Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said once again that he did not agree with the way the nuclear deal with the West was implemented. "I have repeatedly warned the president and the foreign minister about it," he said during a May 22 meeting with students.
This is not the first time Khamenei evades his responsibility about the 2015 nuclear agreement also called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), although he has played the main part in forging the deal at five different points.
Former foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi wrote in his memoirs that he told Khamenei about a letter he received from Oman's officials about secret talks with the U.S. over the nuclear issue. "Khamenei said that talks could be harmful, but I said let us try it just to make sure that we haven't left any stone unturned, …and he said he had no objection to talks as a last resort," wrote Salehi.
Later Khamenei said that he had been "fooled" to accept Salehi's suggestion, although, admitting his mistake would not change the result. Khamenei did endorse the talks.
In March 2013, the secret talks were temporarily suspended at Khamenei's order, but it was already too late, because some concrete results had been achieved. At that stage even Hassan Rouhani, then a member of the Supreme National Security Council, and his colleagues did not know about the secret talks.
In an interview in August 2015, Salehi said that Rouhani could not believe there were secret talks when he told him about it.
The second direct intervention by Khamenei in furthering negotiations with the United States was in September 2013 when he used the keywords "heroic flexibility" which strongly encouraged Iranian diplomats to further the talks.
The third juncture, was when Khamenei allowed Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to hold talks with his U.S. counterpart John Kerry. Khamenei who had previously banned talks at this level, later said his decision was a mistake.
The fourth intervention by Khamenei took place in October 2015. A Tehran MP Mehdi Kouchakzadeh says that at the time, Security Chief Ali Shamkhani, Majles Speaker Ali Larijani, and Ali Asghar Hejazi Khamenei’s deputy chief of security and political affairs "decided" in a meeting that the JCPOA should be approved by the Majles.
Later, the Foreign Ministry announced that it did not know about such a meeting, and some lawmakers questioned Hejazi's presence at the meeting. Khamenei's office subsequently announced that Hejazi did not take part at the meeting as "an independent individual," clearly meaning that Hejazi was there to convey Khamenei's message and endorsement of the approval of the JCPOA bill at the Majles.
Responding to protests at the voting session where no one was allowed to put forward questions or suggestions, Larijani explained that "The country has decided that there should be no suggestions." Kouchakzadeh asked: "What do you mean by “the country?”, and Larijani said: "The same person you know," alluding to Khamenei's direct involvement in the decision.
The fifth and last intervention by Khamenei was made in October 2015 when in a letter to Rouhani, Khamenei endorsed "ratification number 634, dated 23 July 2015," and therefore, approved the JCPOA on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
At the same, while approving the JCPOA, Khamenei set 9 conditions in a letter to Rouhani about how to "implement" the JCPOA. Khamenei told the students in his May 22 meeting that those were conditions for approving the JCPOA. This is clearly a distortion of the truth, as he had already approved the JCPOA before setting the conditions for implementing the agreement.
Meanwhile, members of Iran's negotiating team have said that all along during the talks, Khamenei was briefed on the details of negotiations and no steps were taken without his prior approval.
In another development, explaining why he has not “set fire” to the JCPOA after the U.S. pull-out from the agreement as he had threatened, he said he did not do that for the sake of expediency.
He also said on May 22 that "even if his conditions are not met, it is not the leader's responsibility to get involved in the matter," which means he does not like to directly endorse a possible withdrawal from the JCPOA in the same way that he lacked the courage to accept responsibility for the nuclear agreement.
Khamenei's strategy is blaming the Rouhani administration to save face before his supporters, is similar to what his predecessor Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeyni did at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. After years of stubbornly continuing a useless war, he finally accepted UN Resolution 598, saying he drank the "chalice of poison". Meanwhile, Iran's human and economic resources were drained.
At least in this instance, Khamenei has so far tried hard not to be a copycat of his predecessor.