For Iran's spiritual leader, dialogue with the U.S. is no longer taboo
Ahead of the Baghdad nuclear conference, Iran's tone has become conciliatory and optimistic, pointing to the Supreme Leader's decision to push President Ahmadinejad to the sidelines.
An extraordinary report was published on Saturday in the conservative Iranian website Botia. According to the report, the chief of the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, General Qasem Suleimani, warned Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah not to attack Israel.
The website reported that during a meeting between the two, Suleimani explained to Nasrallah that "Israel is an isolated country, and any attack on it can portray it as the victim and us as the aggressors." Suleimani even demanded that Nasrallah explain to his followers that the road to Jerusalem does not involve arms, but preaching.
Within a few hours the report was removed from the website, and a denial was published.
Iran has not changed its official policy of supporting armed resistance against Israel. Yet aside for public statements by senior army and Revolutionary Guards officials – saying Iran is ready for any act of aggression and is planning military drills – the Islamic Republic's tone ahead of the Baghdad summit is conciliatory and optimistic.
"If the [major powers] arrive with good intentions and not try to impose their illegal opinions on Iran, there is hope for the summit," said Ali Akbar Velayati, international adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Velayati, former foreign minister, was also the one to declare - after Israel withdrew from Lebanon exactly 12 years ago - that Hezbollah's military role has come to an end.
Iran has also clarified that the person in charge of the dialoge with the West is Khamenei – not President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or his envoys. Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, Secretary General of the National Security Council, is dubbed in the local media as "the Supreme Leader's representative." This definition has an important political significance, because Jalili – who was Khamenei bureau chief – was appointed to his current post by Ahmadinejad. His predecessor, current Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, quit his post over differences with Ahmadinejad – including the nuclear issue.
Jalili's title as Khamenei's envoy underscores the Supreme Leader's decision to push Ahmadinejad to the sidelines on the nuclear issue. The heavy coverage Jalili receives in the Iranian media – some of which portrays him almost as the head of state – further illustrates this.
Jalili, who met with UN nuclear watchdog Yukiya Amano on Monday, said that "the International Atomic Agency must protect the rights of its members" – meaning Iran's right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful means. He repeated Khamenei's religious decree, according to which producing or using weapons of mass destruction is forbidden. This new tone joins other conciliatory messages ahead of last month's summit in April.
A similar tone was heard from Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of the country's Expediency Discernment Council, who called for dialogue with the U.S. (the same forum in which he spoke was also attended by Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.) No denial or denunciation of Rafsanjani's call was issued from the Supreme Leader's bureau. Speaking with the U.S., it seems, is no longer taboo.
Iran's internal politics will now play a major role if the Islamic Republic truly wants to reach a deal. Any agreement will have to be marketed as a success and a victory. If Iran agrees not to enrich uranium beyond 20 percent, or remove it from its soil, one of the leaders will have to explain to the religious and political elites why the stance had shifted.
Khamenei's political power and religious status make him the best candidate to market a deal – which in all scenarios will include Iranian concessions. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, has a reputation of disobeying the Supreme Leader and "the principles of the revolution." Thus, Khamenei position as the chief decision-maker at the nuclear talks may indicate what Tehran's intentions are.