Iran’s supreme leader keeps his options open with nuclear deal

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Back in 1988, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic republic, had a radical change of heart, accepting a UN ceasefire to end Iran’s devastating eight-year war with Iraq. Taking the decision, the ayatollah said, was more deadly than “drinking from a poisoned chalice”.

Twenty-five years on, Iran has embraced another momentous shift in policy, agreeing for the first time in a decade to freeze components of its cherished nuclear programme. So has Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader and Khomeini’s successor, drunk from the same cup?

Not quite. The verdict of government insiders and analysts in Tehran is that the leader might have taken a sip, but whether he will swallow the rest is far from guaranteed.

In hardline as much as in reformist circles, everyone is agreed: Iran takes on the burden of proving that it will not militarise its nuclear efforts but a comprehensive settlement will only be achieved if it can, at the same time, hold on to its low-level uranium enrichment programme.

One person close to the government says that, in backing the negotiations that led to Sunday’s six-month agreement with world powers, Mr Khamenei was leaving his options open: “He manages the situation within the range of possibilities, and he sees today that the world wants to talk. A new [Iranian] government is in place and wants to resolve the problem, so he backs it. He wants a resolution, but it depends on what the negotiations produce.”

For Mr Khamenei, the main champion of an accelerated nuclear programme that western governments say is close to breakout capacity – the dash for the bomb – abandoning confrontation for diplomacy was a matter of necessity as much as opportunity.

A year ago, he is believed to have authorised officials to hold secret talks with the US, though he apparently had no intention of allowing Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, his unruly president, to reach an agreement and take the credit for it. These talks, however, helped to ease Iranian suspicions of the US and paved the way for the interim agreement reached in Geneva.

To be sure, there is much truth in western governments’ assertions that the effectiveness of sanctions forced Iran to compromise. One disheartened official says sanctions have been “more destructive” to Iran’s economy than the eight-year war with Iraq.

The 74-year-old leader, however, had additional motivation to roll back the nuclear programme. He had no choice but to recognise in the June election of Hassan Rouhani, the centrist president, the depth of the nation’s desperation for an end to isolation – and the danger to the regime of marching against the sweeping mood of discontent.

In 2009, Mr Khamenei had lost much credibility and undermined the legitimacy of the regime when he harshly repressed the reformist opposition that had accused him of handing a second term to Mr Ahmadi-Nejad. He could not afford to make the same mistake in this year’s election.

Iran’s supreme leader has also belatedly confronted Iran’s depressing economic reality. People close to the current government say the Ahmadi-Nejad administration, which bears as much blame as sanctions, if not more, for destroying Iran’s economy, was feeding Mr Khamenei a distorted economic picture. When a credible assessment was handed to his office two months ago, says one government adviser, the leader was “astonished”.

The advanced state of the nuclear programme itself provided opportunity for a pause, argue Iranian experts. It injected momentum into western governments’ efforts to prevent Tehran from taking the last steps towards building nuclear weapons (if it were so to decide) while also strengthening Iran’s hand.

In 2005, when Iran offered to cap centrifuges at 5,000 so long as it was allowed to continue low-level enrichment of uranium, western governments balked. Not a single centrifuge would spin in Iran, the US said.

Today, Iran has around 19,000 centrifuges installed and enrichment levels have been raised to 20 per cent, closer to what is required for military purposes and therefore of greater, and more urgent concern.

Enrichment at 3.5 per cent has suddenly become less controversial. It will be largely pursued, but not expanded, under the interim agreement, which also envisages “a mutually defined [uranium] enrichment programme” under a final deal.

Tortuous negotiations undoubtedly lie ahead as Iran and western powers wrestle over the size of the programme, limits and inspections, and the fate of nuclear facilities. But even the leader’s most strident critics say that, without a deal he can sell as a “win-win” – the favourite phrase in Tehran these days, he would prefer the pain of sanctions and the price of a pariah status.

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