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Iran Special: What the Supreme Leader's "No Direct Talks with US" Really Means

On Thursday, addressing Air Force officers, the Supreme Leader declared that Tehran would not enter direct talks with the US. He dressed up his declaration with the pronouncement of US perfidy for 60 years against Iran, of President Obama's betrayal of his 2009 call for "engagement" with "conspiracies" and "support of terrorists", of the American-led deceit in "talks about talks" while they imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Press hubbub ensured. Some observers reacted with the declaration that diplomacy over the nuclear issue was comatose, if not dead. Others chose polemic, based on their pre-set position: critics of the Islamic Republic said Ayatollah Khamenei had proved that Tehran would never enter a genuine process of negotiation, while defenders said the Supreme Leader had reacted to the Washington's failure to establish a "reality-based Iran policy".

Almost all these reports and commentaries --- lacking essential background, including last year's direct US-Iran contacts; lacking context; and lacking knowledge of politics inside Iran --- missed the point of the Supreme Leader's speech.

Here's one key fact to start: two days before Khamenei spoke, Iran --- after weeks of manoeuvring and eight months since the last formal discussions --- finally agreed to resume high-level talks with the 5+1 Powers, including the Americans, on 26 February in Kazakhstan.

What's more, the Supreme Leader endorsed that decision in his speech: "Having relationships and negotiating with countries who had no deceit against us, is in our national interest."

So what was Khamenei seeking with yesterday's speech? Here's a three-point guide:


Throughout last year's high-level meetings and after their suspension in June, some influential figures in the regime argued that Iran should not be pursuing a deal first-and-foremost through the talks with the 5+1 Powers. They said that the European powers in particular dragged the process down, supporting their claim with the failure of European-led efforts in 2003 and 2006.

Instead, if Tehran wanted a deal on uranium enrichment, it should go directly to the US --- after all, it was Washington that had the power to punish Iran and Washington that had the power to lead its partners to an agreement with Tehran.

President Ahmadinejad had long spoken of this possibility. What was different last summer is that, with Ahmadinejad pushed to the sidelines of Iranian politics, other officials --- including some around the Supreme Leader --- took up the challenge.

In September and October, senior Islamic Republic representatives met the Americans in "back-channel" discussions. The contacts culminated in a discussion between the Supreme Leader's top advisor, Ali Velayati, and the US officials in early October in a Gulf State.

But there the "direct talks" trail appears to have ended. The Iranians wanted a process of "reciprocation", with their steps moving away from enrichment of 20% uranium matched by easing of sanctions. The Americans either refused to budge from the pre-condition of "stop, ship, and shut" over the 20% uranium or, alternatively, felt the Iranians were asking for too much over sanctions and recognition of their right to enrichment before they took any step away from the 20% process.

Despite talk of President Obama's re-election bringing a renewed discussion, the Iranians returned to the 5+1 track, risking all the hesitations and false starts in dealing with the Europeans as well as the Americans.

The significance of Tuesday's announcement of new talks on 26 February was the culmination of that shift. Although the negotiations may be largely symbolic rather than substantive in bringing an agreement, they keep the process alive and thus stave off consideration of military action against Tehran.

The significant of Khamenei's speech is that he did not reject those negotiations. He merely confirmed the recent shift in the negotiating tactics.


Those tactics is based on Iran's hope that it can "peel off" members of the 5+1 from Washington. China and Russia are the two candidates that come to mind immediately, given their far more lenient position on sanctions and possibly on Tehran's level of enrichment.

However, Tehran has long signalled a similar approach to France and Germany. Last spring, there was a series of announcements playing up relations with the European Union, as well as Paris and Berlin. The position with Britain was complicated, to say the least, by the series of events in late 2011 that led to the closure of the British Embassy in Tehran and the expulsion of Iranian diplomats from London; however, there was even an abatement of anti-British rhetoric as Iran tried to manoeuvre the Europeans into a more conciliatory position.

That hope was dashed by the stalemate in the talks last spring and by the European Union's implementation of punishing sanctions, including a cut-off of Iranian oil imports, on 1 July. However, with the reversion back to the 5+1 route from November, Iran is again looking for some kind of gap between the US position and that of its European partners.

So while the Supreme Leader was strident in his criticism of Washington yesterday, notice the "missing" half of the speech: there was no corresponding denuncation of the Europeans.


Although the direct talks with the Americans were apparently suspended in October, and even though Iran returned to the 5+1 track, it appears that high-ranking members of the regime were still contemplating the possibility of 1-on-1 contacts with the US.

As late as Tuesday night --- after the announcement of the talks on 26 February --- President Ahmadinejad was telling journalists in Cairo that he would welcome the direct talks. More importantly, given Ahmadinejad is on the fringes of the process, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi had spoken of the possibility last weekend.

Indeed, far from US Vice President Joe Biden broaching the direct talks issues last Saturday --- the image that the Supreme Leader gave in his speech --- the Americans were responding to an opening given 11 days ago by Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, when he said there were "no red lines" against discussions with Washington.

Ayatollah Khamenei told his officials yesterday that there should be no more mention of this. And, while Salehi and Larijani remained silent, Ahmadinejad acknowledged the message: reversing his position, he said last night that the US could not be trusted in 1-on-1 talks.


None of this means that Iran will race towards a settlement of the nuclear issue. There is no evidence, so far, that the US and European powers have significantly modified the "stop, ship, and shut" proposal they put last June. Without some sign of that, any hope of an agreement is illusory --- the Iranians see this as a demand for their concessions, even surrender, before meaningful talks commence.

However, there are some Americans --- including former Government officials such as Thomas Pickering --- who have been floating the outline of a possible approach and settlement. In brief, Iran will give up its enrichment to 20%, shipping its existing stock outside the country. In return, Tehran's right to enrich to 5% will be explicitly acknowledged, and sanctions will be lifted. My suspicion is that this idea is also being discussed in "back-channel" talks between US, European, and Iranian representatives, albeit at the unofficial level.

The Supreme Leader did not kill off negotiations yesterday. Even as he laid down some tough lines --- to his officials as well as the US --- he signalled that they are alive, if only to hold off far more dangerous alternatives.

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