After winning a second White House term, US President Barack Obama aims to start direct, fast-track nuclear talks with Tehran as soon as December, even before his January swearing-in, on the assumption that Iran’s window of opportunity is very narrow – just three months, debkafile’s Washington sources disclose. White House go-betweens with the office of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warn that Iran’s campaign for the June 14 presidential election gets going in March. After than, it is estimated in Washington, that Khamenei, whose ill health keeps his working-day short, will be fully absorbed in a struggle to purge Iran’s political hierarchy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his clique.
But Tehran would prefer nuclear diplomacy to be delayed for eight months until after that election. “We waited for the US election campaign to be over, so why shouldn’t the Americans wait for ours?” a senior Iranian official asked rhetorically.
For now, the supreme leader is looking for a suitable candidate for the presidency. This time, the supreme leader is not expected to make the mistake of choosing a charismatic, ambitious and competent figure like Ahmadinejad, but rather one who is satisfied with acting as a representative titular figure and play second fiddle to Khamenei whose bureau will administer the executive branch of government.
The supreme leader is believed in Washington to be weighing another alternative: having parliament abolish the post of president and transferring its powers to the new post of prime minister, who would be chosen from among the 290 Majlis lawmakers.
Speaker Ali Larijani and his brother, head of the judiciary Sadeq Larijani, have in the past year performed the spadework of sidelining Ahmadinejad’s parliamentary faction.
Ali Larijani himself is a front-runner for the job of Revolutionary Iran’s first prime minister.
The view in Washington today is that if nuclear talks do start in December and roll on into March, Khamenei will be compelled to cut the process short to escape potential accusations led by Ahmadinejad that he is handing to America concessions excessive enough to stall Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
The supreme leader can’t afford to have the Iran’s military establishment, the Revolutionary Guards and the street turn against him on this issue.
But in the last few days, Tehran appears to have taken a large step back from direct negotiations with Washington in principle. Just hours after Obama’s election victory was announced on Nov. 7, the official Iranian news agency quoted Sadeq Larijani as condemning US sanctions as “crimes against the Iranian people.” He said relations with America “cannot be possible overnight” and the US president should not expect rapid new negotiations with Tehran. “Americans should not think they can hold our nation to ransom by coming to the negotiating table,” was the Iranian judiciary head’s parting shot for Obama.
The gap between Washington and Tehran is as wide as ever: Obama wants the talks to last no more than three months and end in an agreed settlement of the nuclear dispute, whereas the ayatollah prefers a low-key process to be dragged out past the eight month-month period while also gaining more time for Iran’s nuclear program to race forward.
This tactic would additionally help Tehran erase yet another Israeli red line, the one set by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in his UN September speech when he said that the spring or early summer of 2013 would be the critical date for Israel to act.