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Special Features

Why the Supreme Leader Banned Direct Talks with the US

August 14, 2018
Reza HaghighatNejad
8 min read
Crowd waiting to buy hard currency in Tehran. The main cause of inflation, says Khamenei, is bad management of the economy, not the sanctions
Crowd waiting to buy hard currency in Tehran. The main cause of inflation, says Khamenei, is bad management of the economy, not the sanctions

“There will be no war, nor will we negotiate with the US,” the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei announced to an audience of supporters at his office on Monday, August 13. He also “confessed” to having made a mistake about the nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

"I ban holding any talks with America... America never remains loyal to its promises in talks," Khamenei said. This was his most unequivocal response to President Trump’s recent offer to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Khamenei even went a step further: “Even if we were to negotiate with the Americans we would definitely never negotiate with the current administration,” he said.

“As always, we will never be the initiator of a war, and the US won't launch a war either because they know it will end to their detriment...Of course they do not openly talk about war, but their intent is to imply that there is a ghost of war that will scare the Iranian nation,” the Supreme Leader explained.

Khamenei then went into detail for his audience, explaining point by point why Iran will not negotiate with the United States. The most important of them are:

1. Past Experience

“Because of the past experience and the many damages [that we have suffered]...we will not negotiate with a cheating and bully regime,” said Khamenei. He presented the JCPOA as an example. “In the matter of [nuclear] negotiations I erred, and as a result of the insistence of the gentlemen [the government] I allowed this experiment, which even went beyond the red lines.” By “erring” he meant giving his approval for the negotiations to go ahead and/or overlooking violations of the so-called red lines, though he did not say this explicitly.

Khamenei’s confession to having made a mistake could be attributed to his anger over the outcome of the JCPOA. The Supreme Leader was angered by the perception Iran could have made better use of its technical capabilities in the nuclear arena as a bargaining chip during the negotiations — and he is angry that these capabilities are now impossible thanks to the JCPOA.

Whatever the reason, his position is exactly the opposite of the one taken by President Rouhani, who still believes the JCPOA was a diplomatic success and who blames President Trump and his administration for the subversion of the nuclear agreement.

In other words, Khamenei’s confession is the culmination of his serious and continuous opposition to Rouhani’s diplomatic approach in the years since he was elected president. In recent months Rouhani has tried to be more in tune with the Supreme Leader when it comes to official statements regarding diplomacy, but Khamenei’s recent statements show that, no matter what the Iranian president is doing now, he has not been able to overcome Khamenei’s grudge.

2. The Power Imbalance

“The Islamic Republic can negotiate with the US only when it achieves the power and sovereignty that would nullify the US’s pressures and domineering efforts and [only] when those efforts have no effect on Iran,” said the Supreme Leader. “Today this is not the case. Thus, I will ban negotiations with the US — just as Imam [Khomeini] did.”

This admission that Iran needs more “power” to confront the US is contrary to the usual propaganda and signifies a new approach from the Supreme Leader. This might be his most realistic argument in recent years.

3. Lack of Trust, Consistency and Civility

In his speech, Khamenei directly responded to the verbal attacks by Trump’s officials, and called Secretary of State Mark Pompeo “mentally retarded.” He accused the current US government of talking to the world “rudely, shamelessly and impolitely.” He also highlighted what he saw as contradictions within the administration. “One of them says no conditions and the other one sets preconditions.” His reference, of course, is to the “unconditional” offer by Trump for talks versus the 12 preconditions set by Mike Pompeo for negotiating with Iran.

Furthermore, said Khamenei, the Americans fail to announce and prioritize what their “main goals” are, but instead insist on pursuing every single one of their goals. “They demand that the other party pay immediately and if the other party refuses to comply with them, they start to make a fuss so the other party will surrender. The US itself does not pay anything in exchange for what it takes.” And he suggested the US only made firm promises “in order to enchant the other party,” but in the end, he said, “after receiving all the immediate advantages, the US breaches its own promises.”

He also referred to negotiations between the US and North Korea and claimed the US is doing the same to North Korea.

So the Supreme Leader not only does not trust the US when it comes to negotiations, he also considers Trump’s administration to be much worse than its predecessors.


