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Trying to Placate All, Iran Leader Zigs and Zags on Nuclear Talks

TEHRAN — Persian carpets were rolled out in the Beit-e Rahbar, the downtown Tehran offices of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Tuesday, a sign that important guests were on their way.

One by one, members of Iran’s establishment, politicians, clerics and commanders filed in, many exchanging the perfunctory greetings of committed rivals. They sat cross-legged and waited anxiously, knowing a crucial week of nuclear negotiations with Western powers lay ahead and not knowing what to expect from Mr. Khamenei.

The red lights of the state television cameras blinked on and he started speaking. He praised the Iranian negotiating team as great patriots and wise men. Then he reversed field, specifying seven “red lines” for the negotiators, strictures that appeared to undercut several of the central agreements they had already reached with the West.

Afterward, most in the audience were confused, friend and foe. Did Iran’s leader just derail the talks by making impossible demands days before the June 30 deadline to reach a deal? Or, more likely, was he trying to strengthen the hand of his representatives in the negotiations?

Whatever the interpretation, it was a classic performance by Mr. Khamenei, part of a strategy of ambiguity that analysts say he has followed for more than a decade on the tortuous path to a nuclear deal that, if achieved on his terms, would crown his legacy.

“Our leader deliberately takes ambiguous stances, because our enemies, including the United States, constantly shift their positions,” said Hossein Ghayyoumi, a cleric and politician who supports a nuclear deal. “In politics, details and red lines can shift from time to time.”

This ambiguity serves multiple purposes. In Iran’s opaque political system, the supreme leader presides over a spectrum of factions all vying for power, influence and money. By weaving back and forth — praising the “patriotism” of the nuclear negotiators, for instance, while drawing “red lines” in the negotiations — he keeps the moderate opposition happy while placating the hard-liners in the clergy and the military.

For Mr. Khamenei, the ultimate goal is government survival, in both domestic politics and foreign relations. While he has a clear national objective in the nuclear talks — freeing his country from damaging economic sanctions while preserving an independent nuclear energy program — he needs to be careful about his approach, so as not to be vulnerable to criticism in the political realm, particularly from hard-line conservatives.

Interactive Feature | Key Developments on Iran Nuclear Deal An outline of major developments since the framework agreement in April that could influence the final round of talks before finalizing a deal by June 30.

As emerges in a review of those years, beginning with failed negotiations with Europe and lurching through years of vitriolic breaches in relations, Mr. Khamenei has consistently issued seemingly contradictory, even erratic statements, to keep his opponents, both at home and abroad, off balance.

Through a series of such statements, along with constant warnings that the United States is not to be trusted, he seems to have maneuvered himself into a position where he can declare victory no matter how the coming round of talks comes out. If his negotiators fail, and sanctions remain, he can blame the United States, proving his point that its leaders cannot be trusted. If they succeed, and Iran can be freed of sanctions while keeping its nuclear program, he will have secured a place for himself in the country’s history.

Just getting to this point is an epic tale in itself, full of operatic ups and downs and unlikely twists. It began with the disclosure of his nuclear program by an opposition group in 2002, which presented Mr. Khamenei with an immediate problem: the threat of economic sanctions and possibly even attack from the United States, where President George W. Bush was threatening war against Iraq and had already labeled Iran a member of the “axis of evil.”

Starting what would become a complicated nuclear chess game, Mr. Khamenei initially ordered his reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, to reach out to European nations in search of a compromise on what was at the time a quite modest nuclear program.

Standing at the center of that effort was Hassan Rouhani, then the nation’s highest security official, now its president. In October 2003 he cut a deal with European powers with the leader’s blessing. Iran would suspend all its enrichment activities during negotiations.

As negotiations dragged on it became clear that nothing would get done without the United States, but the Bush administration was not interested in talking. “Our mistake was that we gave the Europeans too much credit, but they were on the phone with the Americans all the time,” said an associate of Mr. Rouhani’s at the time who has full knowledge of the talks.

By 2005, when American-occupied Iraq was descending into civil war, Mr. Khamenei abruptly switched tactics. As he recalled in a vague manner in his speech on Tuesday, if Iran wanted to make a deal, it first needed bargaining chips.

He ordered an end to Iran’s voluntary suspension of enrichment, which coincided with the election of a hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier who delighted in taunting and threatening the West, particularly the United States. Grinning happily on state television, Mr. Ahmadinejad watched as seals applied to centrifuges by the International Atomic Energy Agency were torn off and uranium enrichment resumed.

