Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini is fighting an uphill battle against his own side which is clamoring for nuclear negotiations with Washington. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his following are gaining traction for their case to sit down with the Americans and rid the country of the international sanctions which are pulling the Iranian economy into an abyss.
Khamenei is fighting back with a show of contempt for the president and by getting regime hardliners – political and military – behind his case against negotiations with the US at this time.
After Barack Obama’s reelection as president on Nov. 6, Ahmadinejad addressed a letter to the leader calling for an urgent top level conference to consider the prospects now opened up for arresting Iran’s economic freefall.
Three days later, on Nov. 9, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report, he was rebuffed. A Khamenei aide said his request was denied and warned him stiffly to stay away from Tehran’s relations with Washington.
It wasn’t the first time: The leader has repeatedly warned the president off interfering in high-powered strategic affairs, especially ties with Washington and the nuclear issue.
Upon his return from addressing the UN General Assembly in October, Ahmadinejad was given a sharp dressing-down for daring to commune with US delegates on the sidelines of the session.
Monday, Nov. 12, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was instructed by Khamenei to reiterate publicly that all decisions pertaining to negotiations with the US were the supreme leader’s sole prerogative.
Khamenei unmoved on unbridgeable gap with the US
Iran’s leaders are increasingly at each other’s throats over this question.
The President and his aides keep on hammering at Washington-led sanctions as the cause of the country’s economic woes present and future. He thus uses sanctions as a scapegoat for turning away the sharp criticism of his economic management.
Before snubbing Ahmadinejad, Khamenei was careful to line up his own support system: He first took advice from Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi and Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, both of whom are flatly opposed to any moves for improving relations with the United States.
Enlisting the two heads of the armed forces was an extreme step, even for the supreme leader.
Those officers were responsible for ordering two air force SU-25 fighters to shoot at an unarmed American MQI Predator engaged in surveillance off the Iranian coast on Nov. 1.
Khamenei, who is often quoted as saying that if you give the Americans an inch, they’ll take a mile, has computed the vast gap between Tehran and Washington: the Obama administration would come to the table committed a priori to procuring the termination of Iran’s nuclear program, the closing-down of the Fordo uranium enrichment plant and the transfer of Iran’s enriched uranium stocks outside the country.
Tehran would not budge on its stipulations that the West acknowledge its right to enrich uranium, stop meddling in Iran’s domestic affairs, especially in the realm of human rights, halt its intervention in Syria and end its campaign against Iran’s Lebanese surrogate, the Hizballah.
Ahmadinejad: Iran must talk to the US to get sanctions lifted
His opponents say Iran can no longer withstand international sanctions and must bite the bullet to engage Washington. And Ahmadinejad, though on the skids politically, has a gift of oratory which resonates strongly in Iranian political circles and the street. The linkage he makes between diplomacy with the US and rescuing Iran from its economic ills is making waves across the country.
So Khamenei put an extra-powerful message into the mouth of the head of the Baseej ("volunteers") of the Revolutionary Guards, which claims to represent the regime to the masses: Tuesday, Nov: 13, he declared: “Khamenei now bears the flag of Imam Hussein and must not be left to fight alone."
This statement put the enemy, the US, on a par with the killers of Shiite Islam’s second holiest religious leader 1400 years ago.
For another dose of legitimacy, Iranian Navy Commander Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari was drafted in to underscore his corps’ unswerving deference to, and loyal admiration for, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei.
But the Ahmadinejad camp is not idle. Last week the president again voiced his certainty that Iran’s nuclear dispute with the US is susceptible to resolution by negotiations. Foreign Ministry spokesman Rami Mehman-Parast was also hopeful that Obama's victory would hasten a resolution of this conflict. Even Foreign Minister Salehi’s assertion that a decision to renew ties with Washington is solely up to Khamenei, is seen by DEBKA–Net-Weekly’s Iranian experts as not closing the door to dialogue with the Americans.
Rafsanjani: At least pretend to accept compromise
The president, for his part, has warned that if forced to defend his economic performance before the Majlis, he will not hold back from “telling the truth about the Iranians who aided the enemy in order to fix the blame on my government."
Youssef Movlaee, a commentator who supports Ahmadinejad, wrote on Tuesday in the Mardom-Salari (The People's Government) newspaper that "the only escape from the Iran nuclear issue impasse lies in generating a climate of diplomacy with the US." He added: "If the stalemate continues, Iran will enter dangerous territory, not just in terms of harsher sanctions, but other options too." He was alluding to the military option.
The reformist camp is also fishing in these waters.
Hamid Reza Assefi, who served as Foreign Ministry spokesman under President Mohammed Khatami, wrote in a Tehran newspaper: "Only a change of regime and the transfer of authority to a reformist government will persuade the US to alter its policy toward Iran."
In the interests of his campaign, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Tehran report, Ahmadinejad has gone so far as to heal his long feud with Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the Expediency Discernment Council, whom he supplanted as president.
Rafsanjani, whose sermons appeal for national reconciliation, called the council into a closed hearing to which he invited the president. The decision it reached was to recommend rhetoric in public statements and back-channel diplomacy with world powers to suggest that Tehran is now amenable to compromise on its nuclear program. By planting this suggestion, even harsher sanctions might be averted and the ones in place eased.
This recommendation was passed to the supreme leader. He responded by prohibiting its publication.