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Parsing Supreme Leader Khamenei's Rare Praise For Obama

Ready for a makeover? An worker rests in front of a huge portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on a wall near a Tehran university in late February.
Ready for a makeover? An worker rests in front of a huge portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on a wall near a Tehran university in late February.
In a burst of rare praise, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has made approving comments about Barack Obama's discouragement of what the U.S. president called "loose talk of war" with Iran over its suspect nuclear facilities.

According to a transcript of Khamenei's comments during a March 8 meeting of the Assembly of Experts that was posted on his official website, Khameinei said: "We heard two days ago that the U.S. president said that they are not thinking about war with Iran. Very well, this is good. These are wise words. It is an exit from delusion."

His words contrasted sharply with his usual critical rhetoric about the United States, which he often blames for many of the world's ills.

The Iranian leader also said that sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western countries aimed at forcing Iran to give up its nuclear program will fail.

"[Obama] has said that sanctions will bring the people of Iran to their knees. This is an illusion," Khameini said, adding that "the persistence of the illusion" will ultimately harm the United States.

Due to their timing, some analysts have speculated that the comments could signal Khamenei's readiness to make a deal with Washington. Others, however, say there's nothing new in Iran's defiant posture.

But there have been signs of movement. Iran has just agreed to a new round of nuclear talks with the P5+1 -- the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany -- and offered to bring unspecified "new initiatives" to the table. The date of the talks is expected to be announced within days.

Last week, Iran's Supreme Court announced that it was overturning a death sentence for a former U.S. marine convicted of spying and ordered a retrial.

Khamenei predicted that the March 2 parliamentary elections would be a "slap" in the face of Iran's enemies and has repeated that interpretation many times since -- including in the Assembly of Experts meeting, where he also said the United States sought to create divisions between the Iranian people and their government but that the 65 percent voter turnout was proof of the people's trust in their leaders.

"It's been a year that, in their own words, they have imposed crippling sanctions on Iran -- although we've been under sanctions for 33 years," Khamenei said. "They said the goal is to split the people from the Islamic establishment. But they saw that people voted for the establishment."

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an expert on Iran and a professor of political science at Syracuse University, says the election's high voter turnout and favorable results for Khamenei's candidates have boosted his self-confidence.

"Khamenei's camp has become stronger after the vote, and also [in] the poker game between Iran, the U.S., and Israel," Boroujerdi said. "Khamenei picked up on Obama's comments and signaled that he prefers talks be resumed, [so] perhaps there could be an opening."

But U.S.-based sociologist Hossein Ghazian says that despite the seemingly positive tone, Khamenei is signaling that Iran is not ready to back off on its previous position. He says the supreme leader's comments are in line with the regime's usual tough talk on the nuclear issue.

"Khamenei's tone was rare, but we have to be careful about interpreting Khamenei's comments based on the usual diplomatic language," Ghazian says. "Khamenei doesn't speak in those terms."

Khamenei also said Washington's belief that sanctions will force Tehran's hand will harm Obama politically because his "calculations" that pressure and diplomacy can work will be proven wrong.

Ghazian says that was a message to Khamenei's domestic audience that the Iranian regime is not irrational for standing its ground.

Iranian authorities have said repeatedly that Tehran will never give up its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and has responded to Israeli talk of military strikes with threats of its own.

Mohammad Hejazi, the deputy head of Iran's armed forces, recently said that Iran would be justified in launching preemptive attacks if it felt an attack was imminent.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.


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