Has the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei authorized Iranian President Hassan Rohani to conduct direct talks with United States President Barack Obama? Has Rohani agreed to close the uranium enrichment site at Fordo? Will Washington agree to remove some of the sanctions on Iran?
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If during the presidential term of Rohani's predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the actual presentation of such questions would have been met with surprise and mostly of a lack of faith, now it seems the rumors and voices coming from Tehran are actually supporting a chance for significant change. For example, the direct correspondence between presidents Obama and Rohani, which was revealed by Obama, was accompanied by broad exposure in excessive detail in Iran. It was reported that Obama congratulated Rohani on his election as president; and that Rohani responded with warm thanks and also raised other issues for discussion.
When Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was asked whether Rohani intends to meet with senior American officials during his visit to New York for the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Zarif responded that such meetings were not on Rohani's schedule — but did not reject the possibility that such meetings could find their way on to his schedule. Furthermore, when Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham was asked whether Khamenei had authorized Rohani to conduct negotiations with the U.S., she gave an evasive answer, saying they had heard of it but have not received any official information.
The spokeswoman may not have official information, but Iranian commentators have been writing about the direct dialogue between the U.S. and Iran as a done deal that Khamenei has signed off on. Khamenei, by the way, reiterated on Tuesday his standard declaration that Iran is not striving for nuclear weapons because of the Americans, but "because of its beliefs and principles."
Expectations are rising in advance of Rohani's speech to the General Assembly next week in New York. There are expectations he will present not a general statement of principles but will in fact make concrete proposals that could serve as a basis for negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries on nuclear enrichment and ways of supervising Iranian nuclear facilities. The schedule for talks between Iran and the P5+1 nations has still not been set and the list of Iranian representatives to the talks is still under discussion, but the decision in principle to give the responsibility for the talks to Iran’s Foreign Ministry has been made, and it means that Rohani will be responsible for such talks.
Moreover, the freedom of operation that Khamenei has granted Rohani testifies to the coordination and understanding between the two regarding how Iran should act to rescue itself from its deep economic crisis. During Ahmedinejad's term the nuclear talks were conducted by Saeed Jalili, a conservative professional in the nuclear field who reported directly to Khamenei and bypassed the president. Jalili is considered by Western diplomats to be the one who stood firm in his objections to the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He conducted arrogant, uncompromising diplomacy — often crassly — and created an atmosphere of personal hostility that made negotiations difficult.
A hint of that can be found in his comments on Ali Akbar Salehi, the new head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. At a general meeting of the IAEA in Vienna Salehi told the General Conference: “I have come here with the message of the new president of my country for strengthening and broadening our current cooperation with the IAEA in order to put an end to Iran’s nuclear dossier."
One of the critical tests of this cooperation will be the granting of permission for IAEA inspectors to visit the Parchin site, where the IAEA suspects tests of nuclear materials for military purposes have been held.
The new wind blowing out of Iran is not immune from criticism. For example, conservatives attacked Zarif for using Facebook and Twitter to conduct "Holocaust and Jewish new year diplomacy." Zarif explained in an interview to the conservative Tansim website that his comments on the Holocaust are a response to a tweet written by Christine Pelosi, the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. She wrote: "Thanks. The new year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran's Holocaust denial, sir." Zarif responded, saying: "Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year."
In response to his conservative critics, Zarif told Tansim: "The issue came up after my response to a tweet, which later turned out to be from the former U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's daughter. We must not allow them to present a fabricated image of Iran. Iran has always denounced any killings of humans and in line with that has denounced the killing of Jews by Nazis, just as it denounces the killing and suppression of Palestinians by Zionists, and we will not allow Zionist murderers to cover up their crimes by misusing this event [i.e. the Holocaust]."
This explanation did not mollify the conservatives, who described his use of Twitter and Facebook for diplomatic purposes as disgraceful and said it seems this Twitter event has taken control of the foreign minister and his aides. The Raja news agency, associated with supporters of Ahmadinejad, wrote: "While those individuals who judge and interpret public diplomacy with such events as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at New York's Columbia University, and the great wave it produced across the world, are now disappointed to see the level of events drop to such low dimensions as messages on Tweeter, but it appears that this Tweeter event has fully pre-occupied the foreign minister and his associates, so that if they called Ahmadinejad's great and global action 'populism,' what shall this humiliating Tweeter event be called?"
Another conservative website, Sarat, criticized Rohani's administration: "Do not be surprised if in the coming days we hear a news report that the minister of intelligence of the current government has posted exposes on his personal Facebook page."
But such criticism of the use of new media may actually testify that in certain fundamental matters the conservatives now accept that they do not have a better plan, and it is better for them to wait and see how Rohani succeeds in "protecting Iran's interests," a code phrase for the attempts to remove the sanctions without damaging Iran's nuclear program.