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Ayatollah Khamenei has firmly rejected the prospect of direct US-Iran talks, but his remarks should be read in the context of Iran's fractured domestic politics. Iran's talks with the P5+1 must progress first.
Direct US-Iran Talks
During last year's presidential election, US officials leaked the news that they had 'agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations' with Iran, to supplement the parallel, multilateral process led by the P5+1 grouping of states. It quickly became apparent that this was a sanguine interpretation of whatever discussions may have occurred, and that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was, at best, wary and, at worst, outright hostile to the idea. Yet, despite the cool reception to these US overtures, the Obama administration was undeterred.
At last week's Munich Security Conference, US Vice-President Joseph Biden, with bipartisan political cover from Senator John McCain, publicly stated the US' readiness to talk 'when the Iranian leadership [...] is serious'. More surprisingly still, Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, responded favourably, noting that Iran had no 'red-lines' and that it would give the proposal 'serious consideration'.
But Salehi did not and could not speak with the authority of the Supreme Leader, who has the final say over an issue that has impinged on the state's revolutionary credentials and self-identity for over three decades. This week Khamenei decisively shot the plan down, forbidding any talks, ordering officials to preserve their 'self-esteem', and declaring that 'some naive people like the idea of negotiating with America, however, negotiations will not solve the problems'. In an ironic echo of American officials' own complaints about Iran's negotiating style, Khamenei also protested that 'Americans now need to play a new card. That card is dragging Iran into negotiations'.
It had been hoped that direct talks would reinforce and backstop the West's stuttering nuclear diplomacy with Iran, helping to alleviate the mistrust that has prevented each side from making meaningful concessions. In three rounds of talks held last year, the West refused to offer significant sanctions relief in exchange for caps on Iran's enrichment activity, and Iran in turn greatly expanded its enrichment capacity, withheld cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and demanded the complete lifting of sanctions in exchange for only modest steps. Each side advanced and then stuck to a maximalist opening position.
After a long interlude, talks are to resume at the end of February in Kazakhstan. The long gap stems from a variety of factors: the US election campaign last year, Tehran's own reluctance to enter into talks whose likely collapse would be blamed on Iranian intransigence, and general frustration with the failure to make any progress last year.
But the forthcoming Iranian elections in June, along with the risk that Iran's stockpile of uranium enriched to higher levels (up to 20 per cent) is approaching the amount that suffices for one nuclear bomb, a red line set by Israel's prime minister last year, together mean that talks had to begin quickly to have any chance of making progress before the summer.
In this context, how should we understand Khamenei's rejection of direct talks? One interpretation, that of Carnegie analyst Karim Sadjadpour, is that 'Khamenei has expressed contempt for the US on at least a weekly basis for the last 24 [years]' and that, in spurning the American offer, 'he was himself' i.e., this was the only response consistent with Khamenei's view that rapprochement with the United States would be antithetical to the animating purpose of the Iranian state and would, in due course, be tantamount to effecting regime change.
In contrast to this view, University of Birmingham professor Scott Lucas argues that Khamenei's rejection should be read in the context of his implicit acceptance of another round of P5+1 talks, despite obvious Iranian reluctance to begin another round of these, and, more importantly, the intensifying factionalisation at home, evident in the weekend's extraordinary spat between Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and President Ahmadinejad.
In this reading, Khamenei was doing three things: (1) targeting the increasingly-erratic Ahmadinejad, who had, on his visit to Cairo, shown an openness to direct talks (and generally adopted a more flexible position on the nuclear issue), (2) shunning the risky step of direct talks at a time when the Iranian political elite is already severely divided and the pre-election political climate especially sensitive, to the point where, as Ali Reza Eshraghi astutely notes, 'even some of figures in the opposition who have been among the harshest critics of the regime's foreign policy' have recoiled from the idea of direct talks, and, finally, (3) providing cover for the broader P5+1 talks, where the US role is diluted by that of the other five participants (Iran has refused to meet the US representative in that bloc, currently Wendy Sherman, for four years).
If domestic politics does underpin Khamenei's reaction, then this allows for a less gloomy interpretation of where things stand: assuming that Iran's June elections proceed smoothly (far from certain) and produce a less unpredictable president who is more amenable to the Supreme Leader (virtually guaranteed), then there may be greater political space for direct talks.
It is worth remembering that, according to last year's leaks, Obama administration officials insisted that 'American understandings [on the mutual agreeability of future talks] have been reached with senior Iranian officials who report to [Khamenei]', suggesting that his position is not entirely inflexible. Of course, if the elections throw up protests, as they did in 2009, all this would anyway be thrown into disarray.
The Primacy of the P5+1 Track
However, even this post-election scenario only seems remotely likely if some breakthrough can first be achieved in the P5+1 process - the most likely pathway for this involving a cap on Iranian enrichment (to 5 per cent), a reduction in the Iranian stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 per cent (whether through export or, more likely, conversion to fuel) and a restriction in the enrichment capacity of the underground Fordow facility, all in exchange for meaningful Western sanctions relief (though not, as Iran demanded last year, their complete removal). It is difficult to see how Khamenei could endorse direct talks under conditions where sanctions have intensified, as they are likely to do over the next year unless we do make diplomatic progress.
(This has not always been the case. Direct talks might very well have grown out of Iran's now-infamous 2003 letter to the US proposing a 'broad dialogue' on all outstanding issues, a year after the US had placed Iran in the 'Axis of Evil'. But that was then: the relationship has radically changed in the intervening decade, and the prerequisites for bilateral discussions - let alone a rapprochement - have grown correspondingly more demanding.)
This highlights the problem with those who advocate a 'grand bargain', in which the US and Iran settle a much broader range of disputes - and thereby attenuate the mutual distrust that prevents each side from making nuclear concessions - in order to solve the nuclear problem. In reality, incremental and modest progress on the P5+1 track will have to precede progress on any bilateral US-Iran track, although - if we ever get that far - these two channels could be mutually reinforcing.
The Role of US-Iran Talks
If an interim deal is struck, and if that then helps to enable US and Iranian representatives to sit down together, this would be important in making a later, more comprehensive nuclear settlement more durable. Direct talks at this later stage might, for instance, help the US to make security guarantees to Iran - such guarantees were made to North Korea, and were recently suggested by the former head of US Strategic Command and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Cartwright - or build trust in other ways.
This trust-building would be especially important over that protracted period of a deal in which Iran is 'coming clean' to the IAEA over any past or present illicit nuclear weapons research - Iran would only do this if it felt confident that its compliance would elicit complete sanctions relief, but the US could only offer this once it had verified compliance, something that would take time. This would be one of the most sensitive periods of any settlement, and a direct US-Iran channel could prove extremely important.
None of this is to say that a grand bargain is impossible or that a broader dialogue on security (as Iran has always sought) is undesirable, but, rather, that to do so in a credible and sustainable way will require movement on the multilateral side of things first: the sequencing matters. But the tenacity of the Obama administration on this subject - indicated by their willingness to have Joseph Biden float the offer in public, despite the earlier silence from Iran - suggests that this idea is not something they will abandon completely. Although we are still a long way from anything resembling success in Kazakhstan, it is hard to see any other route out.