Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered his annual Nowruz speech just over a week ago. Although it was uniquely broad in scope, the actual substance of the speech was hardly distinguishable from any other major address by a leading figure in the theocratic regime.
It was largely an exercise in propaganda, peppered with boastful and often ridiculous claims designed to present an image of unbridled strength for the Islamic Republic.
Unsurprisingly, some of the relevant statements were more specifically aimed at portraying the regime as being so politically and economically resilient that it can stand toe-to-toe against the United States and force the world’s leading superpower to back down on issues that include the Iranian nuclear program and the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The supreme leader reasserted that his regime had established its “definitive policy” with regard to that 2015 Iran nuclear deal and would neither surrender nor compromise in the face of persistent U.S. sanctions.
Experts in foreign affairs generally recognized that Iranian officials were looking to last January’s Presidential transition in Washington as an opportunity for a return to the status quo as it existed before then-President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal and initiated a policy of “maximum pressure.”
But his successor, Joe Biden, has so far shown little interest in rushing to suspend the sanctions that were re-implemented or newly implemented after May 2018.
On the campaign trail, Biden had signaled that he would try to return to the deal, and he has technically retained that position since taking office. But the two sides remain at an impasse over the question of who acts first.
As Khamenei reiterated in his speech, Tehran is insisting that the U.S. remove all sanctions first, before Iranian authorities begin reversing any of the myriad violations of the deal that they made at a time when the five other signatories were struggling to continue enforcing it.
Meanwhile, the White House correctly sees that there is no reason to provide Iran with additional, unearned concessions, as the regime is in no position to make demands.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, formerly a major player in the negotiations that led to the nuclear deal, explained this situation in her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, about two and a half weeks before Khamenei delivered his Nowruz speech.
“The facts on the ground have changed, the geopolitics of the region has changed, and the way forward must similarly change,” she said after underscoring “the threat that Iran poses to our interests and those of our allies.”
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Khamenei cited Sherman’s remarks but ignored their context. “Conditions have changed,” he declared, “but they changed in favor of Iran, not the U.S. So if anything, the JCPOA must change in favor of Iran.”
Of course, this is exactly what he and other leading Iranian officials are proposing when they insist upon a full-scale return to sanctions relief, sans consequences or any real acknowledgment of the fact that Tehran has recently ramped up its nuclear activity to a degree and with a pace that raises serious questions about the agreement’s prior value.
Those advancements came as a surprise to many observers, given that the JCPOA had been sold to skeptical lawmakers as supposedly lengthening the regime’s “breakout” time for a nuclear weapon to well over a year.
Current estimates put the regime just a few months away from such a weapon, at best. Since halting all compliance with the JCPOA at the beginning of this year, uranium enrichment facilities in Iran have started running cascades of second and third-generation centrifuges and have readied even more advanced machines for still faster production.
The country has also begun work on uranium metal, a key component in the core of a nuclear weapon, and has ceased implementation of the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, making it doubtful that international inspectors will be allowed to remain in the country for much longer.
This all sounds rather alarming, and it is. But it would be wrong to respond to the underlying threat by giving the Islamic Republic what it wants, now that there is ample evidence to suggest that the regime would just exploit the new concessions in order to further weaken an arrangement that was already far less beneficial to global security than had been claimed.
The foregoing violations confirm frequent criticisms of the JCPOA, namely that Iran would continue making clandestine advancements in areas not covered by the agreement or the inspections regime, and then would rush to nuclear breakout once the restrictions on enrichment and stockpiling either expired or were abandoned.
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Some Iranian officials have all be acknowledged that this was their plan all along. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, admitted to state media more than two years ago that authorities had deceived UN nuclear monitors into believing that the Islamic Republic had fully complied with a provision of the JCPOA requiring that the core of a heavy water plant in Arak be deactivated, cutting off the regime’s plutonium pathway to a nuclear weapon.
Later in 2019, Salehi indicated that this was not the only instance of deception and that the regime had also put “countermeasures” in place to prevent significant or long-lasting effects from restrictions on uranium enrichment.
If anyone advocates for appeasing Tehran in the wake of Khamenei’s “definitive” rejection of further negotiations, they are ignoring the real nature of the threat. To reverse the maximum pressure strategy at this time would be to reward Iran for its deceptions and violations, and to give away the very leverage that the regime is so plainly desperate to remove.
Contrary to the supreme leader’s rhetoric, recent changes to the geopolitical situation are proof of Tehran’s vulnerability, not its strength. The regime is perhaps under more pressure from both at home and abroad than it ever has been.
Between December 2017 and January 2020, authorities were faced with three nationwide anti-government uprisings, and as the Iranian Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi explained in her own Nowruz, speech, the “flame” of those movements has been “kept alight” throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and now seems to be contributing to major protests in areas like the border province of Sistan and Baluchistan.
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Meanwhile, news of an Iranian terror plot against a Washington military base has made it all the more clear that the regime is desperate to project strength at any cost, for fear of the growing challenges to its grip on power.
That plot may bring renewed attention to earlier threats including the 2018 attempt at bombing an Iranian expatriate rally in Paris, which led to a 20-year sentence for a high-ranking Iranian diplomat.
Such stories reinforce the need for greater isolation of the Iranian regime, which is incompatible with recommendations coming from those who prioritize salvaging the JCPOA above all else.
Those recommendations should be taken no more seriously than Khamenei’s portrayal of the Islamic Republic as a country on the verge of defeating the United States. The reality is that his regime is on the verge of collapse and only pretends otherwise in hopes of saving itself.