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Iran Analyst: Khamenei’s Cautious Nuclear Policy Might Signal New ‘Heroic Flexibility’

IRAN -- Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei listens to a speaker during a meeting with a group of university students in Tehran, May 28, 2018

By Ali Afshari

The crisis in Iran’s economy and the increasing public dissent caused by the recession and financial hardships as well as the fragile balance of power between the government and society have likely led to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei adopting a milder position against the U.S. government’s aggressive moves such as withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran.

In the new Iranian policy, the idea of “heroic flexibility” has been preserved alongside taking small steps in furthering Tehran’s nuclear program. Khamenei first talked about heroic flexibility just before agreeing to enter into the nuclear deal with the West.

Khamenei’s insistence on expanding Tehran’s nuclear activities “within the framework of JCPOA” shows clearly that the Iranian leadership is observing the West’s red lines and Israel’s sensitivities.

Under the circumstances, it is unlikely that Khamenei would allow nuclear adventurism and a return to the times when Iranian officials described UN resolutions as “shreds of paper.”

Cautious statements made by the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization’s chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, following Khamenei’s order to boost enrichment, showed that actual measures have been coordinated between the Rouhani administration and Khamenei.

Khamenei’s positions in the aftermath of the United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, also called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are not unprecedented and do not mark a major change in Tehran’s nuclear policy. His behavior is consistent with that which he exhibited shortly before the deal was concluded.

At the time, Khamenei called for increasing Iran’s enrichment capacity to 190,000 SWU within 15 years.

Therefore Khamenei has not said anything new, and the implementation of what he said would not bring about any meaningful change in the current situation of the nuclear case.

Khamenei’s comment about being pessimistic about the United States’ commitment to JCPOA was rhetorical. It is now clear that he initiated secret talks with the United States in 2011 and gave Iranian officials the go-ahead to proceed toward a nuclear agreement with the West. The Rouhani administration simply carried out what he had planned as Tehran’s grand policymaker.

Although he tried to preserve the firm and uncompromising personae in order to distance himself from accepting and carrying out the deal, Khamenei maintained that he would not be the first to leave the JCPOA. It was clear that Khamenei feared the consequences of sanctions and international isolation for his regime. So he was not against JCPOA.

The United States’ withdrawal from the JCPOA, created another opportunity for proving Khamenei’s rhetorical positions wrong.

He threatened repeatedly that he would set fire to the JCPOA if the US decided to tear it apart. He also threatened the US of his hard reaction. But he showed none of those reactions after the US pullout from the deal. Instead, he let the Rouhani administration to continue its commitments to the JCPOA and to carry on working with what Rouhani called “The 4+1.”

Nevertheless, Khamenei’s cautious policy is not the outcome of a serious review of his aggressive foreign policy. It is the difficult situation Iran is entangled in, and the many challenges facing Tehran that has imposed this policy on him. There is no guarantee that this behaviour would continue.

However, its success depends in the changing situation of the region and the equally changing balance of power between the government and the people in Iran. Bottlenecks in these situations might prompt Khamenei to expand his “heroic flexibility” to other areas including Iran’s missile program and its regional presence, although an escalation in the level of conflicts is also a possibility.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Radio Farda.
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    Ali Afshari

    Ali Afshari is an expert on Iran and an analyst of Iranian affairs, residing in Washington D.C. Mr. Afshari occasionally contributes analysis to Radio Farda.