Khamenei’s frenemy status with European leaders: A nuke misunderstanding

  • + Solemaini’s assassination leads Khamenei to JCPOA breach.
  • + European Leaders activate Dispute Resolution with threat of sanctions.
  • + Khamenei doesn’t want nuclear weapons, but he wants nuclear energy.
Source: Reuters/Khamenei.ir

Why is there tension between Khamenei and European Leaders?

Answer: The main problem is Trump, who has a tendency for disrupting international alliances. Recent victims: the 2015 Nuclear Deal with Iran, and Soleimani.

Khamenei’s new status as a frenemy of European Leaders began with Trump. Despite years of diplomatic efforts to reach the JCPOA, Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018. This agreement provided Iran with sanctions relief in exchange for limiting its nuclear development. However, Trump decided to impose economic sanctions on Iran once again because, apparently, the JCPOA relief was giving Iran enough resources to conduct “malign activities” in the region

If these so-called “malign activities” refer to the development of nuclear weapons (which is the whole point of the JCPOA’s limits), then Trump’s justifications for the withdrawal are questionable. After such a bold move, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated that Iran was “subject to the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime” and that “the nuclear-related commitments” were being implemented by Iran. This, on the other hand, is much more reliable evidence proving the inexistence of Iran’s “malign activities” with regard to nukes. After all, the IAEA is the neutral organisation (unlike Trump) in charge of monitoring Iran’s implementation of the JCPOA. The IAEA continues to have inspectors in Iran monitoring its nuclear activities.

“European Leaders” (in this case: Macron, Johnson and Merkel) did not follow Trump’s approach. European parties to the JCPOA (France, Britain, and Germany) disapproved of such a bold move and began dialoguing with Iran in order to find common solutions. 

Khamenei also reacted moderately to Trump’s withdrawal. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was committed to implementing the JCPOA as long as the economic benefits of the JCPOA still stood. Khamenei had the political power to oppose Hassan’s response and stop the dialogue with the European Leaders, but he didn’t. Khamenei’s main public statement on Trump’s withdrawal was to point out his questionable justifications: “Last night, you heard the president of America making petty and mindless statements (…) there were perhaps more than 10 lies in his statements.”

Unfortunately, Trump recently came up with an even bolder move to heat up the conflict with Khamenei: assassinating his beloved General Solemaini. And so, European Leaders said goodbye to international security as Iran took a turn and decided to announce the breach of uranium enrichment limits in the JCPOA. These limits ensure that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons. The IAEA has confirmed this breach. European Leaders are scared, but should they be?

What do the European Leaders want?

Answer: Stability, please.

With Trump’s renewed economic sanctions on Iran, European Leaders decided to create an instrument known as INSTEX that allows for circumventing US sanctions and alleviating Iran’s economy. The main aim is possibly to appease Khamenei and other Iranian leaders in order to avoid much feared retaliation. All they want is to keep the JCPOA alive and prevent a new nuclear race.

However, in January, European Leaders decided to take stricter action after Iran breached the JCPOA uranium enrichment limits in response to Solemaini’s assassination. They have activated the Dispute Resolution Mechanism established by the JCPOA, which initiates a negotiation period of 60 days. Failure to reach an agreement would lead to UN sanctions on Iran.

A more active approach to ensuring Iran’s economic benefits under the JCPOA might have prevented this conflict escalation. Indeed, INSTEX was not being effective enough in fighting US sanctions. The problem? Let’s not forget that getting Trump angry by actively going against the US is not an option for European Leaders. Friends are always placed before frenemies.

What does Khamenei want?

Answer: Definitely not nuclear weapons. Instead – keeping Iran united under his position as the Supreme Leader.

First of all, let’s keep in mind that Khamenei is both a religious person and a religious authority. Despite the breach of uranium enrichment limits, Khamenei has always denied any desire to develop nuclear weapons. Publicly, Khamenei has in multiple times referred to nuclear weapons as a sin. He recently stated that “Building and stockpiling nuclear bombs is wrong and using it is haram (religiously forbidden) … Although we have nuclear technology, Iran has firmly avoided it.” Consequently, in 2004, Khamenei’s fatwa prohibiting the development of nuclear weapons was made public. As the Supreme Leader, Khamenei has the juridical power to issue fatwas, which are binding orders on all state institutions and they are above legislation in the hierarchy of Iran’s legal system. 

Secondly, let’s also keep in mind traditions in Iran’s foreign policy (given that we could consider Khamenei as the traditional kind of guy). Since the inception of the Islamic Republic of Iran, its leaders have flatly rejected nuclear weapons, as well as other weapons of mass destruction. Most importantly, during the 1980s Iraq-Iran war, former Supreme Leader Khomeini prohibited the development of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. This decision was surprisingly made during a war in which Iraq had used chemical weapons against Iranians: 20.000 were killed and 100.000 injured. Despite officials approaching Khomenei to initiate the development of mass destruction weapons, Khomenei refused based on their prohibition under Islam. Despite knowing that Iran would lose the war without these weapons, Khomenei refused based on Islam. And, consequently, Khomenei asked for a cease-fire that ended the war.

This historical example shows two main lessons to learn from Iran and Khamenei. Yes, Khamenei might be following the example of his mentor and predecessor: Khomenei said no to nukes, and so Khamenei doesn’t want to depart from such a basic strategy in Iranian foreign policy. Also, yes, religion can actually play an important role in policy-making (power and money are not all that matter in our leaders’ minds).

And to use another historical example: remember the numerous times in which Western countries have militarily intervened in developing countries under the justification that they held weapons of mass destruction? (See death accounts of Sadam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi). Well, Khamenei doesn’t want to be included in this group. Moreover, he knows Iran has no capabilities to fight against a world leader such as Trump. By avoiding nukes, Khamenei is basically playing it smart for his country and especially for himself.

But if Khamenei doesn’t want nukes, why is he insisting on a nuclear program? There are many reasons, and they make sense for Iran’s and Khamenei’s own interests.


1. A nuclear program is essential for Iran’s socio-economic development. 

Khamenei understands these advantages of nuclear power: “The country needs nuclear power and according to experts, the country will need 20,000 megawatts of nuclear electricity.” Indeed, as Iran’s population increases, energy demand follows. Given Iran’s dependency on oil exports, they are in need of other sources of power.

2. Nuclear development is a matter of national pride in Iran.

Just the ability to say “hey, look, we can be as technologically developed as other rich countries!” brings excitement into Khamenei’s life and to his constituents. After all, nationalism is a great strategy to maintain the unity of a country and its leader’s position in power (and Khamenei knows this). These two main reasons take us to the third one.

3. Looking weak is never good when in power.

Khamenei has faced increasing protests against his rule, especially due to Iran’s fragile economy and corruption. As shown in the previous two points, giving in to its archenemy (the US) on such a symbolic triumph for Iran’s revolutionary state would show weakness. And no one likes weak leaders. The Iranian opposition knows this and has used Khamenei’s nuclear struggles to undermine his legitimacy as Supreme Leader. Khamenei is fighting back to ensure his survival.

What is Khamenei doing?

Answer: Coercing collaboration.

From what we know, Khamenei isn’t building any nukes. But since inspectors are still in Iran, we will let you know if he does. So far, Khamenei’s strategy is one of ambiguous threats that hint at Iran’s capability to develop nuclear weapons. All he has said is that uranium enrichment limits are being breached, but he hasn’t specified what this would mean with regard to weapons. 

Khamenei’s ultimate goal with these threats? Pressuring European leaders to find a solution to Trump’s sanctions. INSTEX is not being effective in circumventing US sanctions, and so Iran’s economy is in deep trouble. Khamenei’s main priority is ensuring political and economic stability. He probably doesn’t even have time to think about nukes when protests are increasing as a result of population dissatisfaction.

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: No one really…

… apart from Trump and his anti-Iran Middle East allies (Israel and Saudi Arabia), who would like to reduce Iran’s power in the region. Meanwhile, European Leaders get headaches and Khamenei’s leadership keeps weakening.

And what about us? Well, the average person never wins from international instability. The average person is the one that pays the economic and physical costs for leaders’ geopolitical fights. If you don’t believe me, ask Iranians, who have been suffering for years from sanctions based on empty accusations unrelated to them.

Adriana Rodriguez

Executive Director of Research and Analysis