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Iran Analysis: 4 Reasons Why Supreme Leader is Still Open to Direct Talks with the US

The Supreme Leader addresses Air Force officers, 7 February 2013

An EA correspondent from Iran responds after a two-year break to offer this analysis:

Most of the Western headlines of the Supreme Leader's speech of 7 February announced that he had rejected direct talks with the US over the nuclear issue. Similarly, coverage of his latest statement on Saturday, given to an audience from Tabriz, has summarised that supposed rejection, while noting Ayatollah Khamenei's declaration that Iran will not pursue nuclear weapons --- "although if it wanted to, it could do so" despite American-led opposition.

Those headlines are wrong.

On Saturday, the Supreme Leader left the door open for negotiations with Washington. Indeed, he went farther, confirming that the Islamic Republic has already held direct talks with the US.

Khamenei did not elaborate on the timing or substance of these negotiations, and he insisted that they were held on the request of the other side. He claimed that in all cases the negotiations broke down because the "other side" could not counter the Islamic Republic’s "logical arguments".

[Editor's Note: the US and Iran have indeed had "back-channel" talks on the nuclear issue, as recently as last September-October. The Supreme Leader's statement fits the narrative that those discussions stalled in early October because Iran saw no American flexibilty over sanctions in exchange for Tehran's movement away from enrichment of 20% uranium.]

Once the rhetoric is stripped away from Khamenei’s speech, he has left the possibility of future negotiations with the US on the cards. He set some preconditions, all of which except one --- ending support of the Iranian opposition --- are vague and can be argued to have been already met.

So why the rhetoric cloaking that reality?

This is the way the Islamic Republic has operated from its inception, from the negotiations over the 52 Americans held hostage in 1979-80 to the acceptance of ceasefire in the war with Iraq in 1988. For over three decades, the regime’s main slogan has been "Death to America". Khamenei cannot just come out and say, well, we are now going to sit at the table with the Great Satan. The Supreme Leader has further locked himself in with statements in recent years that the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy must become "more aggressive". He cannot now, without some groundwork, declare, "We will become moderates now."

-There have been several calls by regime insiders --- notably former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and, to some extent, President Ahmadinejad --- for Tehran to "normalise" its relations with the US; however, the Supreme Leader cannot be perceived as following other people’s direction on major decisions.

Unlike democratically elected politicians, he does not have a public mandate --- his authority comes from his position as the person who has, in theory, the final say on every matter. Every time that a Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad, or regime reformists advocate negotiations with America, they are in effect pushing Khamenei into a corner, where his response will have to be “No”. The line of engagement has to come from the Supreme Leader, without prompts from others.

So why, given this, did Ayatollah Khamenei maintain the opening for direct talks?

1. Khamenei may see the recent, serious political crisis as a distraction which allows him to slip in the possibility of negotiations with the US>
2. The international sanctions are starting to hurt.
3. The Syrian regime will not be able to survive the current crisis, and its fall will be a huge strategic blow to the Islamic Republic --- last week, the head of the Basij militia said Syria is more important to the regime than the province of Khuzestan, in defence of which many thousands of Iranians died during the war with Iraq in the 1980s.
4. The Islamic Republic had hoped that the Arab Spring would bring it new allies in the region. Indeed, the movements have isolated the regime even more.

So the Supreme Leader may be thinking, "Itt will be better to start talking about talking to the Americans --- before it starts looking like we have no other option but to talk to them.

Khamenei and his inner circle, worried about the economic situation, want to see the sanctions lifted. They are hoping that negotiations with the US will bring an end to the restrictions. Even though Iran has problems such as mismanagement which are far beyond the sanctions, this will bring economic improvement, staving off public protests --- this time over food, and thus more difficult to control.

But how does the Supreme Leader get to this point?

The Western powers are not prepared to lift the sections without a first move from the Islamic Republic, but Iran insists on the lifting of sanctions first. So there is stalemate.

So Khamenei may not want the direct talks to happen now. He may want to wait until after June's Presidential election, when the Ahmadinejad administration cannot try to take credit for any breakthrough.

Given that, the high-level encounter with the 5+1 Powers (US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) on 26 February in Kazakhstan may be just insurance that there will be no consideration of military options against Iran. But if the balance of power within the regime after June is as Khamenei would like it to be --- as he had hoped in 2009, but which did not materialise --- we may see real movement on the Islamic Republic's side in the nuclear negotiations.

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