Where has Ayatollah Ali Khamenei disappeared to? According to media reports in Iran for the past two weeks, Iran’s Supreme Leader has not been seen in public and he recently cancelled two planned meetings with the commanders of the Basij – which includes hundreds of thousands of volunteers and is under the command of the Revolutionary Guards Corps – and with the Assembly of Experts, one of the most influential bodies in the hierarchy of decision makers of the Islamic Republic.
Last month, the Rasa website, which expresses the positions of the religious legal scholars from the holy city of Qom, published a report about Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, and in it they called him by the title “ayatollah.” Sharp-eyed commentators noticed that this was the first time the lofty titles had been added to Mojtaba’s name, who until now had been referred to only by the lower title of “Hujjat al-Islam,” a middle ranking Shi’ite title meaning “authority on Islam.” Speculation began stirring: Was Khamenei preparing the way for his son to become his successor?
At the same time, the Khabar website that represents reformist views posted an interview with an influential reformist commentator, Abbas Abadi, who said “he knew with certainty that Khamenei would hand over the authority to make decisions on the issue of the nuclear agreement to President Ebrahim Raisi.”
One should take all these reports with great caution. Khamenei, 83, is unwell – but he is in control of all government matters in Iran, and even if he also intends on bequeathing his job to his son, Khamenei does not have the authority to carry it out by himself. The Supreme Leader is chosen by a special assembly made up of very powerful men, who do not necessarily see eye to eye with Khamenei. They will not be in any rush to annoint Mojtaba, who is mostly known for leading his own personal mafia that controls Khamenei’s great wealth. The same goes for the report on transferring decision making powers to Raisi on nuclear matters, which still lacks sufficient proof. Raisi may speak about the issue quite a lot and formulate Iran’s unyielding positions – but he is not in charge of setting the red lines that limit Iran’s room for concessions.
The final decision is still in Khamenei’s hands, but it won’t be taken just from inside his feverish mind. Among his circle of advisers is Ali Bakri, the head of the Iranian delegation to the nuclear talks, who served from 2007 to 2013 as the deputy of Saeed Jalili, when he was the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. Later, when Jalili ran for president in the 2013 election against Hassan Rouhani, Bakri managed his election campaign. After he lost, Jalili set up a critical shadow government, which he called a nonpartisan group to advise the government.
Jalili headed the negotiating team on nuclear matters during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s term, and for years has expressed publically his harsh opposition to the nuclear deal signed by Rouhani. Jalili is very close to Khamenei’s son Mojtaba and is considered to be his mentor, and it also seems he is the one who recommended appointing Bakri to head the negotiating team for the latest round of talks aimed at renewing the nuclear deal. This was on the assumption, and hope, that he would stick to the uncompromising line opposing the nuclear agreement.
This fabric of relations and appointments, which includes the election of Raisi as president in June 2021, suspected by many to have been rigged, could very well have been interpreted as a sign that Iran was willing to bury the nuclear deal once and for all. Many in Israel – and some with a certain amount of satisfaction – thought that Iran was backing away from the agreement and if it does return, this would only be a stalling tactic to make progress with its nuclear weapons program. But in August, the talks restarted with the new team who even produced a few drafts of an agreement. Towards the end of last year it even looked as if they would be ready to make a deal the beginning of 2022.
The doubts were replaced by assessments according to which Khamenei appointed a hardline negotiating team to avoid the criticism directed at the previous delegation, which was headed by former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who was accused of weakness and making concessions. No one can accuse Bakri and Raisi, as well as Foreign Minister Hossein Amir -Abdollahian, of pro-Western tendencies or making concessions too quickly.
The talks then dragged on and momentum stalled until April of this year becasue of the war in Ukraine. But not only becasue of that. In principle, Khamenei’s positions, have not changed. According to him the negotiations should be advanced towards signing an agreement that will “serve Iran’s interests” – in other words, lift the sanctions and guarantee the country’s economic existence.
But Iran set three strict prerequisits for a deal. It demands adequate guarantees that the agreement will not be violated when a new American president is elected – after receiving a commitment from President Joe Biden to stick to the agreement for as long as he is in office; to remove the Revolutionary Guards from the list of designated terrorist organizations, a demand it backed rescinded in August; and closing the open investigations of the International Atomic Energy Agency concerning the sites in Iran where enriched uranium was found even though Iran never declared them as nuclear sites, and were therefore never under supervision. The technical sections of the agreement, the means and methods of supervision, the removal of the surplus enriched uranium and the return to the allowed enrichment levels according to the original agreement – as well as lifting the sanctions in a number of agreed upon stages, are no longer in dispute.
