Just under two weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed titled “Iran’s Supreme Leader is Wild Card in Nuclear Deal.” The piece, by Jay Solomon and Carol E. Lee, was accompanied by a photo of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei looking healthy and calculating, along with a caption stating that “as nuclear negotiations with six world powers drew to a conclusion, he continued to launch anti-American vitriol.”
Khamenei – the “ghost in the machine” – who hovered over the negotiations throughout; who, according to Solomon and Lee, the Obama administration made copious efforts to woo, and of whose position they could not be certain until the eleventh hour of the talks (if at all). The “mercurial” cleric, after the deal was concluded, praised the Iranian negotiators for their efforts – but warned it would change nothing in the tense relationship between Washington and Tehran, and that his country would continue to support Syria, Hamas and other forces of “resistance” (to the US, among other things) in the region.
Khamenei’s declaration was not unexpected – he was, after all, considered a wild card for the duration of the talks; and besides, nobody really expected Iran to change overnight. It did, however, elicit some anxious responses from Washington. Actually, after US Secretary of State John Kerry heard what a defiant Iran had to say about the US even after the deal ushered in a new era, ostensibly ending Tehran’s global isolation, he found himself not just “very troubled,” but “disturbed.”
On Monday, an uneasy Kerry told Al-Arabiya that while he had no choice but to take Khamenei’s comments “at face value,” he still wished they could be interpreted as mere lip service to an Iranian public wary of concessions to the West. But what of the chants of “Death to America” that accompanied the ayatollah’s festive Eid speech in a Tehran mosque? To those, Kerry had a different response up his sleeve: “I told [Iranian officials] that their chants of ‘death to America’ and so forth are not helpful, and they’re pretty stupid,” as he said, reportedly in hushed tones, at a question-and-answer session in Washington.
So is this the new dynamic between Iran and the US – one continues to express loud and vitriolic animosity, while the other makes do with reprimands? If Slate’s Joshua Keating is to be believed, this is actually a “smart” strategy to “sell a risky deal with a longtime enemy.” But is it “smart” to rationalize such troubling threats?