In the background of the nuclear talks taking place in Geneva this week, a fierce struggle raged in Tehran over the future of relations with the United States. The revelation by Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, that a secret dialogue was ongoing with the US administration provoked head-on clashes between pro- and anti-détente factions.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei frequently rails against America as untrustworthy but remains enigmatic about his ultimate intentions . Three figures: President Hassan Rouhani, and two former presidents Mohammed Khatami and Hashem Rafsanjani take a pragmatic view.
Rouhani’s case for building new bridges to Washington rests on the proposition that a compromise on the nuclear issue would elicit US consent to relieve the sanctions crippling Iran’s oil-based economy and head off Israel’s efforts to get them tightened.
However, DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Tehran report that Foreign Minister Mohammed Jawad Zarif was explicitly warned by Khamenei, before he set out for Geneva, not to appear in public with US officials or be seen to negotiate with them – although not to break off contact.
Since the Iranians have proved they are past masters at duplicity and confident of their ability to bamboozle the West into letting go of sanctions without giving up their nuclear capacity, the secret nuclear negotiations are not the main object of radical ire. What really irks the hardliners and extremists is the potential for using an eventual nuclear accommodation as a tool for mending the Islamic Republic’s fences with America. For them this is anathema.
The Rouhani-Obama phone call a red flag for the radicals
The Islamic regime’s hardliner politicians, military leaders and clerics are bombarding Khamenei with the argument that détente with Washington is a betrayal of Islam and everything the revolutionary Islamic regime of Iran stands for. The chorus is led by Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) officers, in keeping with their anti-American “Big Satan” manifesto.
Hoping to stop the fur flying in Tehran, Rouhani ordered preparations for a national referendum to determine the future of relations with the US. This further incensed the supreme leader and the IRGC. On Oct. 14, Khamenei’s top adviser on international relations, the former foreign minister Ali-Akbar Velayati, blasted the proposal as inappropriate.
“No properly run country holds a referendum to decide whether to renew relations with another country,” he said. Furthermore, such a decision must take into account the many hidden facts and state secrets that are not – and should not be – known to the general public.
Rouhani further angered the radicals when he said: “A phone conversation with Obama was a first step. There are many more steps to come.”
Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of the judiciary and brother of Iran’s parliament speaker, denounced the phone call as the outcome of “a Zionist plot.” Other extremists told the government to abjure any further steps towards better relations with the United States.
“Death to America!” an irrevocable revolutionary precept
Speaking for the pro-détente camp, the veteran Iranian revolutionary statesman ex-president Rafsanjani raised radical hackles by quoting the founder of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as having sought to expunge the Death to America” slogan from state media vocabulary
He was browbeaten into admitting he had heard this long ago and his words were taken out of context.
Hamid Ansari, the Director of the Khomenei Archive, was then shouted down in his turn when he corroborated Rafsanjani’s quote. “The slogan Death to America!,” he said, “was never an official directive.”
One of Iran’s most extreme clerics, Ahmad Khatami, said in a sermon last Friday: “Whoever opposes the slogan ‘Death to America!’ opposes the entire Islamic regime.”
The League of Devotees to the Islamic Revolution, one of the strongest political organizations in the country, declared that the war on the Great Satan is a basic precept of the Islamic Revolution and therefore irrevocable.
A Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) senior commander Ebrahim Jabbari confessed in a private discussion that there were problems with Khatami, Rafsanjani and even Rouhani. He said their steps for reconciliation with Washington must be resisted, notwithstanding the supreme leader’s orders to give the new president every possible support – so long as he sticks to regime policy guidelines.
Iranian nuclear negotiators constrained by furor at home
Our sources in Tehran report that Iranian radicals were preparing a whole battery of measures for torpedoing any secret deal Rouhani or his foreign minister reached with the US at Geneva or in outside official channels.
Revolutionary Guards commander in chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Ja’afri stepped into the furor against Rafsanjani with a rare comment against a regime politician: “The Iranian nation is too strong to renounce the principles of the revolution,” he said.
The general, like other IRGC officers, flouted Khamenei’s prohibition last month on public comments by military officers on diplomatic policy.
The rowdy objections at home to any sign of what radicals would see as a sellout to America constrained Iranian negotiators in Geneva.
With one ear open to the din in Tehran, they presented a list of proposals to the six powers (US, Russia, France, Britain, China and Germany) that omitted clear, fundamental concessions on Iran’s nuclear program and led off with assurances by Iranian leaders of the peaceful nature of that program.
The Iranian delegation left Geneva pessimistic
For Tehran, the Geneva conference, to be continued on Nov. 7-8, was to be the forum for the six world powers to accept Iran’s sovereign right to enrich uranium, our sources report. The Iranian negotiators explained that their proposal, presented by PowerPoint, was not meant as a package; nor was it the last word. Tehran reserved the liberty to make changes and modifications concomitant with progress in the talks.
This tactic could lead the negotiations into a dead end, or possibly enable future Iranian flexibility.
However, the Iranian delegation had nothing to take home from two days of discussions in the way of progress toward the essential goal of US-European consent to consider a start to removing sanctions – especially the damaging ban on the availability to Iran of the SWIFT system for international money transfers.
Araghchi spoke at length on this question to US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman when they met on the conference sidelines Tuesday night, Oct. 15. Present too were American experts on sanctions.
According to the report that reached Tehran, Sherman made no promises.