility is not likely to last long. If Iran demonstrates through its actions that it is willing to show flexibility, it will fall on the P5+1, especially the United States, to show to show some heroic flexibility and meet Iran part-way to resolve the nuclear crisis.