4. No Boon for the Economy

Ayatollah Khamenei has blamed Iran’s current economic and financial problems mainly on “domestic” mismanagement and less on sanctions. “Scholars and many officials believe that the problem arises from within the country,” he said, then stressed that sanctions may have played a role in creating the current economic situation but less so than domestic factors. “Not that sanctions are not playing a role,” he said, “but the main reasons lie in the measures taken within the country. If actions are taken more efficiently, more prudently, more swiftly and more firmly, sanctions cannot have much effect and they can be resisted.”

Referring to the government’s actions in recent months to save the Iranian currency, he gave his audience one example. “In a situation where we have difficulty acquiring hard currency, $18 billion of currency already in the country was unwisely given to people, some of whom used it in a corrupt way.”

It is clear that Ayatollah Khamenei does not believe that negotiations and the lifting of sanctions will do much to boost the Iranian economy. This argument, of course, is neither new nor exclusive to the Supreme Leader. In the last two years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency the conservative principlists, especially Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani, were saying that the main problem was not the sanctions but mismanagement of the economy. Ahmadinejad, of course, objected to such pronouncements. In his speeches at the time, Khamenei avoided criticizing Ahmadinejad’s government explicitly. This time around, however, the Supreme Leader has decided to clearly put the blame on “domestic mismanagement.”

He also had another barbed remark for President Rouhani. “The president confessed that ‘were it not for your restrictions we would have given more concessions [during the nuclear negotiations].’” In recent months the principlists have increasingly and repeatedly criticized the government for giving too many concessions to the US during nuclear negotiations, while not receiving enough in return.

Corruption Not “Systematic”

The Supreme Leader had criticisms for others as well, both explicit and implicit. “I have always been combating corruption and the perpetrators of corruption, and I still hold to my belief,” he said. “But some go too far in their remarks, calling everybody corrupt and using the term ‘systematic corruption’. This is not true. It is true that even a little corruption is too much, but going to extremes is problematic in every aspect.”

He rejected calls to dismiss the government of President Rouhani. “Those who say that the government must be dismissed are playing the enemy’s game,” he said.

In recent years, Ahmad Tavakoli, a member of the Expediency Council and an economist who has the trust of the Supreme Leader, has been one of the figures to talk about “systematic corruption.” One of those to call for Rouhani’s government to be dismissed just few days ago is former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, another member of the Expediency Council. Khamenei’s reference to “playing the enemy’s game” must be seen as a strong warning to Ahmadinejad to refrain from making comments. Khamenei reinforced this warning by saying: “They claim to be on the side of the downtrodden and want to set things right but they themselves are not aware that in reality they are acting within the enemy’s plan.”

Of course, Khamenei’s support for Rouhani — at least against Ahmadinejad’s call for his dismissal — is not politically very significant. Khamenei’s most important points during his recent speech are his insistence that he will continue on his own path and that lobbying from domestic or foreign forces is not going to change his mind. Most likely, he is not very interested in the price that Iran has to pay for his decision because he feels that it is a good time to maneuver and reiterate his old ideas.

On the other hand, by confessing to errors, by publicly forbidding negotiations with the US and by assuring everybody that “there will be no war,” Khamenei has perhaps unintentionally revealed that serious and urgent talks about Trump’s actions have been going on at the highest echelons of the Islamic Republic and that making his position public shows his desire to bring an end to domestic political pressures.

A day after Donald Trump offered to meet Iran's leaders with "no preconditions" and "any time they want," Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the top commander of the Revolutionary Guards, wrote a letter rejecting his offer outright. Some analysts called the general’s action unconstitutional, an act of military interference in civilian and diplomatic affairs, and in the work of institutions such as the Supreme National Security Council. Khamenei’s speech highlights that even if this is true, Jafari’s letter is in tune with Khamenei’s agenda. Khamenei has no intention of leaving the decision-making in this area to another authority such as the Supreme National Security Council.

The Supreme Leader is determined to have the last word first.


More on the recent war of words between the Islamic Republic and the US government:

Was the Guards Commander’s Response to Trump Unconstitutional?, August 2, 2018

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Commander Threatens Trump, July 26, 2018

Decoding Iran’s Politics: The 12-Point US Ultimatum, July 6, 2018

Can Iran Legally Close the Strait of Hormuz?, July 5, 2018

The 12 Demands of Pompeo's New Iran Strategy, May 21, 2018

Pompeo to Lay out New Iran Strategy, May 21, 2018




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