To mark the 30th anniversary of the Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave a blistering speech mocking President Barack Obama and warning the U.S. president that he would see no settlement with Iran so long as the United States maintained a military presence in the Persian Gulf or placed his hopes in Iranian reformers.
“This new President of America said beautiful things. He sent us messages constantly, both orally and written: ‘Come and let us turn the page, come and create a new situation, come and let us cooperate in solving the problems of the world.’ It reached this degree! We said that we should not be prejudiced, that we will look at their deeds. They said we want change. We said, well, let us see the change.
And, then, he referred to a speech he gave on the Iranian New year (March 21, 2009) in Mashhad responding to Obama’s televised interviews and letters. The White House and the State Department speech ignored that speech, at least publicly, because it wasn’t what they wanted to hear, but here’s how Khamenei referred to it:
I said that if there is an iron fist under the velvet glove and you extend a hand towards us we will not extend our hand. This was the warning I made eight months ago. During the past eight months, what we have seen is contrary to what they orally express and pretend…
What does Khamenei mean by the “iron fist”? It’s the U.S. navy and the presence of U.S. ships in international waters in and around the Persian Gulf.
He concluded by declaring:
They should not rest their hopes in the unrest which happened after the  election… [Reformists] can’t roll out the red carpet for the United States in our country. They should know this. The Iranian nation resists.
The irony here is that the logic of Obama’s strategy is to cultivate the reformists somehow believing that they can triumph and marginalize the hardliners, never mind that men like Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are hard line, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps dominates the military and economy, and the Supreme Leader is supreme, no matter how Obama might like to twist it.
Fast forward more than five years. Earlier today, Khamenei warned that he would not tolerate any threats overshadowing negotiations:
I do not agree with negotiations that are shadowed by threats. The Iranian nation does not tolerate negotiations under threat… The negotiators should carry on with the negotiations while observing the red lines. However, they should not welcome any imposition, humiliation and threats.
America’s Gulf allies already hear in Obama’s rhetoric of a “pivot to Asia” shadows of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s “East of Suez” speech. They fear abandonment. It is a fear that the Iranian government stokes in word and action.
There has not been a single Iranian objection to which Obama and Kerry have not caved. They do not seem to understand that what they see as compromise Khamenei sees as weakness to exploit. As Khamenei increasingly alludes to a refusal to negotiate “under threat,” and makes other allusions to U.S. power projection in the region, the question is whether Obama will once again acquiesce and effectively cede security in the Persian Gulf to Iran. He may say no, but his pattern of actions speaks louder than words. America’s Gulf allies should be very worried indeed.