Contemporary history has validated his worldview. To Khamenei’s thinking, it was Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s abdication of his nuclear program that made him vulnerable to the NATO intervention that ended his regime, and his life, last year. By contrast, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons tests in 1998 helped turn foreign pressure and sanctions against it into foreign engagement and incentives.
While Khamenei may shun compromise, however, his path to a bomb would be perilous. Overt signs of weaponization — the expulsion of nuclear inspectors or the enrichment of weapons-grade uranium — are likely to trigger U.S. or Israeli military action. Unless Khamenei wants to provoke a military attack on Iran for domestic expediency — an improbable but not implausible prospect — he will continue to favor a deliberate, incremental approach. Such a pace leaves the regime at least two years from a bomb.
But time may no longer be Khamenei’s friend. He must calculate whether his regime can sustain severe and escalating economic pressure for the period it would take to acquire a weapon.
Nor will the path toward a weapon be a straight line. Khamenei must consider that foreign intelligence services have probably penetrated Iran’s nuclear facilities and prepared various obstacles and pitfalls — computer viruses, “accidental” explosions, mysterious assassinations and defections — that could set Iran’s nuclear clock back even further.
Are these challenges enough to force Khamenei into a compromise?
The very few instances in which Iran has made significant compromises — such as ending its war with Iraq in 1988 or suspending uranium enrichment in 2003 — have come when the regime has perceived existential angst. While Iran is under enormous pressure today, two factors are different.
First, when Iran felt compelled to compromise in the past, oil cost less than $25 a barrel. Today, oil prices hover around four times that amount, softening the blow of sanctions.
Second, instances in which Iran has compromised were spearheaded not by the obstinate Khamenei but by wily former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani or his acolytes. In the past few years, however, Khamenei has purged these pragmatic elements from positions of authority and surrounded himself with sycophants who share his cynical hard-line worldview.