The interim accord negotiated in Geneva between Iran and six world powers split the revolutionary regime into two camps: The pro-accommodation party held that Iran had no choice but to settle for a deal on its nuclear program, because it is broke and its economy is teetering on a cliff edge.
The hawks maintained that economic difficulties can and should be weathered and would be resolved in good time.
The two camps found common ground on two cardinal issues: On no account must Tehran compromise its “natural right” to enrich uranium, or accept any slowdown in the construction of its heavy water reactor in Arak, while not relenting on its pressing demand for eased sanctions.
This consensus gave supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei enough leverage to unite the two camps behind the tough line he projected as a stern warning to President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his deputy, Seyyed Abbas Araghchi: On no account, may they give an inch on either of these two sacrosanct issues, although relied on to bring home relief from the crippling sanctions.
The omens were out there before the nuclear talks resumed Wednesday, Nov. 20. But to drive the point home to the ever-optimistic Western powers, Khamenei chose Day One of the Geneva talks for an icy shower. In an address to an audience of hard-line Basijj militiamen, he declared that Iran would not step back “one iota” from its nuclear rights, then went on to spit out a vicious rant against Israel, whom he termed “the roguish, filthy, rabid dog of the region,” whose regime is “doomed to extinction.”
He also cast aspersions on US government’s trustworthiness, but left the door open to “friendly” relations with the American people.
Khamenei won’t relent
Before the meeting in Geneva, President Rouhani received phone calls from Russian, Chinese and British leaders. In his report on their content to the supreme leader, Rouhani said he had not detected any sign that they would bend towards accepting Iran’s basic position. Quite the opposite: In his view, if Tehran hoped to gain anything from the negotiations, its team would have to give substantial ground – even if it was only a tactical retreat for the sake of eventual success.
Khamenei refused to hear of any such suggestion.
The steady hardening of the regime’s approach to nuclear diplomacy was instigated by its most radical quarters, spearheaded by Revolutionary Guards Corps leaders. The IRGC is hanging on for dear life to its control of the nuclear program and the bountiful funding available for its development. This, the treasury is finding increasingly hard to stump up.
The Majlis (parliament) manifested its support for nuclear diplomacy with the international community by a majority statement strengthening the hand of Foreign Minister Zarif while at the same time tying his hands on concessions.
Rouhani may pay the price for the Geneva let-down
The supreme leader consistently turned down the president’s repeated request for leeway on concessions to enhance the chances of an accord in Geneva and the partial rollback off sanctions. Rouhani reminded Khamenei that he had vowed to voters before and after he was elected president: “While the centrifuges must continue to spin, so too must the wheels of the Iranian economy.”
However, the supreme leader was bitterly disappointed by the outcome of diplomacy thus far. His diatribe Tuesday, Nov. 19, reflected his frustration upon realizing that the preliminary accord on the table in Geneva was not designed to lift the toughest sanctions which maintain an iron grip on Iran’s ability to sell oil and conduct financial transactions. Even the proposed release of a portion of frozen Iranian assets in foreign banks will not bring in more than $20 bn at most (some say only $10-12 bn).
This amount would keep Iran afloat for no more than a few months at best.
DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian experts report that coming out of the current round of talks in Geneva empty-handed would land President Rouhani and his government in deep trouble: The radicals are gearing up for his ouster for the failure of his charm campaign, whereas the moderates will redouble their demands for real nuclear concessions – or even the program’s suspension.
The “heroic flexibility” confidence trick
Khamenei’s diatribe, delivered to a fanatical audience of Basijj militiamen, drew on past history for a warning to President Rouhani against turning to the moderates for succor. The ayatollah made this point by referring, out of the blue, to the leaders of the protest movement against the rigged presidential election five years ago and castigating them as “heads of a conspiracy.”
This was meant to deter Rouhani against ordering the release of Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karoubi, the opposition leaders who led the movement, from their thousand days of house arrest.
On the negotiations in Geneva, he said clearly, “We do not interfere in the details of the talks but there are red lines that they are obliged to respect.”
Rouhani was cautioned that his head would roll if he failed to uphold the dictates of “heroic flexibility.”
Khamenei devised this slogan to gull the West, especially the Obama administration, into trusting that the Islamic Republic was ready to depart from its most cherished ideals and open to persuasion through peaceful diplomacy into retreating from its nuclear aspirations and hate campaign against America.
Subsequent developments at Geneva exposed “heroic flexibility” as a ruse to cheat the international community into parting with concessions, especially sanctions relief, without Tehran relinquishing any of its Islamic goals.
The smiles turn sour
The smiling president finds himself pinned to the wall between the hardliners and supreme leader and the popular clamor to make good on his promise of a let-up in economic hardships through successful nuclear negotiations with the world powers.
His sense of a lurking personal threat was made more acute by the huge images of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad glowering down at him from the walls of Tehran.