Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's website has published a series of exclusive interviews with seven top-ranking officials in Iran. Published from January 11 to January 18, and titled "Decisive Word," the interviews reflect attitudes of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and two of his predecessors, Ali Akbar Velayati and Kamal Kharrazi; the speaker of Iran’s Majlis parliament, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and his predecessor, Ali Larijani; the Deputy President and head of Iran Atomic Energy Organization (IAEO) Ali Akbar Salehi; and former Secretary of the Islamic Republic Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili.
The interviews all concern the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, as well as Washington's economic sanctions imposed on Tehran.
The website's special edition, the "Decisive Word," has a sub-heading, "The Position of the Islamic Republic regarding JCPOA and Sanctions," that highlights the topic's "importance."
Six of the seven interviewees — Zarif, Jalili, Velayati, Qalibaf, Kharrazi, and Salehi — are members of the JCPOA Implementation Oversight Council, while Ali Larijani was previously a member of the same board.
According to official reports, JIOC, which was launched in October 2015, has eight members. Therefore, President Hassan Rouhani and the Secretary of SNSC Ali Shamkhani must be the two other board members.
In the previous reports, Kamal Kharazi's name was missing in the list of JIOC members, but in the website feature, it is emphasized that he is also a board member. His membership in the board could mean increasing his role in nuclear decision-making.
However, also in the website feature, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Rear Admiral and former Minister of Defense Ali Shamkhani is absent, though he is currently the Secretary of JIOC's eight-member influential board. His absence could be meaningful.
A member of the Iranian-Arab minority, Shamkhani is one of the staunch opponents of the JCPOA. Recently, his dispute with the government over the nuclear deal intensified to the extent that President Hassan Rouhani's Chief of Staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, accused him of secretly, and without informing Rouhani, cooperating with Majlis in passing a controversial motion. The parliamentary bill, the Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions, requires the government to speed up the nuclear program and enrich uranium up to 20 percent.
Rouhani's government initially opposed the motion and publicly dismissed it as an effort to sabotage possible negotiations with President Joe Biden's administration. He quickly relented after Parliament approved the motion. Many analysts believe that Supreme Leader Khamenei’s order forced Rouhani to change his mind.
Also on the website, Kamal Kharrazi, who also presides over Iran's Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, said that the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, had some "reservations" about the parliament's decision to enrich uranium by 20 percent, but "the leadership gave the order" and work for higher enrichment immediately began.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has also said that Khamenei had said "in a meeting" that "the parliamentary resolution (The Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions Act) must be implemented" and, two days later, it was.
While compiling the bylaws for the Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions, the government made its implementation conditional to providing necessary funds and two-month deliberation. After Khamenei's order, it seems that the administration has changed its approach toward the Act.
This set of developments shows that Khamenei has become more active in supervising the case and has decided to directly manage and coordinate Iran's nuclear issues and its reactions to the U.S. sanctions in an explicit manner. Simultaneously, Rouhani has been pushed to a corner and left with less room to maneuver.
The publication of the web feature, which follows Khamenei's remarks on Washington's return to the JCPOA, has severely overshadowed and weakened Rouhani's position on the issue.
In the series of "exclusive interviews," crammed with praise for Khamenei's views and activities, a phrase is constantly repeated. It emphasizes the regime's "Decisive Word," including, "Washington must lift the sanctions imposed on Tehran at the same time or before returning to the JCPOA."
This approach differs slightly but significantly from the view of Hassan Rouhani. The Iranian President has repeatedly emphasized the necessity of the U.S.' immediate return to the JCPOA without highlighting specific pre-conditions.
By merely emphasizing that aspect, Rouhani had planned to take advantage of the psychological and political atmosphere in domestic politics and repair his government's image. The plan is facing an impasse since the Supreme Leader has emphasized that he was "not impatiently" seeking Washington's return to the faltering nuclear deal. Lifting the sanctions, Khamenei has argued, is his priority. Thus, Khamenei has tried to neutralize Rouhani's approach.
There are currently several possibilities for the U.S. to return to the JCPOA.
