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Iran: Talks With U.S. Publicly Ruled Out, But Real Intentions Unclear

  • Charles Recknagel

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei this week ruled out any dialogue with Washington in the wake of U.S. denunciations of Tehran as part of an "axis of evil." Khamenei's statement appears intended to quash rumors that Tehran could be seeking secret meetings with U.S. officials to discuss the countries' worsening relations. But as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, Khamenei himself is said to have previously authorized some exploration of contacts with Washington, making it unclear whether he now is now forbidding them or only appearing to do so publicly.

Prague, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's newspapers have been reporting for weeks that Iran's conservative establishment could be considering ways to contact Washington to discuss ways of reducing tensions between the two countries.

The daily "Entkhab" reported last month that a top conservative official, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, met with parliamentarians to discuss the possibility of holding discussions with members of the U.S. congress.

That report came a month after U.S. Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, offered to meet Iranian legislators in Washington or elsewhere and expressed hope for improved U.S.-Iranian relations.

The report of Rafsanjani's meeting raised widespread interest in Iran because Rafsanjani is the chairman of the high-level Expediency Council which, among other things, has the final word in deciding if new legislation conforms to the values of the Islamic Revolution. Rafsanjani's actions seemed to indicate that Iran's official reaction to Biden's offer was not as negative as it first seemed when, a few weeks earlier, the offer was rejected by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Speaking in March, Khamenei said of anyone who reacted favorably to calls for dialogue with Washington, "Those who think about negotiations when they are threatened are showing their weakness."

Since Rafsanjani's meeting, there have been many more suggestions that Tehran might be preparing to engage in some sort of talks with U.S. officials -- almost certainly secretly.

The British daily "Financial Times" reported last month that Khamenei had quietly authorized Iran's top security body, the National Security Council, to assess the merits of starting talks with the U.S. after Iran was designated earlier this year by Washington as belonging to an "axis of evil." Some Iranian dailies suggested third-country venues for talks, such as Cyprus, were already being explored.

The persistent reports, usually citing unidentified sources, have gained momentum from statements by several reformers, who seemed to publicly endorse the conservative-initiated feelers.

The head of parliament's main reformist group, Mohammad Naimipour, said last month that "we believe the taboo over negotiations with America should be broken." Another leading member of parliament said that "Iran and America cannot ignore each other. We can make best use of our position without giving up our own interests."

But if in the past weeks it has seemed Tehran might be preparing for discreet meetings with U.S. officials, a new statement by the country's supreme leader this week seemed designed to quash any such speculation.

Khamenei said on 1 May that he sees no place for negotiations with the U.S. He said "some people's words and thoughts have become all about negotiations with the U.S. They say to hold negotiations so that the U.S. does not threaten, obstruct and exert pressure." Then Khamenei added, "No! Negotiations would resolve no problem. Negotiations with the U.S. would benefit only the U.S."

Yet, although the supreme leader's statement sounded like the final word on the subject, it also came as the latest in a series of contradictions that has characterized developments regarding a possible dialogue so far. Those contradictions have included Khamenei's almost identical statement labeling negotiations a sign of "weakness" in mid-March, only to be followed by reports that top-level Iranian explorations of talks were continuing.

Some analysts say the mixed signals coming from Iran make it impossible to know at this moment whether Tehran is interested in a dialogue with the U.S. or not. They also make it very difficult to know whether Khamenei is rejecting any such process publicly only to be able to pursue it more discreetly in private.

William Samii, a regional specialist with RFE/RL, says that reading Iranian political winds -- and especially statements by the supreme leader -- are complicated by a Shiite tradition of hiding one's real intentions so as to make it easier to achieve them in the long term.

"It is very difficult to know at this moment how to reconcile the apparent contradictions in the supreme leader's condemnation of negotiations at exactly the same time [that] the high-level bodies, which report directly to him, are reported to be quietly looking at how to conduct just such negotiations."

He continues, "But one helpful thing to remember is that in Iranian politics appearances are sometimes deliberately deceiving. The Shiite clergy, which holds power, condones the practice of 'taqiyah,' or dissimulation (hiding one's true intentions), when it is necessary to do something more important. Now, those higher purposes are things like protecting Islam and the Islamic state from enemies, and thus, making intentionally misleading public statements can be seen as just a strategy in the battle."

Analyst Samii says that often the only way to spot such deception is with hindsight -- after future events clarify the motives behind the message.

Even as the supreme leader reiterates his "no negotiations" position, Washington and Tehran already engage in indirect contacts over some regional problems, notably the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. The U.S. is a member of the OSCE-sponsored Minsk Group that is trying to find a solution to that crisis. The group keeps Tehran -- which is not a member -- informed of its efforts.

Samii says that if Tehran's conservative establishment is now weighing whether to discuss how to reduce tensions with the U.S., its motivation for doing so is most likely economic.

Iran has made significant progress in reversing the political and economic isolation imposed on it following its 1979 Islamic Revolution and has invested much recent effort in strengthening trade and diplomatic ties with Europe and Japan.

The outreach has come as Iran's own highly centralized economy struggles with low productivity and high inflation and unemployment rates. The weakness of the economy has become increasingly worrisome as large numbers of young people are due to enter the work force in the coming years.

Those economic problems may make Iran's conservatives interested in defusing some of the mounting tension with the U.S. simply to assure good ties with Europe and Asia. The "Financial Times" recently reported that industrialists in Tehran are worried Washington is stepping up pressure on its European allies to cut back on business with Iran, including by opposing Greek plans to buy Iranian gas and by opposing a renewed attempt by Airbus to sell Tehran aircraft.

As observers now wait to see if there will be any new signs of Tehran exploring talks with Washington, U.S. officials themselves are saying little about the recent developments.

A top U.S. official this week maintained Washington's tough posture toward Iran by repeating that Tehran represents a significant threat to American security. U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said on 29 April that Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorism place it "squarely in the axis of evil."