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Angie Ahmadi

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Khamenei Is Willing to Make Negotiations Succeed

Posted: 03/16/2012 6:05 pm

Last week, President Obama publicly lashed out at "loose talk of war" on Iran and warned of its consequences for the American people. To date, his so-called "carrot and stick" Iran strategy has driven the world closer to military confrontation. That is why Obama's recent stance has emboldened those seeking to resolve Iran's nuclear crisis diplomatically. The key question in the West, however, is whether or not Iran's willingness to pursue diplomacy is in good faith. Washington, London and Paris suspect that Iran's diplomatic outreach is a ploy for buying time.

To that end, the deep-seated mistrust between the West and the Iranian regime is now institutionalized, making it difficult for either side to find face-saving solutions. In Tehran, the ever-increasing sanctions have enhanced the regime's suspiciousness over Western intentions to resolve the crisis diplomatically. This mutual mistrust has impeded prior negotiations, limiting them to monologues and an exchange of ultimatums. However, a closer look at a series of recent developments in Iran should give pause to the rampant suspicion surrounding its intentions in the upcoming negotiations.

This week, Iranian chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili welcomed constructive talks with the P5+1 -- China, Russia, Britain, France and the United States, plus Germany. In a letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Jalili underlined Iran's interest in resumption of "serious talks without preconditions with the aim of achieving permanent cooperation," and agreed to set a date and venue for the talks. Such direct language regarding Iran's nuclear program is rarely used by the regime - thus demonstrating an increased degree of seriousness in Tehran as the talk of war escalates. Evidently, Iranian decision-makers are perfectly aware of the costs Israel would face if it attacked during negotiations.

In an unprecedented gesture last week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei briefly praised President Obama for throwing cold water on the rising rhetoric of war, describing Obama's move as "a departure from illusion." As the world tightens the screws on the Islamic Republic, giving praise to an American president is a very rare -- but not incidental -- posture by Khamenei, whose two-decade leadership has been intertwined with demonization of American politicians and policies. The fact that Khamenei -- who wields ultimate authority in Iran -- commented on Obama's remarks with a visibly positive tone tempers the role of his anti-American perceptions in the country's policymaking.

Addressing the Assembly of Experts, Khamenei further that Obama is "in illusion" for thinking that sanctions would bring Iran to its knees. A cursory glance at this comment comment suggests a return to the usual theme of denunciation by Khamenei. However, combined with his earlier praise for Obama, the sum of Khamenei's words must be seen as a hint to western decision-makers that the progress on negotiations would accelerate if the sanctions machine came to a halt.

In addition to hinting at the West, Khamenei is preparing Iran's domestic arena for negotiations. Internal factors have always influenced the Islamic Republic's nuclear policies, and despite the marginalization of pro-reform forces, rifts within the conservative camp are running deeper as factions struggle over political and financial resources. It is clear to both the P5+1 and Khamenei that factional infighting adversely affects nuclear negotiations -- as recent history shows. For this very reason, Khamenei is trying to present an image of a unified Iran vis-à-vis the world.

In a reconciliatory gesture, Khamenei re-appointed former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to another five-year term as the head of Iran's Expediency Council. Most liberal-minded figures and technocrats in the council -- such as opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi; Rafsanjani's brother Mohammad Hashemi; and former petroleum minister Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh -- have been replaced by figures showing fealty to Khamenei, such as Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi and his advisor Sadeq Vaezzadeh. While the council's makeup is now more conservative and closer to Khamenei, reinstating a Rafsanjani who lost all of his power bases is an attempt to leave the door ajar for national reconciliation. More importantly, given his reputation of pragmatism, Rafsanjani's re-appointment is a message to the West that the Islamic Republic not opposed to making a deal.

Also noteworthy is President Ahmadinejad's recent appearance before parliament - the first time in the Islamic Republic's history that a president was subjected to interrogation by lawmakers. Ahmadinejad was summoned to explain his economic policies, budget management, cabinet reshuffling, and last year's dispute with the Supreme Leader. While this blatant move by the conservative-dominated parliament epitomizes divisions among the so-called principlists, the interrogation session was far less explosive that many expected. Ahmadinejad responded to questioning in a dismissive manner, leaving many parliamentarians insulted and humiliated -- yet no whistle was blown, and no major controversy erupted. Notwithstanding a handful of outrageous comments made by furious lawmakers regarding possible impeachment scenarios, it remains unlikely that the parliament further escalates its conflict with a lame duck president.

With Khamenei emboldened by both a weakened pro-Ahmadinejad faction and parliamentary elections that went off without a hitch, his efforts have focused on pushing for unity among rival conservative factions. Should these factions unite under the auspices of the Supreme Leader, western diplomats will face a less challenging task in advancing nuclear negotiations forward.

These domestic political developments in Iran indicate the regime's serious intentions on breaking the deadlock and making real progress in the coming nuclear talks. For intentions to become results, it is important that the western response to Iran acknowledges the past, avoids its entrapments, and focuses on the future.

Angie Ahmadi is an Associate at the National Iranian American Council.