The Ayatollah Doth Protest Too Much: Khamenei’s Posturing on a Nuclear Deal


With the April 2nd agreement on key parameters for a nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, the world is closer than ever to a historic agreement that could — at a minimum — resolve questions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. It also has the potential to improve U.S.-Iranian relations after 35 years of dysfunction and emnity.

A new concern could derail a final agreement. Deal skeptics and supporters alike have raised a chorus of concerns over Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s recent public statements that Iran will not agree to inspections of its military facilities as part of an agreement.

Those concerns are overblown and it would be a grave error to let Khamenei’s statements knock the deal off track. A short review of some of the supreme leader’s previous public comments shows that his statements have never been a good indicator of what is actually going on in the negotiations. If they were, the United States and Iran would have never gotten this far in the first place.

Last summer, Khamenei laid out a public redline, stating that under any agreement Iran would need to have the right to accumulate 190,000 separative work units — a measurement of nuclear efficiency that translates into roughly 190,000 or more relatively inefficient first generation nuclear centrifuges. Skeptics questioned how such a demand could possibly be met, but in a final agreement Iran agreed to much stricter limits and will have only 5,000 first generation centrifuges enriching nuclear material.

Then over the winter, Khamenei stated that he was against any two-step agreement and instead wanted only one final announcement that laid out the full details of a final nuclear agreement. Despite his statements, on April 2nd Iran and the P5+1 agreed on and publicly announced a set of parameters for a final agreement — directly contradicting Khamenei’s opposition to two-step negotiations.

We need to judge Iran by its actions not its words. Indeed, if we just took the supreme leader at his word, there would never have been a need to investigate Iran’s nuclear program in the first place. In 2005, he issued a fatwa — a religious finding — forbidding the development of nuclear weapons. But Iranian behavior directly contradicted the fatwa, and, as such, it did little to assuage concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. Even as the fatwa was being issued, Iran was beginning work on a secret enrichment facility at Fordow that was outed to the world in 2009 by the United States, Britain, and France. And Iran had already been caught red-handed when its first secret facility at Natanz was discovered in 2002. The IAEA concluded that up until 2003, Iran pursued research on nuclear weapons in violation of its non-proliferation treaty obligations.

There are a number of reasons that explain why the Iranian leadership’s public statements do not seem to be in line with the outcome of the nuclear negotiations. First, the Islamic Republic is an authoritarian system. While there are some mechanisms that allow for public participation in the political process, including voting for vetted presidential and parliamentary candidates, Iran’s leaders are not accountable to their people. Khamenei’s statements are designed to strengthen his resistance bona fides and appeal to hardline supporters. However, at the end of the day the lack of accountability means that these propagandist statements are often not in line with the concessions that he later makes. Indeed, many would argue that even in the democratic system politicians often play fast and loose with the truth to appeal to base constituencies only to govern more moderately and pay few consequences.

Moreover, the technical matters associated with the nuclear negotiations are so complex that it is not hard to simply drop demands or change requirements and claim public victory without backlash from the public. In the end, the Iranian or American people are not likely to care about, or even understand, the mind-numbing details of a complex inspections and verification regime associated with the nuclear agreement.

Perhaps most importantly, public statements are a poor way to judge a high stakes international negotiation — or any significant negotiation, for that matter. Negotiators usually use their public statements to lay out hardline opening positions even as they quietly negotiate in private on their real bottom lines. This behavior characterizes not only Iran, but also the United States, whose public position two years ago was that Iran had no right to domestic enrichment and would never be allowed to keep more than a few hundred centrifuges. It is not just the Obama administration that has made these types of concessions. Ronald Reagan came into office as a hardline cold warrior, whose rhetoric was staunchly anti-communist and yet, with Mikhail Gorbachov he negotiated some of the most important arms control treaties in history. Changes in these positions do not indicate weakness, just reality. If a negotiator is interested in an agreement, he would be foolish to either privately stick to hardline public opening positions or publicly state his side’s real bottom lines upfront. Both are recipes for failed negotiating processes.

In the end, it will be absolutely vital for any nuclear agreement to allow international inspectors access to all necessary facilities to ensure that Iran is not capable of developing a secret nuclear weapons program under the noses of international inspectors. But the way to judge such an agreement is based on the final text of the agreement, and the behavior of parties in the aftermath of the deal as it is implemented.

Prematurely speculating about the contents of such an agreement based on public comments from the supreme leader makes for interesting media content, but it is a poor indicator of what a final agreement might entail. We should not read into them and risk knocking a potential deal off track.


Ilan Goldenberg is the Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as the Iran Team Chief in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.