Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has conditionally approved the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more conventionally known as the Iran nuclear deal, for implementation. But the conditions he’s place on the implementation of the deal highlight his ambivalence about it, with serious potential long-term ramifications for Iran’s political future.
The road to implementation of the JCPOA in Iran has not been a straightforward one. From the beginning, it was unclear when Iran’s supreme leader would give his formal public approval to the deal. Furthermore the precise route the deal would take through Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament), the two bodies tasked with studying and implementing the deal, on its way to implementation was ambiguous.
Over the last three months, as the nuclear deal was debated inside Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei did not take a decisive position. He simply noted that the fate of the “text” was unclear in both the United States and Iran and would have to undergo the domestic legal mechanisms, implicitly creating a parallel between the implementation processes in both countries. His use of the term “text”, rather than “agreement”, appeared to be itself indicative of the doubt he wanted to inject into the debate about the JCPOA’s ultimate implementation.
While Iran’s president had the power to draw up and submit a bill to parliament for implementation of the deal, the moderate Hassan Rouhani administration held back from doing so, preferring for it to go through the SNSC in the hopes of a smoother process. Iran’s conservative parliament thus took it upon itself to draw up and submit a bill for debate. The spectacle that ensued, perhaps the very thing the administration had sought to avoid, included such highlights as a hawkish member of parliament threatening to bury Iran’s nuclear chief and ex-foreign minister Ali-Akbar Salehi in the core of the IR-40 (Arak) Heavy Water Reactor as penance for the concession the country had made in negotiations.
Despite all of the drama around the parliamentary debate, Speaker Ali Larijani ultimately rallied most moderates and conservatives to approve the nuclear deal over the heads of hawks who strongly objected to the manner of its passage. The SNSC likewise passed the deal, leaving it to the supreme leader to give his final approval based on Article 176 of Iran’s constitution.
The supreme leader gives his conditional approval
On 21 October 2015, Iran’s supreme leader finally gave his approval of the deal, but only under a set of conditions. His formal letter approving the deal emphasized his continued distrust of the United States and went as far as labeling President Barack Obama as dishonest in his statements committing not to seek to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Addressing President Rouhani, the letter stated:
“Your Excellency, who has decades of experience in the affairs of the Islamic Republic, certainly know that the government of the United States – in the nuclear affair or in any other matter – has shown nothing but hostility and obstruction and it is very unlikely that they will behave in any other manner than this in the future. The statements by the American president in two letters addressed to this person wherein it is stated that he does not have the intention of overthrowing the Islamic Republic, quickly turned out to be untrue with his support of domestic seditionists and his financial support of opponents of the Islamic Republic.”
Ayatollah Khamenei also called for ongoing vigilance in the deal’s implementation and handed down conditions to ameliorate its shortcomings, asserting that the JCPOA “contains ambiguous points and structural weaknesses and there are numerous matters – which if they are not attended to precisely and moment-by-moment – can result in great damage for the current and future state of the country.” His first two and potentially most consequential conditions, focusing on sanctions in the JCPOA, appear to have been the most consequential in terms of implementation of the deal:
“1. Considering that acceptance of negotiations by the Islamic Republic was fundamentally based on the goal of ending the unjust economic and financial sanctions and that the implementation of this in the Bar-Jaam [JCPOA] has been postponed to the time after Iran has implemented, it is imperative to receive strong and necessary guarantees in order to prevent contravention by the opposing parties. This specifically means written declarations by the American president and by the European Union regarding ending of sanctions. In the declarations by the EU and the American president it has to be clearly stated that these sanctions are completely lifted. Any mention of continued retention of the structure of sanctions is considered a breach of the Bar-Jaam.”
“2. Throughout the entire 8-year term, any new sanctions on any level with any excuse (for example with the repetitive fake excuses of support for terrorism or human rights) pursued by any of the opposing countries in the negotiations will be considered a breach of the Bar-Jaam and the government is obligated to take the necessary steps according to Article 3 of the Majlis law and stop the activities of the Bar-Jaam.”
Ayatollah Khemenei’s first two conditions thus seek American and European guarantees that sanctions will be completely lifted and that no new sanctions will be put in place. The breadth of these conditions – calling for the “ending of sanctions” and labeling “retention of the structure of sanctions” a “breach” of the JCPOA – appear to clash with the sanctions snap-back mechanism in the nuclear deal and the United States position of continuing to use non-nuclear sanctions in its interactions with Iran.
The Iranian supreme leader’s third condition, which itself has nine sub-conditions, appear to deal with largely technical issues and do not seem to be particularly problematic for the deal’s implementation. With these conditions, Ayatollah Khamenei ultimately approved the deal, declaring: “Considering what has been stated and with observance of the reminded matters, the resolution of meeting 634 of the Supreme National Security Council dated 94/5/19 is confirmed.”
Before ending his letter he again emphasized the importance of ending sanctions and called for the creation of a resistance economy to defend against future economic vulnerabilities that could be exploited by Iran’s rivals:
“In closing, as has been reminded to His Excellency and other executive officials in numerous meetings and in public meetings with our dear people, ending sanctions as a matter of ending injustice and receiving the rights of the Iranian people is a necessary task, however economic growth, increasing welfare and ending current problems cannot happen but with serious pursuit of all dimensions of the economy of resistance.”
“It is hoped that caution is taken and this matter is pursued with complete seriousness – particularly the strengthening of national production should be given special attention. Caution should also be taken that the situation after the sanctions have ended does not result in uncontrolled imports – particularly importation of any sort of consumption goods from America, has to be seriously avoided.”
In his ninth and final sub-condition for implementation of the JCPOA, Ayatollah Khamenei calls for the establishment of “a strong, well-informed and intelligent group to monitor the development of matters and the implementation of promises from the opposing side”. This delegation of responsibility appears to indicate that, for the time being, he has stepped out of directly dealing with the deal’s implementation. If President Rouhani and Deputy for Legal and International Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Abbas Araqchi’s comments are any indication, the deal seems likely to be implemented with few obstacles in the short- to medium-term. But Ayatollah Khamenei’s conditions pose several issues for the long-term implementation of the deal and its implication for the future of Iranian politics.
The Iranian supreme leader’s main conditions on the implementation of the nuclear deal seem to relate to the status of sanctions moving forward. His conditions, from calling for written U.S. and E.U. guarantees that sanctions will be completely lifted to labeling ANY new non-nuclear sanctions in the next eight years a breach of the nuclear deal, seem to contradict elements of the JCPOA. This gives the appearance that he is trying to unilaterally renegotiate the deal. Such a renegotiation is unrealistic but, combined with his ban on further non-nuclear negotiations with the United States, may become an impediment to advancing U.S.-Iran relations beyond the current tentative detente and set-up a trip-wire for a deterioration in ties at some future juncture. While the deal may be implemented successfully in the coming months, long-term Ayatollah Khamenei’s conditions leave space to claim the United States has not held up its end of the bargain and thus bring about a re-escalation of tensions. Rather than becoming a solid foundation for taking the next step in U.S.-Iran relations, the JCPOA may turn out to be quicksand that makes rapid forward movement precarious.
While sanctions are used as a political grounds to freeze forward movement in U.S.-Iran relations, Ayatollah Khamenei’s emphasis of the need to build an economy of resistance and warnings against “importation of any sort of consumption goods from America” makes clear he views investment and trade with Western countries, especially the United States, as a potential threat. This is in line with his warnings about foreign (and especially American) infiltration of Iran’s society, politics, and economy.
But the supreme leader’s nuclear deal conditions seem to have important implications beyond Iran’s foreign policy and U.S.-Iran relations. Going against the prevailing rhetoric of the Rouhani administration which has presented the JCPOA as a victory applicable to other fields, the Iranian supreme leader presents the nuclear deal as a problematic agreement, not something to be celebrated. By highlighting the “structural weaknesses” and presenting the deal in an ambivalent light, he has taken an important step toward rehabilitating his hardline conservative base, which has been somewhat bruised and discredited by the negotiations and deal. Under these conditions, it becomes more and more difficult for President Rouhani to use the political capital gained from the nuclear deal to bargain with elites to advance his other agenda items. This is not to say that a deal will not earn him points among broad swaths of the Iranian electorate. But the deal may not be the transformative step that the presidential administration and its advocates believed, at least for now.