When Iran’s supreme leader cited on Sept. 18 what he described as US attempts to engage in talks with his country on regional issues, it appeared to be a confirmation of Sept. 14 media reports that Washington had approached Tehran via Oman suggesting that US-Iranian-Russian talks begin to discuss the crisis in Yemen. The report, first run by Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar and later published by Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency, quoted an “informed source” as saying that Iran did not welcome the correspondence and had not responded. The same source recalled a similar incident during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), when Great Britain allegedly offered to negotiate but was turned down by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
A senior Iranian diplomat approached by Al-Monitor about the Sept. 14 reports wholly dismissed them. On Sept. 18, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi reiterated that denial, adding, “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has received no letter whatsoever to engage in talks with third parties over the crisis in Yemen. This claim is completely baseless.”
According to a well-informed political source in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was not referring to the alleged Yemen letter in his Sept. 18 speech. The Iranian source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The speech referred to other direct and indirect correspondences, including ones with President [Barack] Obama.” The source added that the United States knows that Tehran's influence makes it vital to any solution, but that “the solutions requested by the United States are against the interests of the free peoples of the region.”
Regardless of whether the reported letter actually exists, Khamenei’s comments cannot be separated from the current tension surrounding Iran’s regional relations, mainly with Saudi Arabia. There is also the context of the controversy surrounding the 2015 nuclear deal, which, according to the same Iranian source, could be in danger.
In this vein, Khamenei’s comments on Sept. 18 appear primarily aimed at conveying a clear and specific message to the US administration that “any kind of [further] engagement isn’t possible before the deal is implemented and as long as the United States isn’t showing a serious will to change its oppressive policies toward Iran,” the Iranian source told Al-Monitor. He added, “The nuclear deal was a lesson to learn from. The supreme leader said that negotiations with the United States were harmful and proved once again that those who bet on the Americans will always lose. The Americans themselves are proving this point — and this applies outside Iran too.”
Since 2012, Iran’s involvement in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen has stretched its regional security borders, making it impossible to reach multilateral compromises in those crisis-stricken countries without Tehran’s consent.
When the nuclear deal was struck in the summer of 2015, there were suggestions that Iran and the United States were heading toward a new chapter of cooperation in the region. In Iraq, there were promising signs that US-Iranian engagement was possible, despite both parties’ insistence on drawing red lines. Indeed, it was obvious to everyone that they were in the field helping each other but without direct coordination, as happened in the battle against the Islamic State in Saladin to the north of Baghdad, and later in Fallujah. In Yemen, there were no signs of change given the complexity of the battle and it being between a strong US ally, Saudi Arabia, and a group affiliated with Iran. In Syria, the scene was completely different. It’s true that Obama’s policies posed no serious threats to Iran’s agenda in the war-torn country, yet Tehran accused the United States of being behind the groups fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was thought that Iran was the only real side on the ground that could sit at the table with the United States to end the carnage, despite major issues remaining that were far from agreed upon. This situation persisted until Russia decided to enter the game on Sept. 30, 2015.
Moscow elevated its direct political impact on the Syrian crisis, ending up, along with Washington, as the only real party at the negotiating table, despite the role played by allies of each side. The failure of the latest tentative US-Russian agreement on Syria played into the hands of Tehran, which sees the whole process as fruitless and even destructive. Iran sees that the best way to negotiate over Syria is by recapturing land. This perspective prompted the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force command to push for the new battle for eastern Aleppo that started on Sept. 22, when US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were meeting in New York.
Iran’s political role in Syria was "affected by a partner," but it did not concern the highest authority in the country, a source close to the office of the supreme leader told Al-Monitor, adding, “It saved the whole establishment from a new wave of controversy, similar to the one that followed the nuclear deal, that would lead to more tension in the country.” The source emphasized, “To Ayatollah Khamenei, talking to the United States is making a virtue of necessity, given his longtime apprehension about Washington. The leader is setting his doctrine through such speeches. The soft war launched by the United States and its allies on the Islamic Republic prompts more vigilance. There are attempts to change our people’s minds, even our officials — this is the work of a side that holds enmity toward Islamic Iran.”
This narrative is part of a serious debate that never ends in Iran, a debate that was seriously affected by the outcome of the nuclear deal. A significant portion of Iranian society that backed the engagement policy is bitter about the slow implementation of the agreement, while those who opposed it continue to claim that they were right all along. In fact, both supporters of the openness policy and those against it are at present failing to present a serious plan to back their strategy. All that has been said as of this moment is how each path could affect Iran, citing a lot of history to support those positions, yet nothing is being said about how Iran itself will affect the world.
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