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IRAN: What Makes the Supreme Leader Tick?

by Alireza Jafarzadeh

As another deadline for a nuclear deal with Iran fast approaches, the regime in Tehran has yet again hardened its stance in order to score more concessions. The regime’s embattled Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has set fresh conditions and red lines as negotiators seemingly come down the home stretch.

Tehran has clearly been reeling under the weight of sanctions and has been loudly grumbling about international demands. Khamenei recently griped, “We have done what we needed to regarding the issue of 20% enrichment, Fordow [underground uranium enrichment site], Arak [heavy water facility] and the centrifuges. Thus, the Iranian side has acted according to the logic of the negotiations… The other side, however, is asking too much, is audacious, and is blackmailing. … The Iranian nation will not kneel to bullying.”

Ironically, Khamenei complains about “bullying” while his cronies bully the Iranian people and dissidents on a daily basis to the extent that hundreds of thousands of Iranians have been forced into exile, women are deprived of their most basic social and political rights and the whole population has been robbed of its fundamental human rights like the freedom of expression.

His regime continues to dig itself a bigger hole because it has come to an impasse with no palatable options. If it proceeds with the nuclear program, it will have to confront an outraged international community. And, if it abandons the nuclear path, it will have to confront an already enraged population – with no nuclear arsenal and a damaged regional influence.

Faced with a vastly disenfranchised population, the regime is weak, desperate and anxious. Khamenei has demanded the immediate lifting of international sanctions. That is a tell-tale sign of weakness, which his regime feels in the face of a population on the verge of rising up in protest. Khamenei is frightened about the prospect of another uprising similar to the ones that swept the streets of Iran in 2009.

Faced with a frightened regime, U.S. policy must add to its diplomatic arsenal. As Tehran plays the waiting game to see if Washington blinks first, U.S. policy should stay on course and increase the pressure. Talking with dictators for the sake of talking is not diplomacy; it is a prelude to disaster.

In a February 8 interview, Secretary Kerry dismissed the possibility of a third extension to the talks in the event that a general agreement is not reached by the March deadline. Earlier this month, President Obama also showed no appetite for an extension and said, “We now know enough that the issues are no longer technical, the issues are, does Iran have the political will and the desire to get a deal done?”

Khamenei’s own statements clearly argue against such political will.

Although U.S. officials have ruled out an extension to the talks in their rhetoric, their actions have not kept up with fast changing realities. Tehran did not come to the negotiating table for the carrots. It was forced to sit down as a result of sanctions. To date, however, it has received nearly 12 billion dollars in unfrozen assets. Such enticement has emboldened Khamenei to get more concessions. Washington’s reconciliatory policy needs an overhaul, and fast.

By the same token, the administration should re-evaluate its ill-conceived stance against congressional oversight on a potential deal with Iran. It was congressional action that convinced the President to grudgingly sign onto a sanctions bill that pushed Iran into the negotiating room. And, it is only added pressure that will push Tehran to pick up the pen. For the sake of global peace, Tehran should not be given the opportunity to exploit perceived divisions between the White House and Capitol Hill.

International sanctions have had a devastating impact on the regime’s revenues. Despite plummeting oil prices, the seemingly “moderate” president, Hassan Rouhani, has tripled defence spending in the new year’s budget while cutting subsidies, which clearly points to Tehran’s dangerous long-term intensions.

As Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), has said, Khamenei has not yet decided to abandon the path toward a nuclear weapon because his regime’s survival depends on it – along with domestic suppression and export of terror.

There should be firm policies in place to change his mind, not mindful policies that make his position firmer.

Alireza Jafarzadeh is a member of Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran

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