In his annual new year’s address to Iranians from the city of Mashhad, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei defended the Hassan Rouhani administration as being both lawful and legitimate. At the same time, he appeared to strike back at Barack Obama’s Nowruz message to Iranians, in which the American president touted the economic benefits of a nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and an Iran which is open to the world. Is Khamenei preparing Iranian elites and people for an agreement, while trying to maintain the status-quo in other key areas of domestic politics and foreign policy?
Preparing Iranian audiences for a nuclear agreement?
On 21 March 2015, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressed Iranians from Mashhad, where he delivered his new year’s address for 1394. His slogan for the new year, “Government and Nation: Empathy and Rapport”, set the tone for the speech in which he told the Iranian people that they have a responsibility to support government officials and the country as a whole.
In what followed, Iran’s supreme leader took pains to emphasise the legality and legitimacy of the Hassan Rouhani administration, whose Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif has been tasked with reaching a nuclear agreement with the United Nations Security Council permanent five members plus Germany (P5+1). This may prove politically controversial among Iranian hardliners, some of whom became infamous as Delvapasan [The Concerned] in the last year after they held a number of events expressing their concern that Iran may give too many concessions in the negotiations.
Khamenei stated that: “Any administration that comes to power in the framework of the constitution, is a legal government, is a legitimate government.” In comments that appeared to defend the Rouhani administration, which won the lowest percentage of the popular vote of any president in the Islamic Republic’s history, the supreme leader said that: “It is not important how many and which proportion of voters have voted for this or that president, the decrease or increase of the numbers of the vote is related to popularity, however it is not related to legitimacy and legality.”
He also tackled the legitimacy of criticising the Rouhani administration, remarking that every administration has had its critics and that this administration is no different. While some may not accept the “methods”, “behaviour”, “words”, or “policy” of a particular administration and even criticise it – Khamenei said that he himself had criticised various administrations on a range of issues – criticisms should not deprive officials of the public’s trust or engage in insults and harsh tactics. This also went for the administration, he said, likely a reference to Rouhani’s willingness to harshly confront his domestic critics.
“I urge that the confrontations, either from people to officials or officials to their critics, must not be destructive; that there is neither denigration nor insults. It is possible that on certain issues some have a concern; having a concern is not a crime; being worried is not a crime. Some may truthfully feel worried and concerned in regard to an important and sensitive issue of the country; there is no problem; however this should not mean accusing, not mean ignoring efforts and services. On the other hand, the administration and the administration’s supporters must not be insulting towards those who express worry and concern.”
“I say without any reservation – I said it before – I supported all the administrations during the period of my responsibility; I also support this administration. Wherever it is necessary, I also give warning. Of course I give no one a carte-blanche.”
Pivot to the economy
Khamenei’s reaffirmation of his support for the Rouhani administration may be a sign that the Islamic Republic is preparing to make concessions in nuclear negotiations that may lead to criticism by domestic hardliners. However, his comments on the economy appeared to be a response to Obama’s Iranian Nowruz (new years) message, in which the American president touted the benefits of a nuclear deal, including a more globally integrated Iran that could be economically prosperous. According to Obama:
“This year we have the best opportunity in decades to pursue a different future for both of our countries. In this sense, Iran’s leaders have a choice between two paths. If they cannot agree to a reasonable deal, they will keep Iran on the path it’s on today. A path that has isolated Iran and the Iranian people from so much of the world and caused so much hardship for Iranian families, and deprived so many young Iranians the jobs and opportunities they deserve.”
“On the other hand, if Iran’s leaders can agree to a reasonable deal, it can lead to a better path. The path of greater opportunity for the Iranian people, more trade and ties with the world. More for investment and jobs, including for young Iranians. More cultural exchanges and chances for Iranian students to travel abroad. More partnerships in areas like science, and technology and innovation. In other words, a nuclear deal now can help open the door to a brighter future for you, the Iranian people…This is what is what’s at stake today, and the moment may not come again soon.”
