Undivided Tehran

Khamenei and Rouhani's Joint Strategy at the Nuclear Talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Rick Wilking / Courtesy Reuters

Over the weekend, another round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, known as the P5+1, began in Geneva. On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to kick-start the discussion. Having failed to reach a consensus during earlier talks that ended in November, Washington must not only avoid administering sanctions, which would sabotage its diplomatic efforts, but also correctly understand Iran’s motivations for coming to the negotiating table: maintaining unity among the ruling elite and deflecting responsibility for successful negotiations onto Washington.

Although many observers have pointed to rifts between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, Iranian leaders have made a concerted effort to appear united on policy issues—whether there is a nuclear deal or not. Neither Khamenei nor Rouhani wants disputes between them to go public because it would almost certainly encourage hard-line pressure groups, which have used violence and intimidation to fight the talks. These same groups were instrumental in digging the ditch that the Islamic Republic currently finds itself in. Between 2005 and 2013, they were responsible for propagating offensive rhetoric about the United States and Israel; launching cyberattacks against the West and Israel; supporting terrorist groups, like Hamas and Hezbollah; and advancing the technical aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. The fruits of their labor are clear: an Islamic Republic that was isolated diplomatically, severed from global financial institutions, and whose legitimacy was further eroded in the eyes of its own people. 

There are more practical reasons for the two men to cooperate as well. It is well understood that Rouhani needs Khamenei’s support to govern effectively, but Westerners drastically underestimate the degree to which Khamenei also needs Rouhani. 

After eight years of rule under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which caused unprecedented political and economic damage to the Islamic Republic, Khamenei is now faced with a dangerous mix of serious challenges: unemployment, inflation, and brain

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