Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has banned the Islamic Republic from negotiating with the United States.
In September 2013, Ayatollah Khamenei gave his consent to nuclear negotiations between Iran and the United States aimed at reaching a final accord, citing the precedence in the history of Shi’a Islam of showing “heroic flexibility” under the right circumstances.
During a speech among Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGC-N) commanders, employees, and their families on 07 October 2015, however, Ayatollah Khamenei appeared to definitively close the door to negotiations with the United States on non-nuclear issues for the foreseeable future.
Critically, his comments appeared to directly target President Hassan Rouhani, who himself had cited Shi’a history last year as a basis to justify negotiations with the United States on a wide range of issues. In a speech to a crowd of people from the north-western Iranian city of Zanjan on 22 October 2014, President Rouhani used the example of revered Shi’a Imam Husayn ibn Ali to illustrate the permissibility of negotiations with enemies and rivals, remarking:
“You know that Imam Hossein, during the night of Tasu’a which you commemorate, put up a tent and invited Omar Sa’ad to negotiations.”
Ayatollah Khamenei may have held back from responding to the Iranian president and others calling for broader negotiations with the United States during nuclear negotiations, but on Wednesday he finally let loose: “When there is talk of negotiation, they say why are you against negotiations with America, sir?”
He said advocates of negotiations cited revered Shi’a Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib and Imam Hossein as having been open to negotiations, but disdainfully retorted that “Well, this shows naive thinking. It is indicative of failure to reach into the depth of an issue. The issues of the country cannot be analysed like this. One cannot attend to the country’s interest with this common and naive vision.”
He said that Imam Ali had and Imam Hossein spoke to their rivals, Zubayr and Omar Sa’ad respectively, to advise and even scold them, not to negotiate: “There was no discussion of negotiations in today’s sense. Today’s negotiations means deal-making, meaning give something and get something.”
Questioning the historical literacy of those who compared the discussions held by the Shi’a imams with their rivals to negotiations with the United States, he asserted:
“Today there are no negotiations in this sense. To negotiate with America, which is the Great Satan, some with naive and common thoughts and without understanding of the truth today give examples and write in newspapers, write on websites, and ask in speeches: Why did [the Imam Ali] negotiate with Zubayr, but you [Ayatollah Khamenei] don’t negotiate with America?”
He said that this highlighted that there is “much error in understanding the issue.”
He was careful to emphasis that Iran has no qualms about negotiations or making deals in general, for instance with European or Latin American governments.
“No, we are against negotiations with America.”
“Why? Negotiations by America with the Islamic Republic of Iran means infiltration; This is their definition of negotiations and they want to open the path to imposition…Negotiations with them means opening the path so that they can infiltrate in the economic field, the cultural field, and in the political and security field of the country.”
The climax of his speech laid out the ban in very stark terms: “Negotiations with America are banned because of the innumerable costs that it has and that benefits that it does not at all have.”
Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech not only questions President Rouhani’s theological qualifications as a trained Shi’a cleric, but also appears to definitively close the door to negotiation with the United States on non-nuclear issues for the foreseeable future.
President Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have made detente and perhaps even rapprochement with the United States a cornerstone of their foreign policy. But Ayatollah Khamenei and other senior conservative figures in Iran have repeatedly underlined the threat of American “infiltration” in the post-deal era of U.S.-Iran relations.
Still, we should not consider the door to U.S.-Iran negotiations at some level on the Middle East’s myriad of crises fully closed. The speech may very well have been targeted at concerned segments of the Islamic Republic’s domestic base who fear American influence in Iran’s culture, society, economy, and politics. In this sense the ban on negotiations may very well not be absolute, given that Iranian foreign policy is more likely be dictated by events on the ground and expediency.