Iran’s Supreme Leader leaves diplomatic door open

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (khamenei.ir)

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (khamenei.ir)

The attacks on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil facilities have spurred major geopolitical convulsions. They have called into question the US security commitment to the Saudi state, the efficacy of Saudi defense systems, and the viability of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s plan to move ahead with the Aramco IPO. Perhaps most consequentially in the near term, they have also forced a new cost-benefit analysis for countries around the globe regarding US President Donald Trump’s Iran policy.

In the backdrop, Iranian officials have continued to stress that the diplomatic window is open to reducing tensions. This was reflected in President Hassan Rouhani’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 25 where for the first time he gave the Trump White House a face-saving way to abide by the framework of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), without formally returning to the nuclear deal.

Rouhani declared: “If you are sensitive to the name of the JCPOA, well, then you can return to its framework and abide by the UN Security Council Resolution 2231. Stop the sanctions so as to open the way for the start of negotiations.”

However, most importantly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also discussed US-Iran diplomacy after the Aramco attacks, where for the first time in recent years he did not categorically rule out negotiations with the United States. Indeed, despite its reported involvement in the attacks, Tehran is indicating its willingness to enter new talks with Washington, but only when it has strengthened its bargaining position and the US backs off “maximum pressure.”

The enormously strained US-Iran relationship is afflicted with much grandstanding and signaling. Both countries have contentious politics and must overcome domestic opposition when it comes to engaging each other. Especially on the Iranian side, internal politics compel officials to insulate themselves from the risks of engaging the fickle-minded Trump. These political realities as well as strategic concerns drive the thinking of Khamenei and other Iranian officials when it comes to the issue of renewed US-Iran negotiations at this juncture.

In his speech on September 17, Khamenei significantly laid out his criteria for new US-Iran negotiations. Chiefly, it would require the US to provide upfront sanctions relief, and to engage Iran in a tone of respect, not insults and threats. While the Supreme Leader did forcefully reject any meetings between US and Iranian officials during UNGA, which have indeed not taken place, his remarks marked a shift from his rhetoric since the US left the JCPOA in May 2018. Notably, Khamenei similarly went from a staunchly uncompromising stance to announcing the need for “heroic flexibility” in a 2013 speech that preceded the negotiations leading to the JCPOA. 

Last August, after the re-imposition of US sanctions on Iran, Khameneideclared in a seminal speech that “there will be no war, nor will we negotiate” with the United States. He added that “even if the impossible occurred and we negotiated with the Americans, we definitely won’t negotiate with the current administration.” This past May he also stated: “Negotiations with the current administration are a poison.”

However, signs of Khamenei shifting also came in May, when stated in another speech that Iran would impose its own pressure in order to end pressure on itself. He said at the time: “The only path for us is to confront US pressure by using our means of imposing pressure.” He added that Iran must “use pressure in order to decrease pressure on itself.” Since then, Iran has begun to reduce its compliance with the JCPOA and has been blamed for a string of attacks in the Persian Gulf region, including at the UAE’s Fujairah port and most recently at the Kurais and Abqaiq facilities.

In his September 17 speech, Khamenei for the first time signalled his openness to respectful diplomacy grounded in reasonable compromise, not Iranian surrender. He contended that the current US aim with negotiations was not “just solutions,” but “insulting demands.” He said the US could not pursue such negotiations with the Islamic Republic, which he dubbed the “republic of honor.”

Khamenei argued that if Iran negotiates with Trump while under “maximum pressure,” it would forever validate the pressure track as the path to getting major concessions from Iran. He proclaimed: “If the enemy is able to prove that maximum pressure is effective on Iran, Iran and the Iranian people will never know comfort. Because behind all of America’s arrogant policies will be this policy [of maximum pressure].” He added: “From then on, whatever they demand of the Islamic Republic in a bullying way… if we say no they will again start maximum pressure.”

Khamenei then outlined his conditions for fresh US-Iran negotiations, saying it required a US return to the JCPOA. He stated: “When America takes back its words and repents and returns to the nuclear agreement it violated, then with the group of countries that are part of the agreement and talk with Iran, America can also participate. But without this, no negotiations at any level will occur between US and Iranian officials whether in New York or anywhere else.”

While Khamenei’s remarks may not seem like as major shift on the surface, within the context of Iranian politics they are an important development. The dominant political climate in Iran is currently against the JCPOA and new negotiations the United States. Few Iranian politicians are willing to strongly defend either, even within the Rouhani administration.

For Khamenei to now publicly support new talks with the US provided it returns to the JCPOA is striking. It is thus not surprising that the speech sent hardliners such as Kayhan’s Hossein Shariatmadari into a desperate flurry, with the infamous ideologue insisting that by “repenting,” Khamenei meant America would have to end its “oppression” and thus would no longer be the “America of today.”

Khamenei’s speech is as much of a greenlight as he can give today to the Rouhani administration to pursue new negotiations with President Trump if he leaves the pressure-only track. While any meeting between Trump and Rouhani or Zarif was not on the cards at UNGA, Trump could pave the way to holding a multilateral summit with Rouhani soon if he forestalls a collapse of the JCPOA.

Iran’s negotiators have been given political space to engage the Trump administration, but not just for the sake of having negotiations or a photo-op. Trump can get negotiations with Iran if he agrees to some sort of moratorium of US sanctions in exchange for Iran’s full compliance with its JCPOA commitments. Iranian officials have said they would return to the deal if they can generate income out of oil sales with Europe. The French proposal for a $15 billion credit line to Iran as a way of “pre-purchasing” Iranian oil would reportedly meet this Iranian condition.

If Trump sincerely wants a sit down with Iranian officials and his bottom line is to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, he has a path out of the current crisis. He must accept that “maximum pressure” has run its course and brought him to the brink of a catastrophic Middle Eastern war. Only by setting it aside now in favor of credible diplomatic overtures can he get the sort of deal he envisioned during his 2016 presidential campaign.  

Sina Toossi is a senior research analyst at the National Iranian American Council. Follow him on Twitter: @SinaToossi.