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Analysis: Iran supreme leader comments signal strategy shift

May 23, 2019
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In this photo released on Wednesday, May 22, 2019 by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks to a group of students in Tehran, Iran. Khamenei publicly chastised the country's moderate president and foreign minister Wednesday, saying he disagreed with the implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal they had negotiated with world powers. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
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In this photo released on Wednesday, May 22, 2019 by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks to a group of students in Tehran, Iran. Khamenei publicly chastised the country's moderate president and foreign minister Wednesday, saying he disagreed with the implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal they had negotiated with world powers. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — For years, Iran’s supreme leader only criticized the West over Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers. Now, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is publicly chastising the country’s elected president and his foreign minister as the accord unravels amid heightened tensions with the U.S.

By naming President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as failing to implement his orders over the deal, Khamenei is signaling a hard-line tilt in how the Islamic Republic will react going forward.

That will include how Iran handles the ongoing maximalist pressure campaign of President Donald Trump, who has piled on new sanctions and dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the region over still-unspecified threats the White House perceives to be coming from Tehran. Now U.S. officials say the Pentagon will present a plan to the White House on Thursday calling for sending as many as an additional 10,000 troops to the Middle East over Iran.

And while not calling for Rouhani and Zarif’s replacement, his words limit the already-waning influence of their relatively moderate administration as they have only two years left in their term.

“For now, Tehran is likely focused on building up leverage against the U.S. — in the nuclear realm and regionally — before it would agree to even limited talks,” wrote Henry Rome, an analyst at the Eurasia Group.

Khamenei, 80, is only the second supreme leader Iran has known since its 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had a dominating personality that saw him lead from the front a government formed around his ideas. Khamenei, while also having final say on all state matters, portrays himself more as a fulcrum between the interests of elected politicians, its hard-line paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and the clerics of Iran’s Shiite theocracy.

But his words, like his public appearances, are carefully considered. The Ramadan lecture he gave Wednesday night to university students — in which he criticized Rouhani and Zarif — was no different.

Last year, as Iran still reeled from nationwide protests over its ailing economy that included calls for the government’s overthrow, students at the lecture offered unusually frank criticism to Khamenei, whom hard-liners consider second only to God.

On Wednesday night, the students gave no critiques, instead reacting approvingly to Khamenei’s comments and even drawing some laughter. One even offered a portrait a painting of a Revolutionary Guard soldier credited with laying mines targeting U.S.-escorted oil tankers in the Persian Gulf during Iran’s 1980s war with Iraq. The Guard says he was killed in a confrontation with the U.S. Navy.

Since first publicly accepting the nuclear deal, under which Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, Khamenei issued a warning not to trust the U.S. A letter he sent to Rouhani in October 2015 said the deal had “numerous ambiguities and structural weaknesses that could inflict big damage on the present and the future of the country.”

Yet his opinion of the deal hardened with Trump’s election in 2016. While initially saying who was elected in the U.S. “makes no difference to us,” Khamenei has since declared: “I announce on behalf of the Iranian nation that Mr. Trump, you cannot do a damn thing!’”

On Wednesday night, that criticism expanded to Rouhani and Zarif over their crowning achievement of the nuclear deal.

“But the way the (deal) was handled, I did not really believe in it, and mentioned this to the president and the foreign minister and had warned them several times,” Khamenei said.

Neither Rouhani nor Zarif have responded publicly to Khamenei’s comments. Both long have been the target of hard-liners, who say they gave too much away in negotiations with the West. Some have gone so far as to suggest Iran embrace a military-led government to counter America.

Their immediate ouster, however, is unlikely. Khamenei had similarly worsening relations with hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reformist President Mohammad Khatami in their second terms. Zarif himself publicly tendered his resignation in February after not attending a surprise meeting in Tehran between Syrian President Bashar Assad and Khamenei, only later to agree to stay on.

Analysts believe Iran in part may be playing for time, waiting to see if Trump will be re-elected in 2020. Rouhani’s own term runs out in 2021, allowing Khamenei to swap out “discredited negotiators” like Zarif, said Mehdi Khalaji, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is Shiite theologian by training, Khamenei also could send negotiators from the Guard, rather than from the presidency, to allow them to negotiate on Iran’s ballistic missile program, which the paramilitary force controls.

However, any miscalculation amid the heightened tensions with the U.S. could force Khamenei’s hand.

“The initial cracks of another breaking point could become visible if he deems the U.S. military threat to be credible and unaffordably costly — and, more important, if he believes it is coming to bear at a time when the economic hardship caused by U.S. sanctions and other factors is no longer bearable,” Khalaji wrote.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Jon Gambrell, the news director for the Gulf and Iran for The Associated Press, has reported from each of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Iran and other locations across the world since joining the AP in 2006. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap .

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