The next U.S. administration is likely to face an unhappy choice: to continue to work with Iran or to challenge an increasingly entrenched supreme leader and his Revolutionary Guard.
To understand Khamenei’s perspective on the negotiations and the resulting deal, the best place to start is Iran’s nuclear program. The agreement requires Iran to accept key limitations: Previously, the country had nearly 20,000 centrifuge machines producing nuclear fuel and was on the cusp of possessing weapons-grade uranium. A plutonium-producing reactor was also nearly online.
Today, only 5,000 centrifuges are spinning, the plutonium-making reactor has been made inoperable, and most of Iran’s enriched uranium has been shipped out of the country. Iran also agreed to grant greater access to its nuclear sites to inspectors from the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to prevent the country from diverting fissile materials to banned military purposes.
Khamenei, however, doesn’t appear to share this view of the deal’s constraints. Just as Iran’s negotiators were agreeing to these terms in July 2014, the supreme leader delivered a speech about the nuclear program—without consulting his chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, according to U.S. and European officials. In the address, Khamenei said that his oil-rich country needed at least 100,000 centrifuges to power its civilian nuclear program in the coming decades. This was more than 20 times what the administration envisaged.
Western diplomats wondered whether Iran’s diplomats really spoke for the supreme leader.
Indeed, in recent weeks, Iranian officials have talked of their preparations to build 10 new nuclear reactors with Russian help. This will require a steady supply of nuclear fuel from centrifuges that will be allowed to go online in a decade.
The Revolutionary Guard controls the program, and there’s a risk that in 10 or 15 years, they might decide to restart their weaponization activities.
As for conventional military capabilities, the deal didn’t do much to curtail Iran’s ambitions. The supreme leader demanded a provision weakening a U.N. Security Council resolution that prohibits Tehran’s ballistic-missile development—and got it. He wanted the U.N. embargo lifted on Iran’s ability to buy or export conventional arms—and got it, in five years. He wanted to retain Iran’s ability to export arms—and the deal does nothing to interfere with that.
Finally, the nuclear deal also seems to have boosted Mr. Khamenei’s ability to influence the region. In the ornate former palaces and six-star hotels where the nuclear talks took place in Austria and Switzerland last year, U.S. and European officials talked optimistically about using the deal to stabilize a roiling Middle East. They hoped that Iran, the region’s great Shiite power, might play a constructive role in ending conflicts in Yemen, Iraq and, above all, Syria.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Even as the talks continued, Mr. Khamenei and his generals were plotting a much broader military campaign in Syria in partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to European, Arab and Iranian officials. Starting in January 2015, the supreme leader’s top aides began a series of visits to the Kremlin to chart out a plan to bolster the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The result was a highly coordinated operation in Syria that began just weeks after the nuclear deal was completed. Mr. Putin’s air force has pounded Syrian rebels, bombing not just Sunni jihadists associated with Islamic State or al Qaeda but also U.S.-backed fighters. At the same time, Mr. Khamenei’s Revolutionary Guard mobilized thousands of soldiers and Shiite militiamen to launch a ground offensive, with Iranian troops fighting alongside militants from Hezbollah and other Shiite militias.
The joint Iranian-Russian operation drove back Syrian rebels who had been advancing on the Assad regime’s stronghold on the Mediterranean coast, according to Arab and U.S. officials, and allowed the minority regime to retake large swaths of territory. The Kremlin announced this week that it has started launching airstrikes in Syria from Iranian territory.
Khamenei has sworn off any collaboration with the U.S. in the Middle East, even against shared regional enemies like Islamic State. Instead, he has continued Iran’s campaign to control the oil-rich Persian Gulf and weaken the influence of the U.S., Israel and its Sunni Arab allies across the region. U.S. military commanders say that they have seen no tapering off of Revolutionary Guard support for its allies in Yemen, Iraq or the Palestinian territories.
Khamenei cannot know how the U.S. will respond to his uncompromising stance, especially with a new administration soon to take office. But he may figure that he wins either way. If the deal falls apart, he could call it proof that the Americans never could be trusted and figure that another round of biting U.N. sanctions will prove too difficult to assemble. If the deal survives, he will have his military continue to develop missiles and conventional arms to position Iran to become a latent nuclear weapons power in 10 years.
Either way, it is the Ayatollah not his more moderate rivals, who are acting as if they have been strengthened by the nuclear deal.