by LobeLog’s Tehran Correspondent
In September 2013, after the historic phone conversation between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and U.S. president Barack Obama, many believed that Tehran and Washington were on the path to not only diplomatically resolving the nuclear issue but also to engaging in broader negotiations on other issues and eventually normalizing relations.
However, since a comprehensive nuclear agreement was reached between Iran and the P5+1 world powers in July, talks between the United States and Iran have seemingly come to a standstill. The question is: have they stopped for good?
In a speech to commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in early October, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei explicitly “prohibited” further negotiations with the United States. “Negotiations with the United States are prohibited because of the countless downsides they would have and the nonexistent benefits,” he proclaimed.
Ayatollah Khamenei’s declaration came after a series of speeches he has made in recent months denouncing alleged U.S. aims. In a September address, Khamenei stressed the need for resolute opposition to “American efforts to use the nuclear deal to infiltrate Iran economically, politically, and culturally.” He stated that the U.S. goal “was to use these negotiations and this agreement as a way to infiltrate Iran. We have blocked this road for them and will keep it blocked. We will not allow the Americans to infiltrate our country economically, nor to infiltrate it politically, nor to have a political presence in our country, nor to infiltrate our country culturally.”
Khamenei also touched on this issue of the United States establishing a presence inside Iran in another recent speech, saying: “The great Iranian nation threw this devil out of the country; we should not allow it to return, to let what left through the door to come back in through the window. We cannot let them establish a foothold in Iran. Their antagonism towards us will never end.”
This week, after Iran’s National Security Council formally approved the nuclear agreement, Khamenei released a statement that upheld the deal as well but also reiterated to President Rouhani that the United States remains hostile towards Iran.
By taking these stances, Khamenei has created political space for hardline opponents of the Rouhani administration to more openly and vociferously criticize any further efforts at negotiations with the United States. For example, conservative Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the powerful Guardian Council, said during his latest address at Tehran’s Friday prayers that with the conclusion of the nuclear agreement, the United States will find other excuses to impose pressure on Iran. He opined that if Iran gives any concessions or the Iranian people give up resistance, then the United States will demand that “Iran recognize Israel, establish equal rights for men and women, end the qisas (eye for an eye) punishment, allow same-sex marriage, and cut its relations with Hezbollah, Syria, and Iraq.”
Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the hardline head of Iran’s Basij paramilitary force, also stated during a recent speech: “The United States should always be viewed as the enemy and any negotiations with it not in the framework of the nuclear issue is against the law.”
Fear of Infiltration
The most sensitive issue for Khamenei in regards to broader negotiations with the United States is that they would allow the United States to “infiltrate” Iran in subversive ways. Ayatollah Khamenei has, however, also said that this restriction applies only to the United States and not to other hostile powers, which, he has said, Iran is prepared to negotiate with on all issues.
The hardline newspaper Kayhan, whose editor-in-chief Ayatollah Khamenei himself appointed, ran a headline story recently that analyzed what the purported effects of American “infiltration” would be on the political structure of the Islamic Republic. Sadullah Zarei, a former member of the Revolutionary Guards and a prominent analyst belonging to Iran’s conservative political camp, warned that negotiations with the United States would eventually lead to normalized relations between the two countries:
Negotiations [with the United States] is an important signal. It is a signal that the [Iranian] political system has abandoned its struggle to stand on its principles and long-held positions, and has considered them to be modifiable and adjustable. Therefore, it can be extrapolated that just as the system was willing to compromise with a “foreign enemy” it would be willing to change its positions on “domestic opposition” as well.
Zarei’s words are revealing in many ways. Iran’s establishment indeed appears worried not so much about the potential effects that negotiations with the United States would have geopolitically, diplomatically, or even on the U.S.-Iran relationship itself, but more that it would readjust the balance of power domestically away from hardliners and towards more democratic groups.
Powerful opinion-makers in Iran in effect believe that domestic democratic and reformist forces will interpret negotiations with the United States as a change in the “ideological orientation” of the Iranian political system. These establishment forces believe this interpretation will on one hand make the more liberal groups more insistent in their pursuit of civil and political freedoms and, on the other hand, will cause the hardliners to become more desperate and lose their fervor in supporting the system.
Notwithstanding this concern of hardline political forces in Iran, the Rouhani government has given no indication that it has suspended its efforts at broader negotiations with the United States. During his recent trip to New York for the UN General Assembly, Rouhani did not dismiss the idea of further talks with the United States. “Assuming that the JCPOA is implemented smoothly, in the future there will be opportunities for us to discuss other issues [with the United States],” he proclaimed.
Furthermore, after Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech banning broader negotiations with the United States, no figures in the Rouhani administration—neither the president himself nor the foreign minister nor any member of the presidential cabinet—have taken a position on Khamenei’s directive. In fact, Iran’s oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, even said after Khamenei’s speech that Iran “has no problem with American companies investing in Iran’s oil industry if they wish to.”
These recent developments in Iran suggest that the predictions of continued step-by-step negotiations between Tehran and Washington after the conclusion of the nuclear negotiations were accurate. The Rouhani government seems to have no intention to give up on its aim of reducing tensions with the United States and will continue to confront hardline domestic forces in its struggle to do so. As a result, in the short- and medium-term, Iran’s domestic politics will be shaped by sharp disputes over how to engage the United States.
Photo: Ayatollah Ahmad Janatti (courtesy of Parmida Rahimi via Flickr)