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Grand Bargain, Rafsanjani Style

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Despite rocky negotiations between US and Iran held in Baghdad last week on security issues in Iraq, Iran seems to be sending conciliatory messages towards the US based on comments by Hashemi Rafsanjani, Head of Iran's Expediency Council:

"Iran is ready to negotiate on every level. Unacceptable and demeaning conditions will have to be taken back, and we can sit down to unconditional negotiations...Regional issues, nuclear issues and any other issues, and we can help them or they can help us, and we will show them the way, we can include it in the negotiations."

These comments were made by the Former President of Iran, a man who considers himself a pillar of the regime. He mimicked the same proposal given by top Iranian officials in 2003 in a letter sent to Americans entitled 'the Grand Bargain.'

In this letter which was dispatched[pdf] via the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, not only did Iran talk about an agreement over nuclear issues, but it also referred to issues such as Iran's support of Palestinian groups, and Hezbollah, as topics of negotiations. This was an indication that any topic was game, from nuclear issues to re-alignment of their strategic relations with ideological partners in the region.

Rafasanjani's call to negotiations shares several characteristics with the 'Grand Bargain': At the time of the offer, Afghanistan and Iraq were both under US occupation, and there was great speculation about the possibility of Iran being next. (One top US official was quoted as saying: "Anyone can go to Baghdad; real men go to Tehran.")

An unfortunate set of events ensued: After the initial meetings of Iranian and American diplomats, Javad Zarif was dispatched to Switzerland for negotiations on behalf of Iran, but the American diplomats did not show up. US declined the offer from Iran, and Iran decided to adopt a more aggressive tone towards the US. Hence, Iran escalated its nuclear activities and additionally, Ahmadinejad decided to verbalize more critical statements about Israel and holocaust.

It is important to note that key foreign policies in Iran are determined by the Supreme Leader, and this change in tone seems to have been decided by him as well, just as the 'Grand Bargain' was, (despite beliefs that it was the brainchild of Mohammad Khatami's reformist cabinet). Hashemi Rafsanjani's speech at last Friday's Prayer in Tehran, merely reflects various threats felt at all sectors of the government; the hope is that while negotiations are pending, military aggression will be stalled.

The root of these concerns stem in US's widespread diplomatic efforts to create an agreement with the international community for isolating Iran in political and economic arenas, which have resulted in two economic sanctions against Iran, with a third one pending. These concerns are intensified with the presence of military bases in neighboring countries, navy ships in the Persian Gulf, speculations of multi-billion dollar sales of arms to Saudi Arabia, and threats on Iran's nuclear installations.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is hardly an appropriate representative for the Iranian Government, given his defiant image. To counteract his disruptive tone, 'moderates' such as Hashemi are brought to the forefront; if the invitation to negotiate is accepted, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's aggressive stance and his poor international image will be weakened.

How these invitations will be received by the US remain to be seen: Will they be ignored by the conservative forces in both countries, or will they become viable items on the diplomatic agenda?