x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Khamenei bound by domestic politics in nuclear negotiations

The problem for Iran's Supreme Leader is that any concession might risk domestic dissent.

A dim light of hope in the dark tunnel of Iran's nuclear programme has appeared. After playing a game of chicken, finally Iran and the P5+1 - the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany - have agreed to a new round of talks to be held in Kazakhstan on February 26. More importantly, the US vice president, Joe Biden, speaking at the 49th Munich Security Conference on Saturday, said that his country was ready for "direct talks with Iran if it is serious about negotiations". His statement immediately met with a positive reaction from Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, who attended the same conference.

Mr Biden added: "The ball is in the government of Iran's court." The truth of the matter is that if Iranians and Americans believe that negotiations are like a basketball game that will have a winner and a loser after four quarters, a peaceful resolution on Iran's nuclear project is very unlikely.

The common belief among many Iranian analysts is that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei opposes any sorts of talk or negotiation with the US. This is not true. For instance, with the permission of Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran and the US negotiated before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And Iranians were satisfied with the results.

Iran's former foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, called those talks "part of the Islamic Republic of Iran's successful diplomacy".

But Ayatollah Khamenei has publicly declared that he opposes "the type of negotiations that the US will use as a tool to impose its demands on Iran". Last spring, most of Iran's high-ranking officials believed that decent and fair negotiations with the P5+1 over the nuclear issue were about to take place. However, after three rounds of talks in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow, the now-disappointed critics of Ayatollah Khamenei began to agree with his position.

Even the former Iranian president, Mohamad Khatami, who is out of favour with the Supreme Leader, said: "The West has proven to have no interest in giving anything to Iran while taking everything from it." Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another former president who is known for his outspoken remarks about direct talks with the US, also expressed his disappointment: "These talks prove the West has no interest in engagement, is not honest and is a bully."

For the first time, even some of figures in the opposition who have been among the harshest critics of the regime's foreign policy have called the US an unwilling party in negotiations. Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, a veteran diplomat and the spokesman for the opposition Iranian National Front party, has suggested in a piece published on the website Iranian Diplomacy that the government must fully explain the situation to shift the blame for sanctions to the West.

It is a mistake to think that Iran's opposition groups agree to unconditional negotiations over the nuclear issue. On January 1, six prominent members of the opposition National-Religious Coalition, in an open letter addressed to Ayatollah Khamenei, indicated that talks with the US were not appropriate under the circumstances because Iran would have no choice but to surrender to US demands and give up on its interests.

Last October, when there was a rumour that the Supreme Leader's adviser Ali Akbar Velayati had secretly met with the US officials, the flagship website of the opposition Green Movement, Kaleme, warned that the regime must not agree to humiliating compromises on national interests for the sake of short-term benefits. The website reprinted an article by Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leading reformist candidate in the 2009 presidential election who is now under house arrest, in which he protested the UN Security Council's new round of sanctions.

"Sanctions do not aim to bring the Iranian government to its knees [but instead the country]," Mr Mousavi said, mentioning the US-sponsored coup. He urged Iranians to be aware and not let "foreign powers" hurt Iran's "independence, sovereignty and national interests".

After negotiations failed in 2005, Mr Mousavi supported resuming the conversion of uranium at the Esfahan facility. Since then, Iran's nuclear programme has been subjected to rounds of UN resolutions and sanctions.

In the context of the negotiations, one must pay attention to the conceptual and practical differences between the regime, the government and the nation-state. Successful negotiations with Iran will treat it as a national issue, rather than a bilateral issue with the Islamic regime or its changing governments.

For a long time, the United States has considered talks with Iran as tantamount to making a deal with the notorious government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which made them taboo. The Obama administration has since learnt that negotiations must deal with the regime represented by Ayatollah Khamenei.

Even the regime has its limitations, however - in 2009, Ayatollah Khamenei's representative reached a deal with the P5+1 in Geneva, but when the news reached Iran, conservatives and reformists within the regime, as well as the Green Movement opposition, decided that the concessions were against the interests of the state and forced Ayatollah Khamenei to cancel the deal.

Given the political and economic upheaval in Iran, the United States may consider itself in a position of strength and continue to pressure the regime on unilateral concessions. However, the problem for the Islamic regime, and particularly for Ayatollah Khamenei, is that such concessions might risk domestic dissent. Historically, the national narrative has been about independence and sovereignty - especially relative to the United States. The discourse of freedom and democracy comes second. Iran's negotiators can easily be goaded into taking a hard line.


Ali Reza Eshraghi is a former senior editor at several of Iran's reformist dailies and a teaching fellow in the department of communication studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill