U.S., Iran Need to Engage in Substantive Negotiations on Regional Issues

Ayatollah_Ali_Khamenei_casting_his_vote_for_2017_election_3

by Thomas Buonomo

In its October 19, 2017 Iran News Round-Up, American Enterprise Institute (AEI) analysts reported, “Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati and Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Ali Shamkhani have both stressed that Iran will not negotiate on Iran’s ballistic missile program or other regional activities.”

The day before, U.S. government-sponsored media outlet Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (RFERL) quoted senior foreign policy adviser to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Akbar Velayati, in comments he provided to Iranian media on October 17: “To say that they accept the JCPOA [nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] but should negotiate on Iran’s regional presence or talk about Iran’s missile defenses is to set conditions on the JCPOA, and this is not at all acceptable.”  

It is unclear whether Velayati meant that Iran will not accept the ex post facto attachment of ballistic missiles and regional issues to the nuclear agreement as conditions for the US to uphold the latter or whether he is asserting that Iran will not negotiate on ballistic missiles and regional issues, period, as AEI’s analysts concluded. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s rebuff of President Donald Trump’s reported interest in meeting him must also be considered within the context of the latter’s remarks against the Iranian government the day before on September 19. Lacking any sense of diplomatic tact or nuance, Trump’s comments were particularly unlikely to be accepted in stride by Iranian leaders.

Concerning the ballistic missile issue, Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a professor of English Literature and Orientalism at the University of Tehran who has close ties to the Rouhani administration, commented in an email communication, “Iran has stated that it will not discuss the missile program at all.” On regional issues he clarified, “After the signing of the JCPOA Ayatollah Khamenei said that if the US abides by its commitments in the JCPOA the two sides could start discussing regional issues.”

He directed me to a speech Khamenei gave on April 9, 2015, in which he stated, “We do not negotiate with the Americans on regional issues, different domestic issues and international issues. Today, the only matter for negotiation is the nuclear matter. This will become an experience for us. If the other side stops its usual obstinacy, this will be an experience for us and we will find out that we can negotiate with it over other matters as well.”

Khamenei appears to have since contradicted himself, however. He stated in a November 2, 2017 speech, “people think that we should compromise with the U.S. That is while the more compromise we make, the bolder they become. The way to proceed is to confront, to challenge and to resist.” Khamenei seems to believe that the ultimate U.S. goal toward Iran is regime change and that it will not be satisfied with moderation of Iranian policies. His paranoia, not entirely without basis in reality, is reinforced and perpetuated to a great degree by self-fulfilling behavior.

It is Khamenei’s policies on regional issues and his interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence, rather than Iran’s Islamic identity per se that make continued U.S. acceptance of the current Iranian government challenging. In a speech on June 26, 2017, for example, Khamenei stated, “According to Islamic fiqh—whether Sunni or Shia fiqh, or fiqh in other Islamic denominations—there’s no doubt that when an enemy dominates Muslim lands, it’s a legal obligation upon everyone to engage in jihad against them—whichever form of jihad possible. Today, fighting against the Zionist regime is obligatory and necessary for the entire world of Islam.” For the Supreme Leader of Iran, “Muslim lands” include not only Israeli settlements expanding beyond 1967 lines but all Israeli territory.

This aggressive policy—the religious justification for which is debatable—also seems to have a partly defensive motivation. Khamenei contended in a speech on September 21, 2017, for example, that, “America had a certain plan for West Asia, which they refer to as the “Middle East.” They had this plan since 15, 16 years ago—and perhaps since before that…. The main axis and heart of this plan was comprised of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq…. How was it supposed to be implemented? Some governments were supposed to come to power in those three countries [that] would completely obey and serve the US…. What would the result be? The result would be that the whole region would turn into a doormat for the Zionist regime and they would somehow achieve “From the Nile to the Euphrates” that they had in mind.”

“From the Nile to the Euphrates” refers in part to Iranian officials’ longstanding fears that Israel intends to resurrect its own ancient kingdom–whose borders extended not only into the West Bank but also into parts of modern-day Lebanon, Syria, and much of Jordan–as well as establish hegemony over the broader region.

Though Israel does not likely have territorial designs over these countries beyond maintaining control over strategic terrain for defensive purposes, the current Israeli government does intend to annex the West Bank and has disdained a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Moreover, the U.S. has become openly indulgent of these policies—not only within the Trump administration but within both parties of Congress as well. On June 5, 2017, the Senate passed a resolution stating, “Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel,” with a vote of 90-0. Two months before, 29 Republican and 14 Democratic Senators introduced legislation that would impose criminal penalties on Americans who support attempts to exert economic pressure on Israel for its colonization of the West Bank—an outrageous affront to democracy and unconstitutional assault on Americans’ First Amendment rights.

Considering these developments, Khamenei has reason to be wary of U.S. and Israeli intentions in the Middle East. The religious nationalist ideologies that now dominate Iranian, Israeli, and U.S. foreign policy also overshadow the more rational and pragmatic impulses in the three countries.

Still, it would be dangerous to conclude that there is fundamentally no space for compromise. The Iran nuclear agreement was one such compromise. It still holds, though tenuously. The Trump administration is using “regional issues” as one strategy to undermine the agreement. Although Iran won’t agree to folding such issues into a renegotiation of the JCPOA, at some point Iran, Israel, and the United States must address their conflicting interests in the region, ideally before the current regional proxy conflict in Syria expands into a Third World War.

Thomas Buonomo is the Humanist Studies Coordinator for the American Humanist Association.  His writing on Iran has been published by the Atlantic Council, The National Interest, Securing America’s Future Energy, Forbes, The Cipher Brief, The Hill, CQ Roll Call, Diplomatic Courier, and other outlets.  His views do not represent an official position of AHA. Photo: Ali Khamenei (Wikimedia Commons).

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6 Comments

  1. This would be if US saw the Islamic Republic as a trust able partner. Islamic Republic is a rogue regime that is oppressing and stealing from Iranians to help the mullah class and their ambitions of power in the ME. The Islamic Republic is only the extension of Russian policies in the region and without Russia does not have a leg to stand on. This means that any negotiations on the part of US will be with Russia. As Russia has many times before, it will abandon Iran. Russia saved Syria but only as a territory. It is now a pile of rubble which Russia won’t pay to rebuild. Islamic Republic will however for the protection it is receiving from Russia. It is the Islamic Republic that has to come up with an idea before its own people get rid of it. US has to only apply pressure without any cost to it. US can keep this up for a very long time. Can Iran afford the time?! I doubt it.

  2. The US sees itself as the world leader and expects to be treated as such. But (except for the puppet shah) that obeisance has not been forthcoming from Iran for fifty years and so the US and Iran will continue to have conflicting interests, which is fine for the US because of huge foreign military sales to Gulf despots. And the recent elevation of Iran’s political influence in its area by US misbehavior in Iraq and Syria gives Iran no interest in negotiations. Everything’s going fine! What’s not to like?

  3. @Thomas Buonomo

    1-“Khamenei appears to have since contradicted himself”. Mr Khamenei has not ‘contradicted himself’. It is your flawed interpretation, due to your Western wishful thinking based on preconceived ‘assumptions’ that Iran’s ‘regional issues’ should necessarily include ‘Iran’s ballistic missile program’. Why is it that several important ‘regional issues’, i.e. power sharing in the region, do not cross your mind?

    2-“Khamenei seems to … His paranoia …” There is no ‘paranoia’! Again you fail to understand our history and the CIA methods: you need to study the meticulous however slow development of the CIA blueprint in the region.

    3-“For the Supreme Leader of Iran, “Muslim lands” include not only Israeli settlements expanding beyond 1967 lines but all Israeli territory. This aggressive policy….” It is not ‘aggressive’; again your observation is Western, failing to understand that for non-subservient Muslims the Western Colonial annexation of Muslim lands, such as the Balfour Declaration to establish a Zionist State, have no legitimacy.

