As 2013 opened, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was struggling to manage an unpredictable and often truculent president in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At the end of 2013, Iran’s supreme leader oversees a president trying to improve relations with the United States, Europe and the Saudis and to instill tighter fiscal discipline. That culminated in the November deal in Geneva to reduce global sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits to its nuclear program.
The election of Hassan Rouhani upset those ‘experts’ who see Khamenei as micro-managing most aspects of Iranian politics, security and economy. In reality, Khamenei rarely leads from the front but prefers to wait for consensus — or stalemate, or inertia — to emerge from the interplay of factions scattered around parliament, Qom, the military, intelligence, the charitable trusts and the provinces.
Khamenei has been dubbed “Bismarck with a turban” by Ray Takeyh, the former State Department official now at the Council on Foreign Relations, but he is surely less decisive than the Prussian whose limited wars redrew the map of central Europe. Caution rather than calculated risk-taking has helped Khamenei become the longest serving leader in the Middle East.
There has been wide agreement in Iran on the desirability of an international agreement over the nuclear program. This results in part from the halving of Iran’s oil exports by sanctions introduced in 2012 by the United States and European Union and also from the long-term stagnation of the gas sector (Iran’s net exports in 2012 were only 4.4 billion cubic meters from output of 160.5 billion, a poor return from the world’s largest reserves of 33.6 trillion). Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founding father of the Islamic Republic, famously said the Revolution was not about the price of watermelons, but Khomeini was practical when necessary, especially in his 1988 decision to accept peace with Iraq.
The November agreement with the P5+1 — the permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany — is a significant step. But even this will not automatically restore the formal bilateral relations with the United States broken since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Neither will it suddenly remove the geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
But the new ‘balance’ could well suit Khamenei. It leaves opponents of talking to the ‘Great Satan’ with their ideology to cling to: no doubt Hussein Shariatmadari will continue his stinging editorials in Kayhan newspaper exposing the follies of trusting the US. Meanwhile, Iran is expected to receive up to $7 billion in relief from economic sanctions under the deal, desperately needed to stimulate economic growth, projected at just 1.1 percent for 2014 by the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit.
Hence Khamenei’s judicious tweets, which on the one hand have warned of US duplicity while on the other assured fellow Iranians that the nuclear negotiation team are not “compromisers” (over Iran’s ‘rights’ and ‘red lines’) but rather “our own children and the children of the revolution.”
Syria is more of a conundrum. Arguably, stalemate in the war might also look to Ayatollah Khamenei like ‘balance’. From Tehran’s perspective, Bashar al-Assad seems better placed on the eve of 2014 than 12 months earlier. In August 2013, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani stirred a hornet’s nest in Tehran by accusing the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons, promoting a debate as to whether Assad was expendable. Now the pendulum has swung back. If the regime’s offensive in Qalamoun opens an effective corridor to Aleppo, and if the opposition continues to fragment, then Tehran may well return to collective expressions of long-term friendship.
But Syria is messy. Those fighting the war are more and more embittered. Although relatively contained, the conflict is percolating into Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. It has reinforced the Saud family’s sense of insecurity, and strengthened the forces of militant Sunnism regionally. Iran’s own Sunni minorities, especially the Kurds and Baluchis, are restless.
Khamenei never shared the triumphal Shi’ism asserted by Ahmadinejad. Pragmatists in Tehran have never lost sight of the math: Shia are just 15 percent of Muslims worldwide. And in military terms, some estimates put GCC defense spending at 10 times Iran’s, a startling figure even ignoring Israel’s arsenal and the US presence including the 5th Fleet based in Bahrain. Khamenei would for sure know the old Persian proverb: “He who wants the rose should respect the thorn.”
Gareth Smyth is the former chief Iran correspondent of the Financial Times