by Ellie Geranmayeh
On Friday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a significant speech that categorically ruled out negotiations with the United States beyond nuclear issues. The anti-US rhetoric itself was unsurprising given that the speech marked the 27th anniversary of the death of Iran’s first supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But the content of the speech, an important reflection of how Khamenei is taking stock in the aftermath of the nuclear deal, explicitly underscored three aspects of Iran’s foreign policy trajectory.
First, Khamenei harshly reiterated that, although Iran had fulfilled its obligations under the nuclear deal, the US was “disloyal” in keeping its end of the bargain. This reflects a growing sentiment within the Iranian leadership that, although sanctions have been eased in accordance with the nuclear deal, the psychological fear of US Treasury enforcement continues to linger over international financial institutions and the US has not made its best effort to remove barriers to doing legitimate business with Iran.
More relevant to this part of the speech is what the Supreme Leader did not say. Although Khamenei scorned the United States, at no point did he suggest that Iran should take counter-measures with respect to its implementation of the nuclear deal. Despite its grievances with the United States, Iran will continue fulfill its obligations vis-à-vis the P5+1, as consistently confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency since January.
Second, in perhaps the most important part of the speech, Khamenei suggested that the nuclear talks served as precedent that Iran should not make deals with the United States because the outcome would inherently be anti-Iran. He accused the US of continuing its destructive position vis-à-vis Iran despite the latter making concessions during the nuclear negotiations. The negotiations had been an “experience” for Iran, but one that seemed to indicate that the United States would not change its “destructive role” in any future talks on missiles, human right, or terrorism.
This segment of Khamenei’s speech directly links to a comment he made in April 2015 after Iran and the P5+1 agreed on the framework of a nuclear deal in Lausanne. He stated that if the other side (i.e. the United States) “stops its usual obstinacy, this will be an experience for [Iran] and we will find out that we can negotiate with it over other matters as well.” At that time, some senior Iranian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, placed great emphasis on this statement. They viewed it as a signal from the Supreme Leader that if the nuclear negotiations, and eventually the deal itself, established a positive precedent and provided dividends, then Tehran would be open to a bargaining process with the United States on matters beyond the nuclear file.
Third, given the experience and the outcome of the nuclear talks, the Supreme Leader ruled out cooperation with the United States on regional conflicts. After referencing the Syrian crisis, Khamenei noted that America’s aims in the region are “180 degrees opposed to Iran’s.” To reach a compromise on regional issues with the United States, Khamenei noted that Iran would need to make concessions and “play by the rules” set by the United States—a move that Khamenei stated that he opposed. This echoes the fears of many within the Iranian security establishment that the US-Russian-led political track on Syria is a bid to force unfavorable terms onto Iran concerning its regional strategic interests.
The nuclear deal created a political opening for the West and Iran to engage on regional diplomacy, most urgently and clearly seen through Iran’s inclusion in international talks over the Syrian crisis. Yet almost a year after signing the nuclear deal, there has been little meaningful movement either from Iran or the West to maximize the potential of this opening. Although the nuclear negotiations have taken Iran-US bilateral relations to unprecedented levels, the animosity persists. In his latest speech, the Supreme Leader made a clear connection between the conditions that exist following the nuclear deal and his strong unwillingness for Iran to participate more actively in US-led regional diplomacy. As long as he perceives that the United States is dedicated to the economic and political isolation of the Islamic Republic, Khamenei is likely to hold to this position and therefore limit President Hassan Rouhani’s diplomatic outreach on regional security.