Two presidents and the Ayatollah

Ayatollah Khamenei and Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani are not worlds apart in their thinking.

This article was first published by Lobelog.

Despite appearances, Ayatollah Khamenei and Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani are not worlds apart in their thinking on US-Iran relations.

In the aftermath of announcing the parameters of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers on April 2 in Lausanne, Switzerland, each of the men took to the podium. Their subject matter was the nuclear talks, and their audiences vastly differed. But their underlying message signaled that US-Iran relations have overcome an impasse. The two presidents suggested that a final deal could reshape their engagement beyond the nuclear file. The Supreme Leader surprisingly echoed this tone.

Significant breakthroughs were made in Lausanne. Many have been quick to point out the incompatible stance among the three speeches on the technical details of a final nuclear deal, such as sanctions relief and Iran’s research and development capacity. But so long as the parameters for a final deal were defined in private, which seem to be the case, the rules of politics dictate that each party can spin the facts as they wish to appease domestic audiences.

Underlying Commonality

Although these speeches presented differing narratives, the leaders provided three common threads that could become the founding principles for prospective Iran-US relations.

First, the speeches underscored that respect for Iran’s dignity was mandatory for engagement. Rouhani stressed that all UN Security Council Resolutions sanctioning Iran under Chapter VII would be terminated under a final deal. For Tehran, the desire to secure this provision is rooted far deeper than mere economic necessity. Iran wishes to break away from its pariah status under international norms, regain legitimacy in the world order, and thereby return respect and dignity to the nation.

Obama pledged to the Iranian people that the US was willing to negotiate on the basis of “mutual respect.” He stated that “Iran is not going to simply dismantle its program because we demand it to do so” and that despite the unprecedented levels of sanctions against it, “Iran has not capitulated.” Obama suggested Iran’s vision for its nuclear program was a larger matter of proving its self-sufficiency and national dignity in the face of Western pressure.

The Supreme Leader emphasized national dignity through his boastful depiction of Iran’s “domestic capability” while challenging disgruntled regional neighbors to attain the same indigenous knowledge. Khamenei stressed that civilian nuclear energy was a necessity for development and vowed not to undermine national interests as Iran’s Qajar Kings did when they sold the country’s oil for mere pennies to the British.

Second, the speeches endorsed diplomacy over the alternatives of sanctions and military threats. Rouhani stated that in today’s world, “pressure and threats to other nations are ineffective” and that he has always been  “a believer in negotiations and dialogue.” Rouhani was convinced that the most worthwhile route for dealing with Iran was through “pursuing a win-win outcome.” In outlining all his options for confronting Iran, Obama was similarly resolute that diplomacy was the “best option, by far.”

The Supreme Leader maintained his long-standing position of hedging bets on the outcome of diplomacy. While offering his continued full support to Iran’s negotiation team, Khamenei reiterated his mantra that the US was an untrustworthy counterpart and that he “has never been optimistic about negotiating with the US.” But these comments have to be placed into context: the Supreme Leader’s modus operandi has usually been to balance major domestic political factions without fully committing to any policy undertaken by the executive branch. This provides him with a safety cushion enabling him to claim victory whether the talks fail or succeed while maintaining the loyalty of hardliners and the moderates. When faced with the alternatives, the Ayatollah was willing to back the diplomatic initiative as long as a final deal preserved Iran’s national “interests and dignity.” 

New Bilateral Cooperation

A third common gesture was that confidence-building measures could pave the path toward expanded relations between Tehran and Washington. Rouhani declared that a nuclear agreement would allow Iran to turn “a new page with the world” and that these negotiations can have far reaching implications. He conditioned “progress, development, and stability in the region” on “cooperation and coordination” with the world. Importantly for US-Iran engagement, Rouhani noted that where his country had tense and cold relations with another state, his administration sought to better these conditions.

Obama did not shy away from the “difficult history” tainting US relations with Iran. He warned that a nuclear deal alone would “not end the deep divisions and mistrust.” But, by referencing President Kennedy’s famous words “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate,” Obama signaled that diplomatic channels with Iran did not have to be nuclear-centric.

The Supreme Leader peppered his speech with anti-US sentiments, stressing that the current negotiations are strictly nuclear-focused. But he made a rare public acknowledgment that the successful implementation of a nuclear deal would be recorded as one of the few positive experiences in US-Iran history “on which future negotiations can be based.”

Over the past 18 months both presidents have committed to a diplomatic process to break taboos and attempt to remake Iran-US relations. They centered their speeches around an unprecedented triumph for diplomacy—one that advanced their respective national interests for generations to come. Obama marked the “historic understanding” in Lausanne as safeguarding global security against a nuclear-armed Iran. Rouhani etched the date “in the historical memory of the Iranian nation” as a significant step toward regaining economic prosperity and national dignity.

If the current track pursued by the two presidents can yield positive results over the nuclear issue, the Ayatollah could well extend his support to back diplomacy in other matters of war and peace in the region.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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