Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO / HO / KHAMENEI.IR)
Iran and its Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei let out some surprises on Thursday.
In his speech kicking-off the Iranian religious new year, he signaled that the Islamic republic is likely staying in the 2015 nuclear deal until it expires despite US sanctions.
Khamenei focused his speech on portraying Iran as having successfully survived US sanctions – encouraging his people to keep the economy strong by internal Iranian efforts, such as increasing production – and refrained from threats against the EU.
There were no real threats against the EU, even though England, France and Germany’s much celebrated special purpose vehicle (SPV) to help Tehran circumvent Washington’s sanctions has failed to deliver most of the relief that Khamenei had demanded.
To review: When the US threatened to pull out of the Iran deal a year ago and then pulled out, Khamenei vowed to pull Iran out also.
Iran stayed in the deal.
When the US announced it would impose sanctions on the Islamic republic in August and then more sanctions in November, Khamenei threatened to pull out of the deal.
Iran stayed in the deal.
Khamenei said that Tehran would leave the deal if the EU did not ignore US sanctions, boost Iran’s economy and drop its pressure against the Islamic republic’s ballistic missile tests.
Nothing went the way Khamenei demanded, with the SPV being an economically insignificant fig leaf for Tehran – most EU companies stopped doing business with Iran against their governments’ wishes.
Yet, he stayed in the deal.
With his speech for the year empty of new, strong threats and acting as if Iran has already succeeded – in a time period when the Islamic republic’s economy is in shambles – it seems clear that he is preparing for a marathon of staying in the deal, even if his country must live with the sanctions for years.
More major surprises included the parallel speeches given by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif.
THE MOST surprising thing about Zarif’s speech is that he is still foreign minister.
Only one month ago, Zarif publicly announced his resignation, seemingly without first warning Khamenei or Rouhani.
An absence of coordination in Iran at that level is unheard of.
It now appears that Zarif was the big winner, at least for the near future.
Zarif felt he and the camp promoting diplomatic engagement with the world was increasingly being sidelined by hard-liners like Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.
Soleimani even coordinated a visit to Iran by Syrian President Bashar Assad without including Zarif.
And until Zarif resigned – or fake-resigned as it turned out once Rouhani “refused” to accept his resignation – the anti-diplomacy camp had the momentum in Tehran.
They asked: what purpose was there in staying in the nuclear deal with so many sanctions re-imposed and the EU doing nothing to help, except provide moral support and begging Iran to stay in.
It seemed that Soleimani and the hard-liners had sway over Khamenei as well – the real power-broker.
Yet Zarif, along with Rouhani, gave parallel speeches with Khamenei on Thursday. They got to aggressively present their vision of continued engagement with the world to slowly peel away US sanctions “brick by brick” and frustrate the pressure campaign on Iran.
This means that Khamenei has decided to continue to give Rouhani/Zarif the stage and control of the foreign affairs messaging, which includes remaining in the deal for an extended period, possibly until the end.
It appears that Khamenei had second thoughts about whether he would be more successful in achieving a stronger position globally using force and without being able to use Zarif’s talent for softening up the EU and others.
None of this prevents Khamenei from making another U-turn and abruptly leaving the deal in the coming months, especially if Iran’s economy falters far more than it has to date.
And there is always the possibility of Iran cheating on the deal clandestinely.
But at least for now and the foreseeable future, it seems that Zarif’s fake-resignation kept Iran in the nuclear deal.
It also means the game of chicken – where the US and Iran hold to their diametrically opposed positions on sanctions, ballistic missile testing, adventurism in the Middle East and whether nuclear restrictions on Iran will be extended when the deal expires – is likely to continue with no end in sight.
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