On Wednesday, Sept. 17, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told an audience of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Sepah) commanders that he was “not opposed to diplomacy,” adding that he believed in an idea called “heroic flexibility.”
Many Western writers and analysts have construed that Ayatollah Khamenei, as the person who has final say on all state matters, is both preparing the Iranian public for a compromise and signaling to the West that President Hassan Rouhani has his blessing to negotiate and settle the nuclear crisis.
This is not the first time that Khamenei has publicly stated that he is not opposed to negotiating with the West. In June, he said that if the West “puts aside its stubbornness, solving the nuclear issue is simply and easy.” However, these most recent statements are perhaps his most direct on negotiations, as they were made right before the United Nations General Assembly session and a reported meeting between Iran’s foreign minister, who is now responsible for nuclear negotiations, and the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.
Immediately after the speech, Iranian officials and media attempted to explain the term “heroic flexibility” and what it means for the policies of the country domestically and internationally while Iranian Students’ News Agency compiled a list of reactions from the foreign media. It has also turned into a catch phrase and a source of humor for Iranians on Facebook and Twitter.
While Khamenei used “heroic flexibility” in a wresting metaphor during his speech, saying that a wrestler may show flexibility for technical reasons but still “must not forget who is opponent is,” the term also has religious connotations that may be much more telling of Iran’s current position.
In 1970, when Khameneni was a young cleric, he translated an Arabic book titled Hassan’s Peace by Radhi Al Yaseen. Khamenei titled the Persian translation Imam Hassan’s Peace: The Most Glorious Heroic Flexibility of History.
Imam Hassan is the second Shiite Imam who signed a peace treaty with Mu’awiya, handing him the caliphate. Shiite Muslims do not view Imam Hassan’s peace treaty as a sign of surrender but rather a noble act to avoid senseless bloodshed. Hassan is often compared to his brother Imam Hussein, who chose to fight the injustice of the Ummayad caliph Yazid, courageously marching into certain death.
At critical moments in Iranian history, some officials would urge their leaders to choose the path of Imam Hassan, for the sake peace, rather than to fight. During the Iran-Iraq war, unsurprisingly, the memory of Imam Hussein took center stage, as Iranian soldiers fought against a better equipped and better financed Iraqi army.
Mohammad Javad Larijani, the secretary of Iran’s Council for Human Rights, said, “Heroic flexibility is a demand of the supreme leader; therefore, it is necessary for officials to prepare the ground for this.” He added that Khamenei “presented this slogan at an appropriate place because the Revolutionary Guard is a symbol of the power of the system.”
Iranian parliament member Laleh Eftekhari praised the expression Khamenei used and said, “The flexibility that takes place must be heroic and not passive, and it is not coming up short against the opposition’s demands.”