An ancient imam at the center of Iran nuclear deal

April 13, 2015
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in Tehran

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in Tehran, January 8, 2007. REUTERS/Stringer

When Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif announced on April 2 that his country tentatively accepted an agreement limiting Tehran’s nuclear program, he made a point of praising his boss, the supreme leader, for his “heroic flexibility.”

After two years of negotiations with the United States and five world powers (France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany), Zarif could be expected to thank Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all Iranian political and national security matters — as he emphasized with his comments on Thursday demanding an end to sanctions as soon as Iran signs a final agreement. But Zarif’s reference to “heroic flexibility” was also a signal to hardliners in Iran that this deal has Khamenei’s support.

Khamenei appears to have first used the phrase in September 2013, when he essentially blessed Iran’s latest round of negotiations with the Western powers. “I am not against proper political moves in diplomacy,” Khamenei said. “I believe in what was described many years ago as ‘heroic flexibility.’ On certain occasions, flexibility is positive and very beneficial.”

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the crowd in the holy city of Qom, south of Tehran

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the crowd in the holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, October 19, 2010. REUTERS/

But Khamenei also laid out the parameters of the negotiations. “A wrestler sometimes shows flexibility for technical reasons,” he said. “But he should not forget who his opponent and enemy is.”

By using the phrase “heroic flexibility” — and repeating it several times since — Khamenei reached back into Shi’ite history to provide theological justification for the possibility of a rapprochement with Iran’s Western adversaries.

After the 2013 speech, Iranian journalists worked to decode the reference. They found that in 1969, when Khamenei was a 30-year-old junior cleric, he had translated a book, Imam Hassans Peace, from Arabic into Farsi. It told the story of Shi’ite Islam’s second imam, Hassan, who in 661 reached a compromise with a rival Muslim leader that prevented a new war between the emerging Sunni and Shi’ite sects. Khamenei subtitled the book, The Most Splendid Heroic Flexibility in History.

Khamenei has often said that his political decisions are guided by examples from early Islamic history. So his use of “heroic flexibility” signaled that, in negotiations with the United States and five other world powers, he would be guided by the actions of Hassan.

By echoing the supreme leader’s comments, Zarif encouraged other Iranian officials to support the deal. On April 3, a day after the tentative agreement was announced, most of Iran’s Friday prayer leaders, who are appointed by Khamenei’s office, praised the pact. Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani, Tehran’s main prayer leader, applauded the negotiators for hewing to Khamenei’s directive. Emami-Kashani said, “They have followed the supreme leader’s advice on heroic flexibility.”

More broadly, Khamenei’s comments reflect two historical paths within Shi’ism: one that emphasizes compromise, the other, rebellion and martyrdom. The two paths define Shi’ite history.


Shi’ism is now associated with Iran, but it was born in Iraq, in a battle between Arab factions. When the Prophet Mohammad died in 632, a schism arose over who would succeed him as caliph, the political and military leader of Islam. One faction argued that the prophet’s heir should be chosen from among his closest companions. The other faction insisted that succession must preserve the prophet’s bloodline. Because Mohammad did not have any surviving sons when he died, his rightful heir was his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. The Shi’at, or partisans, of Ali emerged out of this movement.

The struggle over the caliphate led to the first fitna, or civil war, between Muslims. It is a term still invoked to warn of sectarian divisions.

After the prophet’s death, his followers convened a shura, or consultation, to choose his successor. They chose one of Mohammad’s companions instead of Ali, who was passed over twice more. He finally became the fourth caliph of Islam in 656. But Ali was assassinated five years later, in the continuing struggle over who would rule the faithful. He had been praying in a mosque in the Iraqi garrison town of Kufa. He was buried nearby in Najaf, where a mosque was later built around his tomb.

Leadership of the Shi’ite community then passed to Ali’s eldest son, Hassan. His supporters urged him to lay claim to the caliphate established by Muawiyah, whom Shi’ites regarded as a usurper. But in 661, Hassan negotiated a peace treaty with his rival, giving up his claim to leadership of the Muslim world. Muawiyah had moved the caliphate from Islam’s birthplace in Arabia to Damascus. By relinquishing his claim, Hassan helped Muawiyah solidify his control and establish Islam’s first great dynasty, the Umayyads, who ruled for nearly a century.

In 680, Ali’s younger son Hussein led a rebellion against the new Umayyad caliph Yazid, Muawiyah’s son. Hussein set out from Medina in Arabia with a few dozen supporters. But Yazid sent several thousand troops to intercept him in the Iraqi desert. According to Shi’ite lore, Yazid’s troops surrounded Hussein’s caravan, cutting it off from the Euphrates River. Yazid’s commander issued an ultimatum: Swear allegiance to the caliph and be allowed to return home, or face death.

Shi'ite pilgrims gather at the Imam Hussein shrine during a ceremony marking Ashura in the holy city of Kerbala

Shi’ite pilgrims gather at the Imam Hussein shrine during a ceremony marking Ashura in the holy city of Kerbala, December 6, 2011. REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammed

Hussein refused to pledge loyalty to his rival. Many of his followers starved or died from thirst during a 10-day siege. Yazid’s troops eventually overran the camp, beheaded Hussein and displayed his severed head as they rode back to Damascus, a warning to anyone who would challenge the caliph’s authority. The place where Hussein was felled would become known as Karbala.

The violent deaths of Ali and Hussein became the defining factor in the split within Islam between Shi’ite and Sunni sects. They also made martyrdom and rebellion against perceived injustice among the most important tenets of Shi’ism. (The Battle of Karbala is commemorated every year by Shi’ite communities throughout the Muslim world with dramatic reenactments of Hussein’s martyrdom.)

