The Iran Nuclear Negotiations: How Iranian Media Covers the Supreme Leader's Foreign Policy

Written by ASL19 researchers for the Iran Media Program. 

In a speech to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on September 17, 2013, Supreme Leader Khamenei unveiled a new approach to Iranian diplomacy, emphasizing that moving forward, it would be carried out with “heroic flexibility.” Although the term heroic flexibility remains somewhat vague and open to interpretation, it indicates a shift in Iranian foreign policy, and is now becoming synonymous with Iran’s approach to foreign policy, with noticeable shifts since Rouhani took office. For example, the September 27th telephone conversation between President Barack Obama and President Rouhani represented the highest-level of contact made between the U.S. and Iran since the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis, breaking the ice so that an interim nuclear deal could be worked out.

Aside from a few notable statements, Khamenei has kept relatively quiet on these developments; however, despite Khamenei’s criticism of the Rouhani-Obama telephone call, he has signaled support for Rouhani’s activities. In a November 3, 2013 speech prior to the nuclear negotiations, Khamenei denounced the country’s conservatives for their attacks on Rouhani’s nuclear policy stating, “No one should consider our negotiators as compromisers. This is wrong. They are agents of the Iranian government.”

Conservative newspapers such as Kayhan, Javan, and Resaalat, as well as news agencies such as Fars, Tasnim, and Nasim, have attempted to undermine negotiation efforts with the United States. For example, the IRGC and Basij initiated a billboard campaign against the United States and the nuclear negotiations between the Iranian government and the P5+1 countries (United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, and Germany). 

Billboards featured images such as U.S. negotiators wearing army boots at the negotiation with the caption "American Style of Honesty."

Kayhan led the charge against the Obama-Rouhani telephone call, and they warned in an October 30, 2013 editorial, “Entering a game where the ending has been already defined by the Americans is a lost game and must be avoided.” The paper later stressed that Khamenei had intended flexibility to apply solely to the realm of tactics and methods, as opposed to flexibility in the nation’s revolutionary principles. A September 23, 2013 an article in Javan criticized Rouhani for misinterpreting and misapplying heroic flexibility. 

One answer to the discrepancy between Khamenei’s opinion and the editorial line conservative media is taking is that Khamenei is using hardline and conservative newspapers as a way to maintain support from his traditional support base, which includes affiliates of Iran’s paramilitary Basij and IRGC forces--organizations who maintain strict policies of no negotiation or open dialogue with the West. There is also the possibility that Khamenei is hedging his bets by having it both ways, depending on the ultimate success of the nuclear negotiations.

Across the political spectrum, Iranian newspapers were surprisingly unanimous in their support of the interim nuclear agreement. Most conservative and hardline newspapers, including Javan and Resalat, covered the agreement positively and commended Rouhani’s negotiating team. Kayhan was basically alone in its negative coverage, criticizing the agreement as a capitulation and that Iran’s right to enrich uranium was within the nation’s sovereign rights, unrecognized by the US. Comparisons were also drawn between Foreign Minister Zarif’s statement that the agreement gave Iran the right to enrich uranium, and US Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that Iran had not been given the right to enrich, and the paper cautioned readers to not be fooled by the “deceitful smiles of diplomats and officials.”

Despite Khameni’s propagation of heroic flexibility and his support for Rouhani’s foreign relations efforts with the P5+1 countries, Iranian newspapers, especially hardline and conservative outlets, have challenged the Rouhani administration’s efforts. Given the close ties many conservative and hardline papers have with Khamenei their castigation of Rouhani is unintuitive while the Supreme Leader’s office is offering public support.

Kayhan is often seen as a mouthpiece for Khamenei (its manager is directly appointed by Khamenei), so the paper’s criticism of the agreement interesting in light of Khamenei’s explicit support for Rouhani’s nuclear agreement. In contrast, Etela’at, a newspaper managed by Mahmoud Doaei, also a direct representative of Khamenei, strongly supported the nuclear agreement. Etela’at prominently displayed its support on its front page with a headline reading “The World Recognizes Iran’s Nuclear Rights.” 

Kayhan’s — and implicitly, Khamenei’s — disapproval of Rouhani and the nuclear agreement can possibly be explained by his attempts to appease his hardline support base, and in addition, by maintaining a channel of criticism, Khamenei can also distance himself from complete support for the Rouhani government, depending on how talks go. As has been demonstrated with previous administrations, Khamenei’s support for a president is not static, and as he is also a politician, changes should be expected. 

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