Ayatollah Khamenei wants to leave a lasting legacy behind and submitting to the US cannot be part of it.
In a June 13 Washington Post article, former US ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad argued that the Trump administration’s approach towards Iran – withdrawing from the nuclear deal and imposing crippling sanctions – has a reasonable chance of bringing its leadership to the negotiating table.
The logic behind this idea is that imposing “the highest level” of economic sanctions will not only prevent Iran from supporting its proxies and destabilising the Middle East, but will also lead to economic hardship and possibly mass discontent, which could shake the regime’s stability.
This approach was tested under the Obama administration and eventually resulted in Iran sitting down for talks in 2013 and signing a nuclear deal in 2015 under President Hasan Rouhani.
But the idea that this could happen again in the aftermath of US President Donald Trump withdrawing from the nuclear deal is not just optimistic – it is flawed. It is not in the interest of the hardliner leadership in Iran to sit down for direct talks with the Trump administration.
Unlike North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei does not need the US to legitimise his regime and, in fact, negotiating with the Americans might have the exact opposite effect. It would not only delegitimise his domestic rhetoric, but also push away supporters at home and abroad.
Ayatollah Khamenei has always expressed suspicion about the US and its foreign policies. Even after the 2015 deal was signed, he warned against and blocked any further negotiations. The US withdrawal from the nuclear deal was the ultimate proof he needed for his claim that Washington could not be trusted.
Khamenei’s anti-Americanism is the central component of his political appeal. Resisting the Western attempts to overthrow the Islamic Republic, dominate Iran and colonise the region is one of the main pillars of his politics. In his speeches and statements, the ayatollah constantly refers to the so-called “axis of resistance”, which includes Iran, its proxies, and even sometimes Venezuela and which is tasked with resisting the US and its allies.
Khamenei’s rhetoric has been based on the belief that US policies towards Iran have always aimed at regime change, not “behaviour change” since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. In this logic, any concession in the face of US intimidation would inevitably inspire the US to increase its pressure.
This idea of “the axis of resistance” against American imperialism seems to be the biggest hallmark of Khamenei’s 30 years as supreme leader. At age 79 and in poor health, he wants to leave a lasting legacy. Iran’s nuclear programme, which could have brought Iran into the nuclear powers club under his leadership, was disbanded after the signing of the 2015 deal.
Hence, his only legacy is his “anti- American” and “anti-imperialist” agenda. He would rather stick with it and die as an anti-American anti-imperialist than succumb to US pressure and be delegitimised in the eyes of his supporters.
With the failure of the talks, he is able to rally even more support for his regime and continue previous policies that helped Iran survive international pressure for decades. As a country accustomed to sanctions, Iran has learned how to bypass them and it’s much easier to start employing these strategies again.
Khamenei is already stirring Iran back to “resistance economy“, a term he coined to refer to a form of economic nationalism, in which the country strives to decrease imports and increase domestic production, substituting local products for imported ones. The idea is to shield in this way Iran’s economy from the risks of international sanctions and global financial crises.
Politically, Khamenei has also made it clear that direct negotiations with Trump are not being considered. After the US president withdrew from the nuclear deal, the supreme leader proclaimed, “I said many times from the first day: don’t trust America. I don’t trust these three countries,” referring to the UK, France and Germany.
And when a group of Iranian political activists and reformists signed a letter asking the regime to directly negotiate with the US, resolve the conflicts between the two countries, and save Iran from the damage of sanctions, the response from his supporters was immediate.
Almost all Iranian hardliners, and many reformists, attacked the idea of direct talks between the two countries. Major General Mohammad-Ali Jafari, a commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Iran’s most powerful military organisation, accused these activists of being American agents and traitors.
Seyed Hossein Mousavian, close adviser to the Rouhani administration and former member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, also rejected direct talks between Iran and the US, as did Seyed Mohammad Khatami, the former reformist president, who said such negotiations would hurt Iranian dignity.
While there is part of the Iranian society that wants engagement with the US and an end to the debilitating sanctions, their voices will be muffled and the will of the ayatollah will be done. There will be no direct talks with Donald Trump.