Why Is Iran’s Khamenei Defiant Now?

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Iran’s regime has consistently been on the defensive since President Trump nixed the flawed nuclear deal on May 8, 2018, and Secretary Pompeo declared the twelve-point plan of the administration’s Iran policy.

In his recent speech, however, Tehran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, looked confident in rejecting talks with the United States and reassuring his followers that the chances of a military confrontation with Washington are none. The question is why.

In a nutshell, President Trump’s untimely offer of talks with no preconditions sent the mullahs the wrong signal. Iran perceives there is still room for political brinkmanship. The current U.S.-Iran policy is working. The administration should assert the twelve-point requirements and avoid sending vague messages.

The main pillars of the Trump administration’s Iran policy have been: (a) ending the Iran deal to strike a new agreement that guarantees Iran will never achieve nuclear weapons or ballistic missile capability, (b) countering the regime’s malign behavior in the region, and (c) supporting Iran’s dissident majority.

The July 2015 nuclear deal would not prevent the mullahs from obtaining nuclear weapons. The deal did not give the U.N. nuclear watchdog authority to investigate the military dimensions of the nuclear program and failed to secure inspection of all sites. Therefore, scrapping the deal and looking for a new agreement was a legitimate decision.

The Trump administration is also right in considering Iran’s nuclear issue within the broader context of Tehran’s destabilizing regional behavior and its ballistic missile program. As Secretary Pompeo rightly said, “Iranian wave of destruction in the region in just the last few years is proof that Iran’s nuclear aspirations cannot be separated from the overall security picture.”

Since Iran’s regional behavior was not addressed in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the regime intensified its regional interventions while enjoying security assurances accompanying the deal. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that seven out of twelve of Secretary Pompeo’s list of conditions relates to the mullahs’ destabilizing activities.

Moreover, a comprehensive agreement with Iran would be pointless without considering the fact that the majority of Iranians are against the regime’s nuclear and regional policies and are expressing their frustration with the regime in daily protests throughout the country. It means that the United States and the people of Iran have a common interest in ending the mullahs’ nuclear ambitions and their disastrous regional adventurism. Therefore, supporting the people of Iran and their organized resistance movement fighting for freedom and democracy is quite in line with American interests.

The three-pronged U.S. policy, in conjunction with maximum economic and financial pressure on the mullahs, has the best chances of success.

There are many signs in Iran’s behavior that support such a conclusion: Iranian naval forces appear to have halted their provocations of U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf; Iran has avoided military response after Israel targeted its military bases in Syria; the regime’s leader was silent for a while and avoided his harsh rhetoric against the United States during his rare public appearance after the United States nixed the deal; and Iran failed to conduct its habitually brutal crackdown on the nationwide protests — a move that has heartened Iranian youth to bravely voice their anti-regime views in public.

The question then arises: If the United States is going in the right direction in dealing with the Iranian regime, why did Khamenei stubbornly reject the offer of negotiations with the United States? The answer is in the wrong message the mullahs received when President Trump said he is willing to talk with them without any preconditions.

The move by President Trump was probably beneficial in showing the European allies that the United States is open to negotiating with Tehran. It also addressed some concerns raised by critics at home who feared the administration may unwittingly start a war with Iran. Despite these possible benefits, the offer to talk without any preconditions was interpreted by the mullahs as a sign of retreat from the twelve conditions declared in May.

The mullahs also perceive it as if President Trump, for domestic reasons, needs to have a meeting with Iran’s president. That is the basis for Khamenei’s recent defiance.

The mullahs judge that there is still room for brinkmanship, especially regarding their regional interventions in Syria and Yemen. Instead of sending vague signals that can be interpreted as a retreat from the “maximum pressure” strategy, Washington should assert the basic twelve-point demands. The mullahs stand on very shaky ground in view of the domestic situation and ongoing public protests. They are the ones who are desperate for a new deal, not the United States.

Shahram Ahmadi Nasab Emran, M.D., M.A., Ph.D. (c), is a doctoral candidate at Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics, Saint Louis University. He has participated in international policy forums, including the Policy Studies Organization’s annual Middle East Dialogue conferences, and has written for multiple Iranian news outlets.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.