Is Khamenei rejecting direct nuclear talks or just negotiating?

February 7, 2013

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images)

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has made some comments that certainly sound like a repudiation of Vice President Biden's offer of direct negotiations. Iran's political system is noisy and complicated, but Khamenei's support is considered crucial for any major foreign policy decisions. So these comments would seem to be bad news for any direct talks – and especially for the multilateral summit scheduled in Kazakhstan later this month.

So how firmly did Khamenei slam the door on America? "Some naive people like the idea of negotiating with America, however, negotiations will not solve the problem," he said in a speech that was covered by state media. "American policy in the Middle East has been destroyed and Americans now need to play a new card. That card is dragging Iran into negotiations."

That seems pretty categorical. But he also qualified his comments by saying that the reason negotiations can't work is because the United States has "a gun" held up to Iran, which presumably means sanctions and the threat of military force. “You Americans have pointed guns toward Iran, but at the same time you want to negotiate. The Iranian nation will not be intimidated by these actions," he said.

“Those newcomers to the U.S. foreign policy scene are repeating the negotiation issues like previous administrations, and they say the ball is in Iran’s court. The ball is really in the U.S.’s court and you have to reply.” Khamenei added, “Negotiations with threats and without good intentions have no meaning.”

Those comments sound less like a categorical rejection of negotiations than a description of why he thinks that they can't happen under the current conditions. In other words, "the ball is really in the U.S.'s court" seems to suggest that Khamenei is laying down a pre-condition to direct talks. It's not clear what that pre-condition would be, though; "pointed guns" is awfully vague. (As a side note, you have to love that America has gotten the austere, supreme religious and political leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran to use tennis metaphors.)

If – if! – Khamenei's speech was in fact intended to lay down some sort of pre-condition, and there's no reason to be certain that he was, then there would be good and bad news there. The good news would be that he is at least open to the possibility of talks and that the challenge now becomes how to negotiate for the negotiations. Not exactly peace in the Middle East, but it's a start.

The bad news would be that Khamenei seems to be insisting that American coercion – the "pointed guns," whether sanctions or threat of military force – has to be separate from any negotiations. This position is functionally impossible, of course: America's overwhelming military and economic superiority, not to mention its successful diplomatic isolation of Iran, are probably the best tools that Washington has for ever getting Tehran to the negotiating table.

Sadly, whether you read Khamenei's comments as an outright rejection of talks or as a subtly presented pre-condition for them, either probably reinforces the status quo. "There is a deal on the nuclear issue that can be agreed upon any time both sides are interested in an agreement," Dan Drezner writes at Foreign Policy. Whether or not Khamenei is any closer to accepting that deal, he's still not there.

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Caitlin Dewey | February 7, 2013