In a speech to prominent diplomats from around the world, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said today that he firmly believes further negotiations with the United States should not go ahead. Iran is willing to cooperate with any country in the world, he said, “with two exceptions: the Zionist regime and the U.S.”
Though he did not go so far as to forbid the Iranian delegation from continuing nuclear negotiations with the U.S., he warned against the dangers of engaging with the U.S. on all other international matters.
Speaking to envoys around the world as well as to some of Iran’s most influential figures on August 13, Khamenei said that negotiations with America had been “useless”. Contrary to assertions that talks had opened Iran up to the world, making it a more significant player on the international stage, Khamenei said that over the past year, U.S. leaders had become increasingly hostile, insulting Iran with their “exuberant demands,”, “extending sanctions,” and spreading propaganda that portrayed Iran as a country that “vacillated” and couldn’t make its mind up.
The message was a firm one for the West, but it also let Iran's influential hardliner politicians and clergy know that Khamenei had not forgotten their position.
The Rouhani Clash
President Hassan Rouhani, of course, has led the call for increased engagement with the U.S. and the West. He and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif—who was photographed looking glum in the meeting, his familiar smile nowhere to be seen on any of the Iranian websites covering the event—have worked hard to deliver a message of hope around negotiations, ensuring the public are made aware of just how important they are to the future of Iran’s economy, as well as its standing on the international stage.
In sharp contrast with Khamenei’s address earlier today, Rouhani has talked about the impact of eased sanctions, the practicalities of working with the U.S. to combat Islamic State insurgents in Iraq, the greater opportunities to tackle world issues. It’s not only the nuclear program that the world needs to talk about, Rouhani’s camp suggests, and last year’s historic phone call between Rouhani and U.S. president Barack Obama was a symbol Western media–and Rouhani—gladly embraced. Rouhani has even sought out public opinion within Iran, commissioning a poll earlier this year to identify just what the ordinary Iranian public thought about increased contact with the West.
At the same time, the administration has been keen to show itself as tough, practical and resolute: Javad Zarif has said one of the most important outcomes of talks has been an American shift: U.S. officials now have a clearer understanding of what they can expect from Iran. According to Zarif, he and chief negotiator Abbas Araghchi have ensured that no new sanctions have been imposed over the last year—a view dismissed today by Khamenei in front of the world’s most influential diplomats. “They say these sanctions aren’t new, but actually they are,” Khamenei said, which proved that talks over sanctions have led to nothing.
"Heroic Flexibility" and a Familiar Terrain
Though the Supreme Leader spoke in clear terms about negotiations and the impossibility of increased U.S.-Iranian ties, in many ways, he was on familiar ground, taking the opportunity to talk about his ideas on “the new world order” and the “historical juncture” Iran faced. Despite his sharply-worded pessimism, he referred to the opportunity posed by shifting global politics, where “new players” were beginning to challenge traditional superpowers. It was time for Iran to display a “heroic flexibility,” he said, conjuring up not only his 2012 address to Islamic heads of state—who he called on to show sharp, confident diplomacy in order to position themselves on the world stage—but also nodding to his initial commentary on the opening up of nuclear talks last autumn. Today’s “flexibility” was a message about the value of strong-but-fair diplomacy, but many in the room will remember last year’s speech, which echoed religious references about power and the perils of doing deals with enemies.
Khamenei’s speech is a direct attack against U.S. arrogance and what he perceives as its unwillingness to acknowledge the key role he plays in how Iran positions itself in terms of international engagement. July’s Vienna meetings resulted in a four-month extension of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries, and, as this next leg gets underway, Khamenei seems to be telling the West that, though he is a patient man, he cannot be expected to sit back and not protect his interests, or the interests of his supporters.
On Tuesday, August 12, Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani told Foreign Minister Zarif and key ambassadors that if Iran failed in its negotiations regarding the nuclear program, cooperation with other states, particularly in the West, would be badly undermined. So Khamenei’s message is also a direct attack on the Rouhani administration, which will put a smile on the faces of the country’s hardline influential figures—giving them something to hold over the heads of negotiators, who no doubt face a long road ahead.
Khamenei’s threat to completely shut out the U.S. is an invitation of sorts. Will the U.S. demonstrate a reasonable amount of flexibility when it comes to the nuclear program? And will Iranian diplomats play their parts to make this happen? If they do, extensive economic and political opportunities will open up. If not, the world will be back where it started.