By Warren L. Nelson
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei last week laid down four red lines for the nuclear talks—four new red lines that seemed to ignore the nine red lines he set down three months ago but are now no longer mentioned.
Khamenehi’s latest speech made a mish-mash of any effort to figure out what Iran really wants at the talks.
But in talking with reporters, US Secretary of State John Kerry just brushed aside Khamenehi’s latest red lines, saying they were solely intended for “domestic political consumption” in Iran. That is what US diplomats have been saying for a year-and-a-half about all comments on the talks coming out of Tehran.
It appears to some that Iran’s negotiators warned the Big Six that the Islamic Republic would have to say some things for public consumption but that the Western negotiators should just ignore them. Which is what has been done.
But that still leaves Iranians to decipher what their leaders are saying and to ask why they are being told different things at different times.
The table accompanying this story on page seven shows the nine red lines that Khamenehi laid down in a speech he delivered April 9, seven days after the negotiations reached agreement on the parameters for a final agreement.
In a speech last Tuesday, Khamenehi said he had four red lines for the talks. He did not mention the nine red lines laid down three months earlier.
Regarding his first red line, he said, “Contrary to the Americans’ insistence, we do not accept long-term, 10-year and 12-year restrictions and have told them the acceptable number of years for restrictions.” In his speech, Khamenehi did not say what that number was.
This was an entirely new red line. He made no reference at all to the time period of restrictions in his April 9 speech. The negotiators agreed on April 2 to a battery of restrictions, some of which would come off after 10 years, others at 15 years, 20 years and 25 years. There is nothing in that agreement about 12 years, so where Khamenehi got that from is unknown.
In numerous speeches recently, Khamenehi has complained bitterly that the Americans have repeatedly made an agreement in the talks only to come back later and repudiate it. This was perhaps Khamenehi’s main theme in repeated speeches in June. But here he was last Tuesday repudiating an agreement Iran had reached back in March,
Regarding his second red line, Khamenehi insisted that Iran’s nuclear research and development work, and even manufacturing, should continue even during the period of restriction. He said, “They tell us: You should not do anything over those 12 years. But that is excessive bullying and unreasonable rhetoric.”
This is a re-phrasing and toughening of his sixth red line of April 9. (See accompanying table.) He said R&D could be restricted but not stopped in his previous speech—which is what the negotiators had already agreed to. But last week he toughened it with his attack on a 10-year minimum for restrictions.
His third red line was related to sanctions—the first three red lines he listed in his April 9 speech. His reformulation of those three red lines did not appear to change anything significantly. But it certainly confused matters.
For example, Khamenehi said, “The economic, financial and banking sanctions, whether imposed by the Security Council or the US Congress or the US Administration should be lifted immediately when the agreement is signed and the remaining sanctions should be lifted within reasonable time intervals.”
He mentioned UN and US sanctions—but he said nothing about EU sanctions! In the week since his speech, no one has corrected what he said. No one seriously believes that he meant to exempt EU sanctions. But that is what remains on the public record, making it hard to fathom what Khamenehi meant—or to take the speech seriously.
Furthermore, Khamenehi said all “economic, financial and banking sanctions” must be lifted instantly while “remaining sanctions should be lifted within reasonable time intervals.” What does that mean? What sanctions are there that are not economic, financial or banking? He once said that all sanctions are political. Does he mean that the political sanctions, i.e., all sanctions, should be lifted later?
Khamenehi then said, “The Americans express a complicated, multi-layered and strange formula about the sanctions and it is not clear what the output would be. But we express our demands clearly!”
Continuing on sanctions, Khamenehi said, “The removal of sanctions should not be tied to the fulfillment of Iran’s obligations. They should not say, ‘You first live up to your promises and then the [International Atomic Energy] Agency will verify [compliance] before the sanctions will be lifted.’ In no way will we accept this.” That appeared to be a reformulation of his third red line of April 9, but did not contradict it.
Khamenehi’s fourth red line was related to inspections, the topic of his fourth and fifth red lines in his April 9 speech. He stated his firm opposition to “unconventional inspections, cross-examining Iranian figures and inspections of military bases.” That was reformulation of his earlier red lines but not a contradiction.
In Washington Kerry said the talks “are not going to be guided by or conditioned by or affected or deterred by some Tweet that is for public consumption or domestic political consumption. What matters to us is what is agreed upon within the four corners of a document, and that is what is yet to be determined.”
He said, “It may be that the Iranians will not fill out the full measure of what was agreed on in Lausanne [on April 2]—in which case there will not be an agreement!”
Ariane Tabatabai, a visiting assistant professor at George-town University in Washington, DC, suggested that Khamenehi’s speech be ignored. “It’s important not to read between the lines of what the Supreme Leader says too much. He’s trying to balance several audiences…. So far, what many interpreted as clear and strict red lines have been neither clear nor strict.”
Others, however, such as Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group consulting firm, said Khamenehi was most probably laying out a very tough public position in an effort to help his negotiators in the talks.