Report: Iran’s foreign minister secretly urged ‘broad discussions’ with the U.S.

June 12, 2013

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei  (Office of the Supreme Leader, via AP)

Five months ago, according to a new Reuters report, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi sent a handwritten letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei calling for Iran to reach out to Washington for "broad discussions with the United States." President Obama has been calling on Iran to do exactly that since he first took office in 2009, reiterating again and again that he wanted the two countries to resolve their issues directly.

Khamenei, who has shown little public interest in accepting Obama's offers of direct talks, reportedly responded to Salehi's latter with a note stating that "he was not optimistic but would not oppose them if they pursued the initiative," Reuters reported. The most significant news here may be that the letter signals that Khamenei is now being pressured to deal with Washington not only from the outside world but from his own government.

Salehi's letter was sent in January, during a series of unusual signs that Iran might be willing to talk to Washington, which had rebuffed a 2003 Iranian offer for direct talks. In October, the New York Times reported that Iran and the United States had agreed in principal to hold direct negotiations. The Iranians insisted on waiting until after the U.S. presidential election, and some observers wondered if the United states might want to postpone until after Iran's own presidential election, to be held later this month.

In the weeks after the October revelation, there were more hints that the two countries might be positioning themselves for direct talks, although there was nothing definitive and  Khamenei maintained his usual hard line against the United States.

There have also been suggestions of a push-pull within the Iranian government over whether to talk to the Americans. A month after Salehi sent his secret letter to Khamenei, he publicly hinted on two occasions that Iran might be open to direct talks. Around the same time, though, Khamenei gave a speech that seemed to reject the possibility altogether.

"Some naive people like the idea of negotiating with America. However, negotiations will not solve the problem,” Khamenei said. “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.”

The Washington Post's Jason Rezaian, writing in February about Salehi's suggestions that Iran might be willing to talk, reiterated that it all comes down to Khamenei. "It seems as if Iranian officials know they need to start talking but want to make the supreme leader more of a focal point," Rezaian wrote. "And this seems in line with the idea that Khamenei wants progress but doesn’t want a deal until after the June presidential election."

It's possible that Tehran might soften after this month's election. But the government's decision to bar well-known moderates from running, thus formally rejecting the candidates most likely to support negotiations with the United States, does not augur well. Reuters got this crucial quote from expert on Iranian-American relations Karim Sadjadpour:

Western powers hope [outgoing president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's successor will be someone who is on good terms with the supreme leader, avoids anti-Israeli rhetoric and supports serious negotiations on Iran's nuclear program. But the choice for Iranian voters is limited. Iran's reformists, who might be more inclined to compromise over the nuclear program, have been barred or sidelined in the election. The six carefully vetted presidential candidates are dominated by hardliners close to Khamenei.

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a leading Iranian-American expert on Khamenei, remains pessimistic that any deal can be struck with the United States while the 73-year-old Khamenei is alive.

"Those who want a deal can't deliver, and those who can deliver don't want a deal," Sadjadpour said.

That's worth repeating: Those who want a deal can't deliver, and those who can deliver don't want a deal. So, in order for the Obama administration to get the direct negotiations in wants, one of two things has to happen: Either someone who wants a deal has to be elevated within the system – unlikely, given Khamenei's opposition to allowing a proponent of negotiations to run for president. Or someone who is already high-placed in the system has to change his mind about direct talks.

That's one premise of sanctions; to change Khamenei's mind. But, despite the pressure from without and now apparently within Iran, he doesn't seem to be swaying.

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Max Fisher · June 12, 2013