In Iran, Whose Word Holds More Weight?

Ayatollah Khamenei’s recent comments banning direct negotiations between Iran and the US (outside of the nuclear deal) poses serious issues regarding the future stability of relations between the two states. At its core, it raises questions regarding Iran’s commitment to re-engagement, as well as its ability to unify conservatives and moderates, domestically.

Iran’s Supreme Leader announced to a group of Revolutionary Guard commanders that further negotiations between the two countries would henceforth cease, stating mistrust for the US given the history between the long-standing adversaries. However, he clarified this was only in regards to talks outside of the famed nuclear deal signed in July:

‘We approved talks with the United States about nuclear issues specifically. In other areas, we did not and will not allow negotiations with the US.’

According to his website, the Ayatollah banned negotiations because ‘of the countless harm [the US] inflicts… We are against negotiations with the US because talks with the US mean infiltration. They want to open the way for imposition.’

The comments follow the landmark agreement between Iran and six other states (China, Germany, France, Russia, the UK and the US – the P5+1) regarding Iran’s contentious nuclear program. After two years of tenuous negotiations, the seven states signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July. In exchange for reducing the amount of nuclear facilities, destruction of uranium stockpiles, and the greater accessibility of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the P5+1 agreed to lift the crippling international economic sanctions.

However the Ayatollah’s statements seem to directly contradict the rhetoric of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in 2013 on the premise of promulgating the modernisation of Iran, including an open foreign policy. Rouhani recently addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York and stated Iran’s intentions to ‘engage with our neighbours in a wide range of social and economic cooperation, which will enable the achievement of political understanding and even foster structural security cooperation.’ Rouhani faces tough critics in Tehran, many of whom have lambasted Rouhani’s attempts to reform Iran and have even condemned the JCPOA as a betrayal of Iran. The Supreme Leader neither endorsed nor rejected the JCPOA, but his recent comments expose the political fragmentation between the conservatives and moderates. Moreover, Khamenei’s barring of negotiations has substantial weight as he wields far greater powers than the President and his influence is unparalleled as the commander-in-chief. Since the Supreme Leader is not subject to the volatile political system and retains a great deal of support, the disdain for the US is troubling.

As a fervent supporter of Syria and as an ally of Iraq, Iran is a significant player in the Middle East. In this politically fragile region, relations between Tehran and Washington are of the utmost importance and could be a real game changer in the war against ISIS. Rouhani seems enthusiastic about rapprochement with the outside world, however Khamenei’s entrenched structural monopoly of power within Iran holds considerable influence and calls into question Iran’s fidelity to re-engagement with the wider region and international community.