Frenemies Forever

The Real Meaning of Iran's "Heroic Flexibility"

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to his supporters in the Iranian province of Kermanshah (Courtesy Reuters)

The apparent restraint of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's speech before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday afternoon seems to have disappointed many Western observers. They charge Rouhani with failing to show much of the "heroic flexibility" that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently claimed would characterize Iran's new diplomatic strategy toward the West. In truth, the West should not be so surprised. Iran's diplomatic offensive of recent weeks is, in fact, a significant shift -- just not in the way most Westerners have seemed to think.

"Heroic flexibility” has never been what most foreign commentators believe it is. It is neither a rhetorical feint to buy time for Iran’s nuclear program, nor is it a signal that Khamenei is desperate to strike a deal with the United States after years of punishing sanctions. Both interpretations have it wrong, and for the same reason -- they fail to interpret Iran’s diplomatic offensive in the context of Khamenei’s grand strategy, which has been consistent from the time he assumed power. Khamenei does not want Iran to be at open conflict with the West, nor does he want it to be a supplicant to the United States. He is signaling that rapprochement is possible, but not at the price of abandoning Iran's resistance to Western hegemony.

Khamenei has spoken of heroic flexibility several times since becoming Iran’s leader over twenty years ago, and in each instance he has emphasized that friendly dialogue is not the same thing as friendship. In a speech on August 7, 1996, before an audience of interior ministry officials and Iranian diplomats, he said, “the sphere of international politics is a field of heroic flexibility, which is sharp faced with the enemy. Therefore, our diplomats must be firm in their principal positions and take as their model His Holiness Imam Khomeini’s steadfastness and manliness.” In a speech delivered to members of the Guardian Council on September 5, 2013, he declared, “When a wrestler is wrestling with an opponent and in places shows flexibility for technical reasons, let him not forget who his opponent is.” Even enemies smile at each other while negotiating, he told Revolutionary Guards commanders on September 17.

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