Khamenei Doesn’t Trust Babylon the Great. Period.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei addresses the nation in a live TV speech on the occasion of Eid al-Adha in Tehran, July 31, 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei addresses the nation in a live TV speech on the occasion of Eid al-Adha in Tehran, July 31, 2020

The Democratic Party’s recently released policy platform was greeted warmly by certain newspapers in Iran. Media outlets associated with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani praised the party’s rejection of “regime change” as U.S. policy. They also welcomed its proposal for a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal from which President Donald Trump withdrew in May 2018. If former Vice President Joe Biden wins in November, the Rouhani camp believes the new American administration will not only revive the nuclear deal, but also lift sanctions. This could save the Islamic Republic of Iran from economic devastation, internal rebellion, and further regional setbacks. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose hatred of America has always been bipartisan, begs to differ.

Khamenei believes the United States can never be trusted. In his eyes, Democrats who prefer “soft” power to “hard” power may be even more dangerous than hawkish Republicans. This good cop-bad cop routine fits perfectly into Khamenei’s paranoia. While Democrats preach engagement, Khamenei views American soft power as “subtle warfare” meant to undermine the “spiritual” basis of the Islamic Republic. According to a senior intelligence officer with whom we spoke and who has a long history of dealing with Iran, “Khamenei is paranoid that the ultimate American goal is to use this soft power to destroy the regime from within.” In his feverish, conspiratorial worldview, Khamenei believes that the Democratic and Republican parties are controlled by “Zionists” bent on overthrowing the Islamic Republic and reversing the “victories” of the 1979 revolution.

Khamenei came to understand that further economic pain from more punishing sanctions might trigger regime-changing protests.

The more Democrats and Trump disavow regime change, the more Khamenei becomes convinced that’s exactly their goal. He understands better than American leaders the enduring appeal of America among Iran’s young and repressed population.

The supreme leader had no illusions about the 2015 nuclear deal. He did not view it as a first step in resolving more than 40 years of mutual enmity. He endorsed Rouhani’s nuclear negotiations with the Obama administration as a policy of “heroic flexibility”, which he compared to the moves of a wrestler who changes tactics “but should not forget who his rival is and what his goal is.” Following the 2009 protests, which saw millions of Iranians in the streets confronting the regime, Khamenei came to understand that further economic pain from more punishing sanctions might trigger regime-changing protests. The 2009 Green Revolution had shocked the regime and, as Khamenei acknowledged, taken it to the “edge of the cliff.” So, he compromised at the negotiating table. This flexibility was made easier by the Obama administration’s extensive nuclear concessions, which gave the Islamic Republic near-zero nuclear breakout time and easier advanced centrifuge-sneakout options, as key restrictions disappeared over time.

Today the regime’s security apparatus is better prepared for popular unrest, as demonstrated by its effective crackdowns on continual protests between 2017 and 2019. As a result of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, the Islamic Republic faces an even more severe economic crisis today than it did prior to the JCPOA. Yet Khamenei thinks his regime can survive any pressure short of American military action or a massive domestic uprising that overwhelms his security forces.

Khamenei will never trust Americans: He knows that his regime is viewed as dangerous and odious by most of the Washington political and national security establishment, with the exception of a leftist fringe. Most Democrats embrace the JCPOA not because they tolerate the regime. Instead, they believe, as former President Barack Obama said in response to the 2009 Green Revolution, in his often-repeated phrase borrowed from Martin Luther King Jr., that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” They believe more diplomatic engagement with Tehran will, over time, wear down the regime so that it must moderate or disappear. Republicans prefer greater coercion to bend the moral arc more rapidly. For Khamenei, who sees clearly through the partisan noise in Washington, American politics means he gets both devious seduction and regime-punishing pain, as successive administrations open up and crack down. The supreme leader sees both as a mortal threat.

Khamenei could have billions of dollars of Iranian oil flow freely with zero restrictions on hard currency under the Democrats for a few years.

Khamenei is in no mood for a simple “re-entry” into the JCPOA, regardless of who is elected. Under the JPCOA, a previous Democratic administration took away, at least temporarily, a chunk of his nuclear infrastructure in return for economic relief. And then Trump took away that economic relief and imposed crippling sanctions. It’s also been a horrible few years for the supreme leader: Two major internal rebellions erupted. The Israeli Mossad sabotaged key nuclear, missile, and military facilities and embarrassed Iranian security services by removing a nuclear archive from right under their noses that demonstrated the regime’s nuclear mendacity. In operations greenlighted by America and tolerated by Russia, the Israeli Air Force launched hundreds of strikes against Iranian commanders, weapons supply lines, and proxies in Syria and Iraq. And the most humiliating blow: Trump’s killing of Iran’s top battlefield commander, Qassem Soleimani, whom Khamenei considered a national hero.

And Iranian officials expect it to get worse. There’s fear of more popular insurrections like the nationwide November 2019 uprising, which shook the regime to its core. The security apparatus may be more efficient and repressive than in 2009, but a large-scale counterrevolution could overwhelm the regime’s stormtroopers. Khamenei also knows that while the Biden team has discussed a possible return to the JCPOA, meaningful sanctions relief could be ephemeral, since it will be almost unanimously opposed by Republicans. Khamenei could have billions of dollars of Iranian oil flow freely with zero restrictions on hard currency under the Democrats for a few years. That may help him avoid total economic collapse and find more money for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, and his other murderous proxies.

Khamenei rightly fears that his regime will end up on the ash heap of history. Democrats and Republicans should be dedicated, in their own way, to helping Iranians achieve that goal.

But it’s difficult to imagine a Republican presidential candidate running in 2024 who will not support a return to a policy of maximum pressure. Many international companies and banks will be frightened to invest in Iran knowing that, four years later, a Republican president could yet again pull America out of the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions. (Ironically, since a Trump deal with Iran is more likely to be supported by Republicans and some Democrats and ratified by the Senate as a treaty, it could be more enduring than the Democratic alternative.)

Khamenei knows his days on Earth are numbered and that his legacy can be secured only by handpicking a younger, ideologically fanatical successor. Gone after 2021 will be Rouhani and possibly his mendacious but savvy foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Their successors will not be nearly as masterful at manipulating Western elites, even though some of those elites have shown a disturbing desire to be manipulated. Revealing the true face of the regime, these successors’ bellicosity and revolutionary zeal could strengthen the Washington consensus about the threat from the Islamic Republic. And the painful memories of the regime’s leadership role in the slaughter of over 500,000 people in Syria on their watch may be enough to have awakened at least some senior members of Biden’s foreign policy team to the horrendous depravity of the regime.

Khamenei rightly fears that his regime will end up on the ash heap of history. Democrats and Republicans should be dedicated, in their own way, to helping Iranians achieve that goal.

The opinions expressed by the authors are not necessarily the views of Radio Farda
  • 16x9 Image
  • Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

  • 16x9 Image
  • Alireza Nader is a senior fellow at FDD focusing on Iran and U.S. policy in the Middle East. He also researches the Islamic Republic’s systematic repression of religious freedom and currently serves on ADL’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s