09/26/2013 07:52 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2013

Iran Supreme Leader Khamenei Casts Long Shadow Over U.N. Diplomacy

WASHINGTON -- As Iran and the United States waded cautiously into uncharted diplomatic waters at the United Nations in New York this week, newly sworn-in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, were the toast of the town.

Both attended a private dinner for about 30 guests Wednesday hosted by The Asia Society, where they answered questions about the potential for renewed dialogue with the West over Iran's nuclear program.

An American guest at the dinner told The Huffington Post he was deeply impressed with Rouhani. "This was something completely different," he said of the conversation. "It's not the coming of the Messiah, but it has the potential for dramatic change." The guest spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to abide by the rules of the dinner, which barred attendees from directly quoting what was said.

"It is very rare that one can watch the hinge of history swing," the guest said. "But this may be one of those moments," he said.

Back in Washington, however, some Obama administration officials and American diplomats said the hinges of history were being manipulated by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who they accused of orchestrating what one American diplomat described as a "high-stakes puppet show" using Zarif and Rouhani.

The charm offensive that Rouhani and Zarif are putting on this week is but the latest in a long list of tactics that the 74-year-old Khamenei has endorsed over the past 30 years in his attempts to gain an upper hand over the U.S. and Europe, according to another U.S. official.

Since assuming the mantle of supreme leader in 1989, Khamenei has maintained a firmly hostile attitude to the U.S., often describing himself as “a revolutionary, not a diplomat.”

Mojtaba Mousavi, a prominent Iranian political commentator with close ties to the ayatollah, said recently that the supreme leader, "is convinced the ultimate goal of the U.S. is to foil our spirit of confrontation and change our behavior." Speaking to The New York Times, Mousavi added that the basis of the Iranian revolution is "fighting the hegemonic powers.”

In some ways, the climax of Rouhani's U.S. visit came Tuesday, when the Obama administration offered Rouhani the opportunity for an informal meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. Such a meeting would have been largely social, but with enormous symbolism.

Surprisingly, Iran declined the opportunity, citing domestic political "dynamics" back in Iran that made the meeting impossible. Iran later claimed Rouhani didn't have time for a meeting.

U.S. administration officials, however, saw the missed opportunity as proof of Khamenei's control over the week's events.

"The supreme leader wants to maintain control, and he's not here" in New York, said a senior U.S. official. "The Iranian delegation keeps saying, 'back home, back home.' But seriously, let's consider what 'back home' is. Iran's president is here at the U.N., and their foreign minister is here, so who exactly is 'back home?'"

Experts on Iran, however, said they believe Rouhani has been given far more leeway than his predecessors to rekindle a relationship with the West. By taking steps on the international stage that may ease the West's crushing economic sanctions on Iran, "Rouhani can help provide Iranians a less suffocating political and social atmosphere, as well as help improve their quality of life," said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on Iran.

In Iran, Rouhani's election in the spring was a triumph of a moderate candidate over a field of hardliners cast in the mold of Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. The supreme leader approved each of the candidates on the presidential ballot, including Rouhani, who is himself a Muslim cleric. Rouhani and the ayatollah are said to have a decades-long relationship built on trust.

Sadjadpour acknowledged that the supreme leader remains a major obstacle to a long-term shift in Iran's relations with the West.

"As long as Khamenei remains supreme leader, it will be very difficult to change the Islamic Republic’s longstanding ideological principles, namely resistance against America, rejection of Israel’s existence, and the veiling of women," Sadjadpour said.

A U.S. official was more skeptical: "Iranians are really good at playing games with people. But until the supreme leader is no longer in the picture, these are all the same people we've been talking to for decades."

Despite the cool response Iran still receives from veteran diplomats in Washington -- a situation unlikely to change soon -- those who have met with Rouhani during his visit have been surprised and encouraged.

According to the guest at Wednesday night's dinner with Rouhani and Zarif, "In some ways, expectations of Rouhani were like the expectations about Obama [in 2008] -- there is no way he could live up to them."

Iran's message in New York is still an important one, the guest said, regardless of who is pulling the strings back home. "They're speaking carefully, precisely, and articulating a new direction with a basic message: 'Let's make a deal. The failed Ahmadinejad era is over. We are serious. We want to find a new direction.'"

Still, any new direction in U.S.-Iran relations must respect that there remain areas of discord between the two nations that run far deeper than what might be easily settled in a negotiation.

"Many of the differences we have with Iran are not due to a simple lack of dialogue," said Sadjadpour. "They're due to a fundamental difference about the way things ought to be. Dialogue can be important in managing our differences peacefully, but it’s not likely to resolve them."



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