    4- “Khamenei contended in a speech on September 21, 2017, for example, that, “America had a certain plan for West Asia …”. You need to study the neo-cons’ agenda: e.g. in the first version of The Clash of Civilization, several Muslim countries, including Iran, were mentioned by Huntington, as existential threats to the West that ought to be eliminated, and so far one by one have been invaded except for Iran; hence, Mr Khamenei’s statement has been based on the historical reality of the American agenda.

    5- “Though Israel does not likely have territorial designs over these countries beyond maintaining control over strategic terrain for defensive purposes, the current Israeli government does intend to annex the West Bank …” Another Western one-sided interpretation! On what bases have you concluded that Israel has no ‘territorial designs over’ its neighboring countries?!

    Thomas, you are not the only Western analyst/commentator failing to understand the Muslim outlook, no wonder you’ve failed to feel the extent of their frustration. One clear example being the most irrational and humiliating situation in the Occupied territory: that a foreign country like the USA that shares no borders with them, with a different language, culture and religion, has given itself the right to decide as to who Jerusalem should belong, or whether the Muslims killed under the Zionist tanks and air attacks should be called terrorists or martyrs, or whether they have a right to defend themselves and their honor in the face of the American backed Zionist army. The Western analysts can hardly understand the Iranian convictions especially now that the colonial disease has grown more lethal, as the Saudis and Emirates and some other subservient Muslim rulers have also joined the ranks of the colonial invaders, leaving the Palestinians at the mercy of Western Imperialists and main stream pro-Zionist media!

  4. Thomas Buonomo, an interesting analysis, but it lacks an actionable punch line.

    “Khamenei seems to believe that the ultimate U.S. goal toward Iran is regime change and that it will not be satisfied with moderation of Iranian policies.” – I for one would have preferred that read ‘ultimate goal of the current U.S. administration and its collaborators’.

    “The religious nationalist ideologies that now dominate Iranian, Israeli, and U.S. foreign policy also overshadow the more rational and pragmatic impulses in the three countries.” – Pretty clever to write ‘religious nationalist…U.S. foreign policy.’ A lengthy journal article could be written to explain what that means.

    Most significant, “At some point Iran, Israel, and the United States must address their conflicting interests in the region, ideally before the current regional proxy conflict in Syria expands into a Third World War.” That is rather strange triad, which it is hard to see addressing much of anything around a table. Thomas, it might be nice for you to leave aside Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia-UAE and the rest, but they will want to be part of the party you are proposing. But ending with “Third World War “ was attention getting.

  5. In spite of various statements reported in this article, I feel that Iran , at least Rohani and Zarif, may be open to some “discussions” with Europe, eventually with Washington (although this is far more difficult) on missiles. Provided that various conditions are met. You will find some of these hereunder:
    * These discussions cannot be part nor linked to JCPOA.
    * They could take place only if there is no longer injunctions,diktats, threats of sanctions or un
    friendly pressures.
    * They should be presented as discussions, exchanges of views, requests for explainations,
    not formal negociations.
    * They should lead to good faith and confidence-building steps by Washington, the most urgent being ending pressures on foreign banks and facilitating monetary exchanges; another should be OFAC speeding licences when required without endless obstacles and delays.
    * These discussions may be launched first via track2 diplomacy channels.
    One has to note as well that Zarif had once said that Iran was open to negociate (he did not specify the topics) provided that there should be reciprocity!
    On missiles, one should acknowledge some statements by IRGC generals who said that the Supreme Leader had instructed to limit their range to 2000 km. They (too) heavily stressed that such a restraint was purely strategic , not related to technical weaknesses (!), then this brings a message on an eventual room for flexibility!
    At the end of the day, it seems that a finetuned communication ( huge progress is necessary) would help decreasing concerns on iranian missiles. And people in charge in the west should remember that the actual level of the iranian military apparatus is weak, has suffered a heavy burden, including numerous losses and is using (with only quite a few exceptions) outdated equipments.

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