In his last several new years addresses, Khamenei has emphasised the need for Iranian economic self-sufficiency through a resistance economy, and this year was no different. In fact, at a moment where Iran may be on the precipice of period of increased integration with the global economy through the lifting of economic sanctions, as Obama’s Nowruz message indicated, Khamenei is calling for greater self-reliance as a cornerstone of Iran’s economy and national security.
In his Nowruz speech, Iran’s supreme leader asserted that: “Today one of the actual and biggest challenge to the country is the issue of the national economy.” He repeated the word for emphasis: “The economy.” He continued, saying that people have a legitimate right to expect that they have a flourishing economy and public welfare as well as for the less economically well-off to be able to escape poverty.
“Of course I have been talking about the economy for some years. In this very [Nowruz] session I predicted some years ago and said that our enemies will focus on our economy, that officials should be cognizant, prepare themselves; tighten their belts for confronting the enmity of the foes and the hostile policies of the enemies that have focused on the economy.”
In this context, he laid out a number of points on the economy: “The first point is that today the arena of the economy, because of America’s hostile policies, is an arena of struggle, is an arena of war, war of a specific kind.”
“The second point is that, regarding the macroeconomic perspective, two approaches exist…One perspective says that we must provide economic progress from the capacities within the country and the people.”
“The second approach to the country’s economy is the approach to economic progress utilising support from outside of the borders; it says [we] should change our foreign policy so that our economy is improved, get along with such and such arrogant so that the economy flourishes, accept the imposition of the arrogant powers in different fields and issues so that our economy flourishes; this is the second approach. Today the situation of the country has shown us that this second approach is a completely wrong and infertile and useless approach.”
He asserted that this second path, precisely the one advocated by Obama in his Nowruz message, would empower Iran’s enemies against it: “Today foreigners and the heads of the arrogant powers want to strengthen this second approach among our people.”
“He [Obama] says in this message for you to come and accept our arguments; in reality the content and outcome of his argument is that he says in nuclear negotiations accept what we dictate to you so that in your country jobs are created, capital is created, so that economic activity runs in your country; it means this second approach. This approach is an approach which will never be successful.”
He emphasised that Iran should pursue a resistance economy, whose key features include changing the banking structure to facilitate domestic investment, creation of a knowledge-based economy, support for small businesses, and encouraging Iranians to purchase domestic products, among others.
He concluded his points on the economy by saying that “The sanction is the only tool of the enemy. The only tool of the enemy for confronting the Iranian nation is sanctions.”
Beyond the issues of unity between the presidential administration and Iranian people and the country’s economic future, he reiterated Iran’s position that: “Lifting sanctions is part of the negotiations, not the outcome of the negotiations.” Full and immediate relief from sanctions thus appear to continue being a key Iranian demand at the negotiation table, although it is not clear how realistic this is in light of the P5+1’s insistence on maintaining the sanctions regime as a tool for ensuring Iranian compliance with a final agreement. On this issue, he hinted that if sanctions relief is to be reversible in a final agreement, Iran’s nuclear concessions too could be reversible.
Khamenei also denied that the U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations were about broader regional cooperation or anything else: “The negotiations with America is exclusively on the nuclear issue and nothing else.”
In emphasising need for Iranians to support the Rouhani administration, and in calling for a more civil relationship between the administration and its critics, Khamenei appears to be potentially preparing Iranian for a nuclear agreement which may give more concessions than has been publically indicated to date.
At the same time, he appears to have maintained his commitment to the idea of national self-reliance and concept of the resistance economy. This goes to the heart of the question of what a final nuclear deal could mean for Iran’s relationship with the United States and the world. Is it a starting point of Iran’s rehabilitation back into the international system, including deeper integration with the global economy? Or does it merely mark a tactical detente which could be quickly reversed by any one of the myriad of the regional and domestic crises that are brewing?