Understanding Khamenei’s “rejection” of nuclear negotiations with the United States

Since President Barack Obama’s November 2012 electoral victory, a number of U.S. foreign policy and Iran analysts have argued that the best time for negotiations between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) and Iran is between the start of the Obama administration’s second term and the June 2013 Iranian presidential election. This notion may have been proven wrong by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s response to Vice President Joseph Biden’s offer of bilateral negotiations recently, but probably not for the reasons many think.

Speaking at the recent Munich Security Conference, Vice President Biden asserted that the United States had: “…made clear that Iran’s leaders need not sentence their people to economic deprivation and international isolation…There is still time, there is still space for diplomacy backed by pressure to succeed. The ball is in the government of Iran’s court.” When asked about the possibility of direct talks between the United States and Iran, Biden responded that this could happen “When the Iranian leadership, Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), is serious.”

This was seen by many as a U.S. offer for direct talks to Iran. The regime’s response, perceived as a resounding “no” by observers, came shortly after during a speech by Khamenei to IRI Air Force commanders on 07 February 2013. Khamenei stated:

“I am not a diplomat. I am a revolutionary. It is for this reason that I speak clearly, honestly, and firmly: The suggestion of negotiations matter when the other side has good intentions…You [the United States] point the weapon to the Iranian nation’s [head] and you say either negotiations or we will shoot! But know that pressure and negotiations do not go together and the [Iranian] nation will not fear such things.”

Is this a rejection of direct negotiations, as many Western media outlets and pundits have proclaimed? Yes and no. As IranPolitik pointed out on 30 January, the regime may fear social and political upheaval between now and the June 2013 election in part because of the still existent outrage among segments of the Iranian urban middle class over the repression of the Green Movement and because of the impact of economic sanctions on Iran’s working poor. Simultaneously, the regime is also seeing tensions within its own political elite come to the surface in stupendous fashion, as we noted in our coverage of the Larijani-gate corruption scandal on 06 February. As such, the regime may have rejected negotiations between now and the June election because of the fear of social and political instability, which would weaken its negotiating position.

This means that the Iran analysts may have been wrong about the regime’s willingness to negotiate before the June election, just as the Obama administration did not want to negotiate before having the U.S. presidential election for its own reasons. However, this may not be an outright rejection of nuclear negotiations altogether. Rather, the regime may want to negotiate only after the elections when it is more secure about its domestic situation. Although the June presidential election may be largely devoid of democratic content, the regime views it as a stamp of legitimacy and public support, and thus a pre-requisite for negotiations. Just as importantly, the regime likely wants to better gauge whether the second Obama administration has “good intentions”. It thus may be too soon to rule out successful P5+1-Iran nuclear negotiations altogether, though the expectations for the timing of these negotiations may have to be adjusted.