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Iran's 'Heroic Flexibility’: Marketing Ploy or Strategy?

This new term, coined by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, reflects a turning point in the Islamic Republic's official tone. But it is mainly Rohani who will have to navigate between negotiations with the West and his critics at home.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei coined an important new turn of phrase: “I agree with what I defined years ago as ‘heroic flexibility,’ because that approach is very good and necessary in certain situations, as long as we adhere to our principles,” he said in his speech last Tuesday.

What is that “heroic flexibility” and where will it lead negotiations with Iran? On that, there endless interpretations in Iran. The parliament’s speaker, Ali Larijani, explained that “heroic flexibility means a tactic of conducting negotiations, not a strategy.”

The commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Reza Naqdi, on the conservative end of the spectrum, also supports “heroic flexibility” as a tactical measure, while Mansour Haghighatpour, a member of the presidency of the Iranian parliament’s National Security Committee, explained in a media interview that heroic flexibility means that at one point you use force to attain goals and at another, a different tactic.

At least in official discourse in Iran, all concur that an essential turning point has been reached. In February, Khamenei declared: “I am a revolutionary, not a diplomat.” And now he talks about diplomatic flexibility.

Larijani was opposed until recently to any talks with the American administration until it changed its policies, and about a decade ago he attacked Rohani freezing Iran’s nuclear program. And now, he too is toeing the line of “flexibility.”

This discourse is strategically important in and of itself, because Iran has chosen, contrary to accepted political wisdom, to raise the level of expectations from it out of the understanding that it will have to pay the piper. But it is mainly Rohani who will have to navigate between negotiations with the West and his critics at home.

Rohani knows the Americans well, having been one of the three senior Iranian officials who dealt directly with the Irangate affair in the 1980s, in which Israel and the United States sold weapons to Iran, first in exchange for the release of American hostages in Lebanon and later for money that went to the Contras in Nicaragua.

Rohani is well connected to all the institutions of the regime and knows how to weave together political coalitions. The main question is not whether Khamenei will approve of Rohani’s plans, it is whether Rohani will manage to create a political coalition in Iran that will persuade Khamenei to pour meaning into the phrase “heroic flexibility.”

The turning point in the Iranian move, which waited for the outcome of the Iranian election, is also the first significant outcome of the policy of sanctions. In this, the aggressive diplomatic struggle waged by the U.S. together with the West can chalk up a victory. Because that same “heroic flexibility” is intended first and foremost to extricate Iran from the severe economic crisis in which it has found itself as result of international punishment, which it expects to scale back until it disappears completely.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, September 17, 2013. Credit: AP
Rohani delivers a speech during an annual military parade marking the Iran-Iraq war. Tehran, September 22, 2013.Credit: AFP

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