But as far as Iran is concerned, the necessity and rationale to reach an agreement will not disappear and will in fact, even grow stronger. The deep economic crisis engulfing the country, and the recognition that only the nuclear deal can rescue it from this crisis by freeing up in the first stage some $100 billion frozen in banks around the globe, will reopen the channels for selling oil and accelerate the production of natural gas from the enormous reserve laying underneath the country – all of these factors pushed Iran to sign the agreement in 2015, and the same factos led it back to the negotiating table to redraw the agreement that President Donald Trump violated in 2018.
The war in Ukraine increased the temptation to speed up the negotiations when European countries began urgently searching for alternatives to Russian gas. Iran may not be able to replace the supplies of Russian gas in the short term, but if it hastens to develop the appropriate infrastructure for liquefying natural gas and eventually builds a direct pipeline to Europe, as the continuation to the gas pipeline connecting Iran to Turkey, this could guarantee its revenues for decades. It is interesting that supplying gas has become, in Iranian eyes, political leverage that has caused a dispute between those who claim there is no reason to rush and sign the nuclear agreement because it will be possible to obtain additional concessions from European countries because of their urgent need for gas – and those who think it is a dangerous gamble, because in the meantime other countries could very well take control of the gas market, and Iran could very well once again face a long list of new sanctions.
Within this web of considerations, Iran must also march to the beat of the American election procession, as it draws closer to the midterm congressional elections in November. The common wisdom is that a very narrow window of opportunity remains, until the beginning of October at the latest, to approve the agreement. According to the sanction easing schedule agreed to by the parties, the U.S. Congress may study the agreement for a month after it is signed and choose to approve or reject it. If it is rejected, Biden may veto this decision. The assumption is that signing the agreement after the midterm elections will mean Biden will be facing a contrarian Congress that will reject the agreement with such a large majority that the presidnet will find it difficult to ignore. In Washington, voices can already been heard warning of Biden’s intention to bypass the Congress, by presenting the new agreement as a copy of the old deal that has already been approved, so does not require a second congressional approval. Biden did indeed promise to present the new agreement to the Congress for its consdieration, but some commentators say that this harldy equates to a demand for congressional approval.
Given the political arm wrestling in Washington, in which Israel plays a part too, Iran presented this week’s statement by the board of governors of the IAEA, who called on Iran to answer the questions of the agency about its investigations – as the result of political considerations. “The IAEA should avoid making judgments on the basis of the documents that the Zionist regime fabricates and offers to the UN nuclear watchdog with special political purposes,” said Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
“The IAEA has already examined all nuclear materials declared by Iran,” said Kamalvandi in a statement, noting that the mere detection of traces in a few locations could not be interpreted as the existence of undeclared nuclear materials. “This way of conclusion is contrary to the [International Atomic Energy] Agency’s recognized procedures and standards, even compared with similar cases in different countries,” Kamalvandi added. “It’s a pity that the IAEA chief’s comments result from the Zionist regime’s objectives and biased political purposes … We advise the IAEA and the negotiating parties to stay away from these behaviors, as such an approach has not been fruitful for them so far.”
This statement has convinced the IAEA and the Western nations conducting the negotiations that Iran is stalling because of internal political reasons, and it must make a decision immediately. The Iranians are finding it difficult to assess whether the almost identical statements coming from the IAEA and Western foreign ministers – according to which the agreement, in the best case, has reached a dead end and could very well be postponed until after the U.S. elections, and in the worst case, is on its deathbed – are intended to apply pressure on Iran, or whether the Western nations have really given up.
A look at the history of the negotiations over the original nuclear deal shows that it too suffered from periods of delays and disagreements, so much so that it seemed that the entire effort was about to collapse. “I wouldn’t say that it’s more than 50-50,” said U.S. President Barack Obama about the original deal with the Iranians in 2013, after an interim deal had been agreed to and it was decided to move on to the negotiations over the final agreement.
Biden, who was involved in the original Iran deal negotiations from up close and knows a thing or two about walking a very fine line, has avoided, for now, from mentioning a target date for ending the process, with negotiations or without, and he is not speaking in public about possible options in case a deal is not reached – and outwardly he does not seem to be very impressed by the timetable dictated by the upcoming elections.
As for Iran, it has not yet called things off and is not speaking in terms that could testify to the clinical death of the negotiations. So for now, it seems that both sides are still in no hurry to pack their bags and leave.