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From Khamenei, Conditions for a Deal on Iran’s Nuclear Program

Haleh Esfandiari

"The supreme leader said that any deal that does not respect Iran’s rights would be a bad deal, and he reiterated his condition that if there is to be an agreement, all sanctions must be lifted 'in the real meaning of the word,'" writes Haleh Esfandiari.

Americans may be surprised to learn that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Barack Obama are on the same page about at least one aspect of the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Echoing Mr. Obama’s oft-stated view that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” Mr. Khamenei said on Sunday, “We are of the same opinion.” He even suggested he would support the right deal. But this doesn’t mean a nuclear agreement is in the offing.

On the contrary, while speaking to air force officers on Sunday, the supreme leader said that any deal that does not respect Iran’s rights would be a bad deal, and he reiterated his condition that if there is to be an agreement, all sanctions must be lifted “in the real meaning of the word.” The United States and its negotiating partners–the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, known as the “P5+1″–have offered to gradually lift sanctions imposed on Iran in pace with Tehran fulfilling its obligations under a projected agreement. Meanwhile, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking on the sidelines of the Munich security conference, echoed the supreme leader. “All the sanctions must be lifted at once” Mr. Zarif said. But he added: “In the next six weeks, I want to focus on finding a resolution, not a failure.”

Mr. Khamenei seems to oppose a procedure already agreed to by the two sides, which is to conclude an understanding of general principles by March 24 and to finalize details of a deal by the end of June. “If an agreement is reached,” he said, “it must be concluded in one go and must encompass both general principles and details.” Agreement on only principles would allow the Americans to raise “one objection after another” over details, he said, describing this as usual practice by the U.S.

On the positive side, Mr. Khamenei did not reiterate, at least in his remarks Sunday, the many other “red lines” he has previously set for Iran’s negotiators. And he did concede that lifting sanctions would be a good thing. But even if there is no agreement and sanctions are not lifted, he said, “there are many ways in the country to blunt the weapon of sanctions.” This is a reference to the “resistance economy” he has said that Iran needs to adopt in the face of international economic measures. Speaking in Munich, Mr. Zarif put it this way: “The failure of the negotiations are not the end of the world.”

Mr. Khamenei appeared to set down two new conditions that the U.S. and its partners have to address with the clock ticking: that sanctions be lifted completely, not in stages, under any agreement; and that the details of an agreement be worked out in tandem with the general principles. Over the next five weeks, we’ll see how firmly the Iranian leader stands by these principles.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire.

About the Author

Haleh Esfandiari

Haleh Esfandiari

Public Policy Fellow;
Former Director, Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more