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Iran Debates Talking with the U.S.

HAWAII, U.S., Dec 11 2012 (IPS) - As the Iranian leadership prepares to engage in negotiations with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) over the fate of its nuclear programme, the conversation inside Iran has moved beyond the nuclear issue, and now includes a debate about the utility of engaging in direct talks – even relations – with the United States.

Public discussions of relations with the United States have historically been a taboo in Iran. To be sure, there have always been individuals who have brought up the idea, but they have either been severely chastised publicly and quickly silenced, or ignored. The current conversation is distinguished by its breadth as well the clear positioning of the two sides on the issue.

On one side stand hardliners who continue to tout the value of a “resistance economy” – a term coined by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – in the face of U.S.-led sanctions. On the other side is a growing number of people from across the political spectrum, including some conservatives, who are calling for bilateral talks.

The idea of direct talks with the United States was openly put forth last spring by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president and current chair of the Expediency Council, in a couple of interviews.

He insisted that Iran “can now fully negotiate with the United States based on equal conditions and mutual respect.” To be sure, Rafsanjani conceded that the current obsession with Iran’s nuclear programme is not the U.S.’s main problem, arguing against those who “think that Iran’s problems (with the West) will be solved through backing down on the nuclear issue”.

He also argued that the current situation of “not talking and not having relations with America is not sustainable…The meaning of talks is not that we capitulate to them. If they accept our position or we accept their positions, it’s done.”

Rafsanjani is no longer the lone public voice in favour of direct talks. In fact, as the conversation over talks with the U.S. has picked up, he has remained relatively quiet.

Others have stepped in. Last week, for instance, hundreds of people filled an overcrowded university auditorium in the small provincial capital of Yasuj to listen to a public debate between two former members of the Parliament over whether direct talks with the U.S. offer an opportunity or threat.

On the one side stood Mostafa Kavakabian, an academic and reformist politician, who said “whatever Islamic Iran is wrestling with in (terms of) sanctions, the nuclear energy issue, multiple resolutions (against Iran) in (international) organisations, human rights violations from the point of view of the West, the issue of Israel and international terrorism is the result of lack of logical relationship…with America.”

Majlis MP Sattar Hedayatkhah, on the other hand, argued that “relations with America under the current conditions means backtracking from 34 years of resistance against the demands and sanctions of the global arrogance.”

In recent weeks the hardline position has been articulated by individuals such as the head of the Basij militia forces, Mohammadreza Naqdi, who called the sanctions a means for unlocking Iran’s “latent potential”, and the leader’s representative in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, cleric Ali Saeedi, who said that Washington’s proposals for direct talks were a ploy to trick Tehran into “capitulating over its nuclear programme”.

Standing in the midst of this contentious conversation is the Leader Ali Khamenei who, as everyone acknowledges, is the ultimate decision-maker on the issue of talks with the United States.

In the past couple of years, he has articulated his mistrust of the Barack Obama administration’s intentions in no uncertain terms, and since the bungled October 2009 negotiations over the transfer of enriched uranium out of Iran – when Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili met with U.S. undersecretary of State William Burns on the sidelines of the P5+1 meeting – has not allowed bilateral contact at the level of principals between Iran and the U.S.

Yet the concern regarding a potentially changed position on his part has been sufficient enough for the publication of an op-ed in the hard-line Kayhan Daily warning against the “conspiracy” of “worn-out revolutionaries” to force the Leader “to drink from the poison chalice of backing down, abandoning his revolutionary positions, and talking to the U.S.”

The piece goes on to say, “by offering wrong analyses and relating all of the country’s problems to external sanctions, (worn-out revolutionaries) want to make the social atmosphere inflamed and insecure and agitate public sentiments so that the exalted Leader is forced to give in to their demands in order to protect the country’s interests and revolution’s gains.”

The idea of drinking poison is an allusion to the founder of the revolution Ruhollah Khomeini’s famous speech in which he grudgingly accepted the ceasefire with Iraq in 1988 and referred to it as a poison chalice from which he had to drink.

Hardliners in Iran continue to believe that it was the moderate leaders of the time such as Rafsanjani who convinced Khomeini to take the bitter poison, while conveniently omitting the fact that the current Leader Khamenei was at the time very much on the Rafsanjani side. This time around the suspects are “worn-out revolutionaries” who are still operating within the system.

The hardliners face a predicament. Having elevated Khamenei’s role to the level of an all-knowing imam-like leader, they have few options but to remain quiet and submit to his leadership if he makes a decision in favour of direct talks. Hence their prior attempt to portray any attempt at talks as capitulation at worst or an unnecessary bitter pill at best.

In this highly contentious context, Khamenei’s decision in favour of direct talks can only be considered a big “if”. Whether he will agree to them eventually is not at all clear and in fact is probably quite unlikely, unless the U.S. position on Iran’s nuclear programme is publicly clarified to eventually allow for an acceptable negotiated settlement.

In other words, while Khamenei may eventually assent to direct talks, the path to that position is some sort of agreement on the nuclear standoff – even if a limited one – within the P5+1 framework and not the other way around.

The reality is that U.S. pressures on Iran have helped create an environment in which many are calling for a strategic, even if incrementally implemented, shift of direction in Iran’s foreign policy regarding the so-called “America question”.

But this call for a shift can only become dominant if there are some assurances that corresponding, again even if incrementally implemented, shifts are also in the works in the U.S. regarding its “Iran question”.

*Farideh Farhi blogs at

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