Iran’s Supreme Leader gave a speech yesterday regarding the nuclear framework agreement, and what he said cannot have been comforting to the Obama Administration. Khamenei made two unequivocal demands: 1) sanctions must be lifted as soon as a final deal is signed, and 2) there will be no inspections of Iranian military sites. These stand in sharp contrast to the framework agreement as it has been repeatedly described by Western leaders ever since they announced it more than a week ago.
Careful observers should not be terribly surprised—at least not by the first demand. None other than Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Secretary John Kerry’s direct interlocutor at the talks in Lausanne, immediately tweeted after the announcement that in his understanding the sanctions would be lifted immediately upon signing—not gradually.
As to the question of inspections of Iranian military sites, that too was a contentious area of discussion carefully sidestepped during the framework negotiations. Leaks preceding the announcement of the agreement indicated that the talks nearly broke down due to Iran refusing to disclose what military nuclear research it had already undertaken.
It’s hard to predict how events will play out, but the Obama Administration should have no illusions on one count: Iran must be taken seriously when it says it sees this negotiation as part of a struggle with an enemy. Liberal American diplomats often delude themselves that foreigners prefer them to conservative hardliners. They think that American adversaries like the Castro brothers or the Iranians will want to work cooperatively with liberals here, and help the American liberals stay in power in order to advance a mutually beneficial, win-win agenda. Thus liberals think they can get better deals from U.S. opponents than hardliners who, as liberals see it, are so harsh and crude in their foreign policy that they force otherwise neutral or even pro-American states into opposition.
What liberal statesmen often miss is that for many of these leaders it is the American system and American civilization that is seen as the enemy. It is capitalism, for example, that the communists opposed, and they saw liberal capitalism as simply one of the masks that the heartless capitalist system could wear. For the Iranians, it is our secular, godless culture combined with our economic and military power that they see as the core threat. Obama’s ideas from this point of view are if anything less sympathetic to Iranian theocrats than those of, say, American evangelicals who aren’t running around supporting gay marriage, transgender rights and an industrial strength feminism that conservative Iranian mullahs see as blasphemy made flesh.
The mullahs in other words, don’t see blue America as an ally against red America. It is America, blue and red, that they hate and want to bring down. And while, like the Soviets during the Cold War, they may be willing to sign specific agreements where their interests and ours coincide on some particular issue, they do not look to end the rivalry by reaching agreements.
The Iranians are as likely to use negotiations to trip up and humiliate Obama as they were willing to doublecross Jimmy Carter and to drag out hostage negotiations as a way of making him look weak in the eyes of the world. American power is what they hope to break, and they don’t like it more or trust it more when a liberal Democrat stands at the head of our system.
The Iranians appear to believe that Obama desperately needs an agreement with Iran, and are using the leverage they think this gives them to tease and torment the president while they push for more concessions. They think, for example, that his reluctance to intervene in the Middle East reflects his desperate hunger for a deal—and so they are doubling down on that by stepping up support for the Houthis in Yemen. With the announcement of the framework agreement and their subsequent pullback, they seem to be playing him exactly the way Lucy plays Charlie Brown: the goal is to snatch the football away after Charlie Brown is committed to kicking it.
Will Iran walk away from a deal, or will it sign? Ultimately, nobody except the Supreme Leader knows, and he may not have made up his mind quite yet. Whatever else Iran is doing, it is clearly try its best to push the final negotiations in a more favorable direction—waiting to see what else he can get before acting decisively.
Given that the Iranians, as much as the communists before, them believe that the conflict between them and the United States is a conflict arising from the differences between the two country’s systems rather than from personality clashes or minor and adjustable conflicts of interest, the mullahs would by their own lights be foolish indeed if they didn’t do everything possible to push their advantages in Geneva and elsewhere. Iran may in the end be willing to give Obama the deal he so badly wants, but the mullahs aim to make him pay the highest possible price for the smallest possible gain that they can. From what we have seen in the days since the framework agreement was announced, Iran doesn’t think the squeezing process is over, and it thinks that the Obama administration can and will end up paying more to get less.