Iran’s supreme leader: Not infallible, after all

Iran has every reason not to put out the full text of Khamenei’s speech. To do so would mean opening a Pandora’s box.
Sunday 19/08/2018
Holding to power. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks at a meeting in Tehran, on August 13.  (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader)
Holding to power. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks at a meeting in Tehran, on August 13. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader)

As Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei addressed the country’s economic woes and its relations with the United States, most news outlets focused on his assurance “there will be no war” even as he prohibited negotiations with “the current administration” in Washington.

Khamenei also said something else, which went largely unnoticed by the foreign media but that could have key consequences for Iran’s political culture.

Khamenei, for the first time in his capacity as the “leader of the revolution” and head of state, admitted he had erred. He said: “Negotiating the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] was a mistake. I committed a mistake concerning the negotiations by giving in to the pressure of the gentlemen to experience [negotiations] and they violated the defined red lines.”

One of the gentlemen referred to was obviously Iranian President Hassan Rohani. Khamenei claimed that Rohani, presumably in a private conversation with him, had admitted: “Had it not been for restrictions defined by you, we would have made more concessions [to the United States].”

Khamenei’s August 13 speech was widely reported in Iran but within hours all references to his admission of his mistake were removed. In some versions of Khamenei’s speech, there is no longer a reference to Rohani’s alleged admission that he would have made further concessions to the United States had it not been for the restraint imposed by the supreme leader.

The Persian site of the Office of Preservation and Propagation of the Works of His Holiness Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, which provides transcripts, audio and video of his speeches, has been off-line since the August 13 speech and as of this writing August 17.

Iran has every reason not to put out the full text of Khamenei’s speech. To do so would mean opening a Pandora’s box.

In his political career, Khamenei has only once publicly admitted a mistake. It happened this way: As Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering the death of British author Salman Rushdie for writing “The Satanic Verses,” the European Union recalled its ambassadors from Tehran.

To solve the crisis, Khamenei, then president of the republic, suggested that an apology by Rushdie might be enough for the fatwa to be withdrawn. However, Khomeini thundered from the pulpit: “The gentleman who says such things has no comprehension of the meaning of the Guardianship of the Jurist!”

Khamenei’s public humiliation was complete. He quickly got back in line.

Khomeini’s concept of governance elevated the Iranian head of state into an infallible imam. This is at the core of Khamenei’s problems. By admitting he was wrong in authorising Rohani to engage in nuclear negotiations with the United States and by publicly endorsing the JCPOA, Khamenei openly admitted he is a mere mortal and capable of making mistakes.

This raises a question for 80 million Iranians. On what grounds should they put their fate in the hands of an unelected mortal who can make mistakes, rather than in the president, who, after all, is elected?

A second problem for Khamenei, revolves around the claims that Rohani admitted his government would have offered more concessions to the United States “[h]ad it not been for restrictions defined” by the supreme leader. Iranian news agencies removed the reference but it remains an issue. There is absolutely no way a politician as astute as Rohani would have made an admission that amounts to high treason. No Iranian politician would do so, for any reason, in any circumstance.

Rohani had seen the way Khamenei authorised Mohammad Khatami when he was president to engage in nuclear diplomacy with the Europeans. This resulted in the Tehran Declaration but Khatami was thrown under the bus by Khamenei and accused of treason.

Therefore, Rohani made sure of the supreme leader’s public support before, during and after the nuclear negotiations with the UN Security Council’s permanent five members, Germany and the European Union. Rohani dragged Khamenei in front of the cameras to give public assurances to the nuclear negotiators that the leader of the revolution had accepted the minute details of the Rohani government’s negotiations with the world powers.

The fact that Khamenei’s August 13 speech that tries to distance him from the JCPOA has subsequently been removed by Iranian media shows that Rohani has threatened to engage in a nasty public row with Khamenei.

Clearly, Iran’s supreme leader is all too human and not infallible after all.

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