On March 21, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced what appeared to be a shift in his policy toward direct, bilateral negotiations with the US when he said that although he was not optimistic about negotiations with America, he was also not opposed to them.
This was a step forward from his comments just last month when, parallel with his consistent position, he harshly rejected Vice President Joe Biden's offer of direct talks. He had said, “You aim the gun at the Iranian nation and then say, ‘Negotiate or I shoot!’ But you should know that pressure and negotiation are not compatible.”
What caused this change of heart in less than two months? The first thing that comes to mind is that Khamenei took the new position because of broad discontent about high prices resulting from sanctions. This discontent could ignite unrest and lead to what Baztab, a popular political website in Iran, called a “movement of the hungry.” However, this view may not explain why Khamenei’s stance has changed so radically in such a short period of time while not much else has changed within the last month and a half.
A more realistic theory is that recent US propositions for bilateral talks, repeated frequently by the Americans, could not go unheeded by Iran’s leadership. President Barack Obama’s March 18 message for the Iranian New Year specifically stands out. The message was friendlier than those from past years, but more importantly, unlike any of his previous messages and speeches, it contained neither threats nor accusations toward Iranian leaders.
Iran’s supreme leader realizes that if there is no reaction from Tehran to continuing US reconciliatory proposals, Americans could put the blame for the current crisis over Iran’s nuclear program on the Iranian government and its confrontational and uncompromising stance. Americans could then conceivably sway the international community to impose more pressure on Tehran and possibly even support military action against it.
Moreover, under the current economic quandary, a flat rejection of US attempts at rapprochement could escalate tensions within political circles over holding direct talks with the United States, and also with the Iranian people — who may blame Khamenei for their increasingly arduous daily life — and their government.
Now, Khamenei’s calculation to open doors to talks with the US may be based on two possible scenarios. In the best, if unlikely, scenario, Americans could have come to the conclusion that Iran will not submit to coercion. In this case, negotiations may lead to a face-saving, mutually acceptable solution. So why not give negotiations a try?
However, Khamenei is not optimistic about this scenario. He believes that Americans want Iranians to engage in bilateral talks to dictate their will and force Iran to halt its enrichment program. In his speech, he stressed, “From the viewpoint of the Americans, negotiation does not mean that we should sit down together and try to find a logical solution. … What they mean is that we should sit down together and speak until Iran accepts their views.”
Built on this conviction, a worst-case scenario emerges: By agreeing to bilateral talks, Khamenei could nullify the damaging effects of the new US tactic of repeatedly proposing talks. He maintains, “Our interpretation is that offers of negotiation are an American tactic to mislead public opinion in the world and in Iran.”
In Khamenei’s view, Iran’s engagement in mutual talks would reveal the United States’ real aim in insisting on talks with Iran as stripping Iran of its rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to peaceful nuclear technology. This could explain his opposition to engagement with the United States, would portray the US as an irrational bully and would let Iranians hold the Americans — and not their leader — responsible for the hardships they face as a result of sanctions.
On the other side of the fence, however, the US may believe that sanctions are inflicting severe damage on Iran’s economy and that Khamenei’s adjustment in strategy is one of distress. Therefore, backed by and based on the UN Security Council resolutions, the US could mandate the suspension of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program until all concerns about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program are addressed. Alternatively, an overconfident America could potentially offer unbalanced and small concessions for relatively large gains. Now that Khamenei has publicly altered his stance, Americans may see no reason not to take advantage of his perceived weakened position.
Direct talks, if they happen, between parties with these opposite assessments are a recipe for failure.
Iran is unlikely to bow to US pressure for two reasons:
- Ayatollah Khamenei is apprehensive about losing stature if he were to concede Iran’s “inalienable rights,” as he has often put it, under humiliating conditions; and,
- He firmly believes that “if the ofﬁcials of the country get daunted by the bullying of the arrogant powers and … make concessions to those powers, these concessions will never come to an end,” maintaining that, “Indeed, the end to US pressure and intimidation will only come when Iranian ofﬁcials … compromise … the Islamic Republic.”
Direct talks between Iran and the US may not inspire high hopes for an end to Iran’s nuclear crisis. However, they are the last chance to avoid a disastrous war. According to some reports, Obama and Netanyahu have agreed to keep the diplomatic window open until after Iran’s presidential election on June 14. This doesn’t mean that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will happen the next day, but there are many indications that patience for the diplomatic process may wane toward the end of this year.
Meanwhile, as the US sanctions constrict and the Iranian regime’s survival is threatened, retaliatory and destabilizing reactions by Iran — especially in the Strait of Hormuz — may lead to war.
Continue reading this article by registering and get unlimited access to:
- The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
- Archived articles
- Exclusive events
- The Week in Review
- Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly