U.S.-Iran Negotiations: Game On?

Iran appears to be wasting no time in using Obama’s electoral victory to push for negotiations with the United States.

“If it benefits the [Iranian] system, we will negotiate with the U.S.A. even in the depths of hell,”Mohammad Javad Larijani, one of three influential brothers who are closely aligned with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said following Obama’s reelection, according to the New York Times which cited Iran’s semi-official Mehrs News. [Best as I can tell Mehrs didn’t carry the article on its English-language website, and The Guardian quoted Larijani slightly differently as stating, “If it benefits us, we can hold talks with America even at the bottom of hell.”] Larijani was also quoted by The Guardian as saying that, “”Talks with the US are not taboo, nor forbidden,” whereas the NYT’s story read that bilateral talks were “not taboo,” with the bilateral talks part being the words of the reporter.

As Al Monitor‘s Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi notes, Larijani has made similar comments in the past, however. More surprising, then, is a report released by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, which the Washington Post reported on Wednesday, but didn’t provide much information on or links to, despite saying it was widely reported on in the Iranian press.  Wapo does say the report warns Iranian officials against ignoring the danger of an imminent attack on the country. To avoid airstrikes, the Ministry advises Iran’s political leaders, “One of the options is to take diplomatic and political measures and use the potentials of international bodies, which is a necessary and less costly option.” The report also apparently says that, in contrast to Israel, Obama “hopes to solve this issue peacefully and through diplomacy.”

Thankfully, Sadeghi-Boroujerdi translated the conclusions of the Intelligence Ministry document into English, which he posted on Iran Pulse, a must read for anyone interested in Iran. The report certainly places greater emphasis on seeking to avert armed conflict through diplomacy, calling even the “smallest neglect” of trying to avoid conflict “the gravest sin.” It does of course affirm that attacking Iran “cannot have any benefit for the aggressors” and that the Islamic Republic stands ready to “respond to them with all its capability and make them regret their ill-considered action.” Essentially  the Intelligence Ministry is saying that Iran, much like the Obama administration, strongly favors avoiding military confrontation but ultimately stands ready to take that course should it be forced too.

All in all, while the source of the report may be surprising, I don’t think its conclusions are too different from much of what is said by various members of the Iranian elite. I do think that it was meant in part as a signal to the U.S., but equally to warn the various Principlist factions within Iran to avoid having their current in-fighting sputter negotiating with the U.S., which would be “the gravest sin.” I would stress that this statement was probably issued through the Intelligence Ministry as a subtle sign that it was fully endorsed by Khamenei, who besides being in reality in control of the Ministry during normal times, reversed Ahmadinejad’s purge of the Intel Minister last year. Thus, this was probably one way of demonstrating that interest in a deal extends to Khamenei, and is not merely limited to Ahmadinejad, who has little ability to enforce whatever deal he might make with the West.

On the positive side, for those who want to see a deal between Iran and the U.S. at least, it seems to be that many statements coming out of Iran this week were very explicit in differentiating between the U.S. and Israel, as well as Obama and Israel. For example, some sources said that Obama’s electoral victory was a blow for the “Israel lobby” and demonstrated that they had little influence over Obama’s policy.

Not all signs from Iran these week were positive, of course. I don’t have much to say about Iran scrambling fighter jets against a U.S. surveillance drone. I will note that Mohammad Larijani’s brother, Sadeq, who serves as Iran’s Judiciary chief, was less decidedly less optimistic about the upcoming (yet to be confirmed) talks. Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi quotes Sadeq as saying, ““relations with America are not simple and after all these pressures and crimes against the people of Iran by America, … the Americans should not think that by coming to the negotiating table with Iran they can exact a levy against our nation.”  Sadeq added, according to Eskandar, “Obama four years ago also came onto the scene with slogans of change and spoke of offering his hand in cooperation to Iran, but acted in a different way and unprecedented sanctions against Iran have materialized and it is natural that the Iranian people will never forget the crimes of America.”

World News Connection attributes similar quotes to the head of the Judiciary, but also reports he added a note of optimism about potential bilateral talks, saying, “”the US will start to be wise only when it manages to win the Iranian nation’s trust.” In other words, U.S. policy will only be favorable to Iran when Tehran starts to trust the U.S. One way, and admittedly the most apparent one, of reading this is that he is saying the U.S. needs to take actions to win Iran’s trust. At the same time as he is saying that to the U.S., he may also be acknowledging that perhaps Tehran could not see so much dubiousness in U.S. intentions, which would be consistent with a lot of other statements emanating out of Iran this week which have stated that Obama, in contrast to Israel of course, seeks a diplomatic solution.

Ultimately, the best I can tell is that Supreme Leader Khamenei is entertaining the possibility of a deal but playing his cards close to his chest. Readers not suffering from punditry amnesia may recall that in the beginning of the year Khamenei was himself very vocal in expressing Iran’s desire to reach a deal with the U.S., much as Obama had been pushing him to do since taking office in 2009. The response he got from Washington in the subsequent negotiating sessions was “once you meet all our demands up front we will reciprocate by removing sanctions on spare civilian aircraft parts,” which, to my mind, was a backhanded way of saying we have no desire to reach a deal with you at this current time. It would be odd if Khamenei wasn’t hedging his bets this time around.


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