Graphic | A Simple Guide to the Nuclear Negotiations With Iran A guide to help you navigate the talks between Western powers and Tehran.

During Mr. Ahmadinejad’s tenure, and under the guidance of Mr. Khamenei, Iran went from 64 centrifuges to 19,000. Iran also started mass producing 20-percent enriched uranium and built a mountain bunker enrichment facility.

While he delighted most conservatives, Mr. Ahmadinejad made a global spectacle of Iran, and not in the most flattering terms. At the same time, economic sanctions were beginning to bite.

“Ahmadinejad fanned international tensions,” said Mr. Ghayyoumi, the cleric and politician. “He diverted the attention from the real issues.”

When President Obama came to office in 2009, nuclear negotiations were going nowhere, but sanctions were ratcheted up even further, throttling the Iranian economy. “We did increase the program very successfully,” said Amir Mohebbian, an adviser to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. “But the sanctions and lack of investments started to hurt us.”

With his economy in tatters, and perhaps encouraged by secret letters from Mr. Obama pledging to negotiate in good faith, Mr. Khamenei once again ordered an abrupt change of course. In 2012, he authorized secret bilateral talks at a seaside villa in Oman. With the Sultan of Oman as mediator, and at the request of the United States, both countries started exploring whether direct nuclear talks would be useful.

“At first the leader thought it would be a trap and he is still distrustful, but he gave the go-ahead,” said Sadegh Kharazi, a former diplomat turned politician with close ties to Mr. Khamenei, who was also present during Tuesday’s speech. “Such talks could not be done by Mr. Ahmadinejad, everybody agreed; he had become too much of an antagonizing figure.”

In 2013, the Guardian Council, which evaluates presidential candidates, enabled Mr. Khamenei’s old nuclear negotiator, Mr. Rouhani, to run as the main moderate candidate. He won handily, promising to expand personal freedoms and bring an end to sanctions.

Mr. Khamenei, long considered by foreign observers to favor the hard-liners, welcomed the victory, and Mr. Rouhani then set out to restore the country’s public image in the world. He used all the means at his disposal, from bringing back from the political grave the Western-educated, English-speaking Mr. Zarif, as foreign minister, to a huge social media campaign on Twitter.

Where Mr. Ahmadinejad had once called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” Mr. Rouhani sent out a Twitter message wishing Jews a happy new year. The message reverberated around the world.

In a critical speech in September 2013, Mr. Khamenei himself signaled the end of his taboo on direct talks with the United States, and gave the new policy a label: “heroic flexibility.”

Recalling how Hassan, the second Shiite saint, had negotiated with his enemies as a tactic, he said Iran should be prepared to do the same. “We are not against proper and rational diplomatic moves, be it in the diplomatic sphere, or the sphere of domestic politics.”

“When I heard of the policy change at first I could not believe it,” recalled Hamidreza Taraghi, a conservative political analyst close to the leader and among those who were invited to Tuesday’s speech. “But our leader knows what is best and a calmness came in my heart.”

At the annual meeting of the United Nations in New York in September 2013, Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Obama spoke on the phone, the first contact between presidents of the two countries since the Iranian revolution in 1979. The supreme leader did not agree that the contact should have been made, Mr. Taraghi said.

Until now the change in attitude has seemed aimed at reducing tensions, but not yet at making fundamental changes. “This is just a new strategy for the same policies,” Mr. Taraghi said of Mr. Rouhani’s diplomatic outreach, which he called Iran’s “smile diplomacy.”

“We are a flexible nation,” he said.

What the outreach really meant was that Mr. Khamenei, after a long period of antagonizing the West and building his nuclear program, felt comfortable about resuming the nuclear talks, insiders said. “Now that we have rolled out our nuclear energy program, our leader is ready to see if a deal that lifts the sanctions is an option,” Mr. Taraghi said.

This week, though, as Mr. Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry were descending on Vienna for what they hoped would be a final round of talks, Mr. Khamenei zagged once again, seemingly reneging on several bedrock principles negotiators thought they had settled earlier in Lausanne, Switzerland.

But that was in keeping with his strategy of ambiguity, analysts in his camp say, switching suddenly to a hard-line position to project strength and insulate him and his negotiating team from attacks by domestic opponents.

“If we show ourselves as weak, we lose,” said Mr. Mohebbian, the adviser to the foreign minister. “At the same time, we need sanctions to be lifted and investment to come in. Our self-confidence has grown over the years. That means that we can negotiate also with the option of leaving the table.”

“In the end we want to lead the Muslim world,” he said. “We can only do that with our heads held high.”

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(via NY Times)