First, the parties to the deal take no action, the U.S. rejoins the JCPOA, and then negotiates resume over lifting the sanctions and Iran's return to its nuclear commitments.
Second, Iran should first return to its nuclear commitments, and then the United States starts reducing its sanctions.
Third, the United States should first reduce sanctions, and then Iran should return to its nuclear commitments.
Fourth, the United States returns to the JCPOA and order the reduction of sanctions, and it should implement the order within two to three months. Simultaneously, Iran will also return to its nuclear commitments.
Each of these propositions has its pros and cons. Still, in the margins of these propositions and from the perspective of domestic politics, Khamenei is organizing affairs to minimize the role and achievement of Rouhani and his camp in future developments.
The offensive approach of Iran includes various forms such as emphasizing the lifting of sanctions, expressing disinterest to the United States' return to the JCPOA without lifting the sanctions, ordering the implementation of the Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions, expanding the nuclear program, launching some provocative actions such as producing metal uranium, the IRGC missile exercises, and so on. These scenarios could somehow be confusing, but they are understandable.
Such an aggressive position is somewhat reminiscent of the Iranian government's behavior after the Saadtabad nuclear talks failed in 2004.
After that deadlock, Khamenei also said that he had ordered removing the nuclear facilities' seal, focusing on increasing the enrichment capacity and manufacturing centrifuges so that Tehran could attend the next round of talks well-armed.
Now, in the words of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Islamic Republic is "strengthening the capacity of its nuclear weapons" so as not to be unarmed in the next possible negotiations.
Such a strategy will also be somewhat fruitful in domestic politics. Khamenei is testing a two-pronged method in tackling the issue while presuming that President Biden will undoubtedly rejoin the JCPOA.
In the first method, if this strategy leads to a faster return of the U.S. government to the JCPOA and the lifting of sanctions, Khamenei may boast that his aggressive policy has worked, and President Rouhani could not claim any credit for Washington's return to the nuclear deal.
Meanwhile, suppose this strategy leads to the United States' return to the JCPOA for the time being but postpones lifting the sanctions to sometime after Iran's next presidential election in June 2021. In that case, Hassan Rouhani's camp will once again be the loser side in the domestic political rivalries.
In recent weeks, high-ranking government officials, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have made it clear that some members of the rival camp are relaying messages to President Joe Biden warning him against holding nuclear talks with the Rouhani's administration. Anti-Rouhani forces are urging Washington to negotiate with his successor, Zarif has maintained.
In the current psychological environment where public opinion vehemently rejects any opposition to negotiation with the U.S. and lifting sanctions, it is natural that Khamenei cannot openly support delaying Tehra-Washington talks. He has repeatedly stressed that President Biden's administration should not delay lifting the sanctions even by an hour. However, in practice, he can manage the process in a way that it will delay the lifting of sanctions for several months, or credit for it will be tied entirely to his name, not Rouhani's.
In recent weeks, two prominent fundamentalist 'loudspeakers” — the deputy speaker of parliament, Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh, and the hard-liners' current godfather Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel — have expressed concern that gold and currency prices might fall sharply as the Biden's administration takes office. They argue that such moves are orchestrated by Rouhani's camp and aimed at the next presidential election in Iran this summer.
As a rule, the fundamentalists' concerns are not only reported in the media. They are also tabled at the political and decision-making circles, where the possibility of Washington's return to JCPOA and lifting the sanctions, Iran's economic situation, political upheavals, and election's outcome are discussed.
It is clear that fundamentalists — who, with the support of the Khamenei, the Guardian Council, and the one-sided domestic political climate has won the majority in Majlis— expect to win the presidency and see their concerns addressed.
From this point of view, one can say that even if the leader of the Islamic Republic had not reached a decisive conclusion in this regard, a kind of political pressure and considerable expectation has formed around him.
Iranian government officials have repeatedly stressed in recent years that their primary goal is to lift sanctions. Still, the available evidence suggests that their current concern is winning domestic power struggle and elections while playing with the sanctions card. Power is ahead of worries about the people. That is the name of the game for the two rival camps.