Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate nuclear decision-maker, has been forced to face a grim reality. As sanctions begin to bite harder, he has two choices. He could accept a Western-backed nuclear deal and ‘drink from the poison cup’ to avoid domestic turmoil while running the risk of alienating his most loyal supporters. Otherwise, he would have to stay the course in the face of growing international pressure and drive his impoverished government off a cliff. The former would only slow down Iran’s nuclear program while keeping a rogue regime in power; the latter would provide the Iranian people with the opportunity to once again join the international community and find their well-deserved place on the global stage.
It is in the best interest of world peace to increase pressure on the Islamic Republic, forcing it into a corner where it would find itself bereft of lucrative oil revenues—and without any major allies, since Syria’s Assad is becoming more and more irrelevant each day.
Over the past thirty–three years, the Islamic Republic has claimed to be the flag bearer of global anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments. Regime loyalists in Tehran have identified with these core values, chanting, “Death to America!” and, “Death to Israel!” at every Friday prayer for the past three decades. Diehard supporters of the Iranian government will face an identity crisis should Ayatollah Khamenei decide to drink the ‘poison’ of an American–backed nuclear agreement.
Some critics argue that Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, Khamenei’s predecessor, drank from the infamous ‘cup of poison’ and ended the Iran–Iraq War without alienating his faithful supporters. For one, Khamenei lacks his predecessor’s charisma, legitimacy and popular appeal. He is in no position to take such a wild risk. Second, Khamenei is perhaps more ideologically anti-American and less pragmatic than his predecessor was believed to be.
During the peak days of the Iran–Iraq War, the Khomeini regime in Tehran secretly purchased weapons from Israel and hosted a high-ranking American diplomatic mission to Tehran headed by Reagan’s national security adviser, Robert McFarlane. Iran badly needed arms to fight against Iraq, and without them, regime survival was in serious jeopardy. Khomeini, despite his harsh rhetoric, authorized such purchases and meetings.
Khamenei, on the other hand, has never displayed a soft spot for the West, not even for the sake of his own regime. His hardline approach towards the West goes back to his years as a young seminary student in Qom. Khamenei was the first Iranian to translate the writings of the Egyptian radical Islamist Sayyid Al-Qutb from Arabic to Persian.
Qutb, one of the most influential intellectuals in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, has played a significant role in shaping Khamenei’s anti-Western and anti-American views. In Khamenei’s worldview, permanent peace with the West is meaningless: he believes in taking as much as he can, while relinquishing to the Western enemy as little as possible. That has been Khamenei’s general nuclear negotiating strategy for the past ten years.
Khamenei will not bend—but if he does, it will be temporary. He is not interested in long-term deals with the US, nor is he interested in establishing meaningful ties with it. The supreme leader is determined to get as much as he can and give up as little as possible. It is now our responsibility to force him to choose the second option by standing firm on the position that nothing short of full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency will satisfy the international community.