Shi’ites believe that Ali was the first imam, or God’s spiritual representative on Earth, who was infallible and the rightful successor to Mohammad. Shi’ism assumed the role of a “pious opposition” to the Sunni majority. Throughout the Muslim world, the Shi’ites have been a perpetual opposition movement against what they see as unjust worldly political leaders.

In the early 1500s, as most of the Muslim world fell under the Sunni Ottoman Empire, the Safavid dynasty established Shi’ism as Iran’s state religion. For centuries, the Ottoman and Safavid empires struggled for leadership of the Muslim world.


In 1979, the success of the Islamic Revolution against the tyrannical shah of Iran electrified the Muslim world, especially Shi’ites, who were the minority in several Arab countries and a suppressed majority in Iraq. After the turmoil and exhilaration that followed the revolution, which was led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, there was renewed debate about the role of Shi’ite clerics.

The model of absolute rule by the clergy that dominates in Iran today is just one of several competing Shi’ite doctrines. Called wilayat al-faqih, or “guardianship of the jurisprudent,” it is modeled on the absolute rule exercised by the Prophet Mohammad and his successors in the early days of Islam.

The idea triumphed under Khomeini, who combined the roles of Shi’ite theologian and political leader of the Muslim community. He reinterpreted the notion of clerical rule in a series of lectures in 1970, while exiled in the Iraqi city of Najaf. Khomeini grappled with the question of how to create an Islamic state in the absence of the Mahdi, or “hidden imam,” whom Shi’ites regard as the last rightful successor to the prophet. (Most Shi’ites believe this imam vanished in the ninth century and will eventually return, like Jesus, to render final judgment on humanity.) Until the Mahdi’s return, Khomeini argued, a divinely anointed senior cleric has the authority to rule in his stead. Khomeini conceived this role as that of the “supreme leader” — a cleric who carries out God’s will on Earth.


Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, 1979. WIKIPEDIA/Commons

Khomeini’s charisma and political skill overshadowed the more moderate vision of Shi’ism centered in Najaf. Yet many Shi’ite clerics opposed Khomeini’s vision. They did not want to seize political power directly, whether in Iran, Iraq or elsewhere. The dominant theological school in Najaf rejects Khomeini’s model to this day.

The Islamic Revolution vested Iran with great authority in the Shi’ite world. Beginning in the 1980s, the Iranian city of Qom eclipsed Najaf as the leading center of Shi’ite study, as thousands of Iraqi scholars fled there to escape a brutal anti-Shi’ite crackdown by Saddam Hussein’s regime. With Khomeini’s vision ascendant, Shi’ism came to be viewed in many parts of the world as a violent movement extending from Iran to Lebanon.

Iran’s spiritual influence diminished after Khomeini died in 1989 and Ali Khamenei, a cleric with only modest religious credentials, was chosen as his successor. He was a compromise candidate among factions that did not want a leader as charismatic or influential as Khomeini.

Since Khamenei became supreme leader, however, he has consolidated power. In some ways, his influence now exceeds that of Khomeini. As negotiators begin work toward a final agreement over Iran’s nuclear program by the end of June, it’s important to remember that Khamenei could still refuse to sign a final deal. And he would find ample theological justification.

While the supreme leader has made much of his desire for “heroic flexibility” — the kind shown by Imam Hassan in the seventh century — Khamenei has also made many references to the other path in Shi’ite history: the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at Karbala.

In the past, Khamenei described Hassan’s compromise as an “imposed peace,” something the Iranian regime would not accept. In a May 2000 speech, when Iran was also negotiating with Western powers, Khamenei was far more defiant. “Neither the United States nor anyone stronger than the United States,” he declared, “is able to impose a situation like Imam Hassan’s peace treaty on the Islamic world. If the enemy presses too hard, there will be a repetition of the events of Karbala.”

It was a strong reminder that Khamenei’s regime can always choose the example of defiance and martyrdom favored by Hussein. With so much at stake for Iran, which path of Shi’ite history will the supreme leader embrace?


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None of the platitudes are meaningful- The whole premise is wrong: that a sovereign nation can be told by another nation what they can and cannot manufacture, even nuclear weapons. The very arrogance is disgusting.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

Of course, the “Supreme Leader” was “flexible”! He’s going to get everything he wants! Once again, naïve, liberal, Western politicians are being played like fiddles. Obama doesn’t have a clue and Kerry is a perfect match for him. Russia is already arranging the sale of missile systems to Iran. And guess what? Kerry and Obama are “concerned”… Really?! My 13 year old grandson could have told you that was going to happen! Iran will get the trade sanctions lifted, they will eventually have the bomb, and then the fun will really begin.

Posted by beofaction | Report as abusive

Since the supreme leader is reported to have said on some news web sites that Iran will never agree to on site inspection, there is not real deal. All there is some then is sort of face saving for Obama and the Europeans if they do nothing stop Iran.

It appears the Republicans in Congress appear to want belittle reject any deal even a real one. In that way make any Democrat nominated in some way supporting the deal weak.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

Funny how most of this article is lifted from Stephen Kinzer’s book, “All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror,” with no attribution to his work at all.

Is Reuters going to address this at all?

Posted by thomcahir | Report as abusive

Bibi and company started the whole problem when they took over and occupied Palestine. Now they want the USA to fight their battle for them.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

Bush let Pakistan have the bomb. Just caved altogether. Even gave them cash to advance their efforts. That is FAR worse than Iran. Iran was not harboring Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden.

Bush was an idiot. Bush voters were idiots. Any conservative take on foreign policy can be safely dismissed as nonsense.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive