Khamenei Plays Hardball With Obama
M K Bhadrakumar
February 13, 2013 "Asia
-- It was an extraordinary week in the politics of the
Middle East and it ended appropriately by being rounded off
with a reality check lest imaginations ran riot.
Three major happenings within one week would have to be
taken as the inevitable confluence of a flow of developments
and processes: the offer by the Syrian opposition of a
bilateral dialogue with the Bashar al-Assad regime; the
historic visit of an Iranian president to Egypt; and the
public, unconditional offer by the United States of direct
talks with Iran and the latter's ready acceptance of it.
Yet, they are interconnected. First, the Syrian kaleidoscope
is dramatically shifting despite the continuing bloodbath.
Unless the European countries drop their arms embargo on
Syria (which expires on March 1 anyway) and decide to arm
the rebels, the stalemate will continue.
The mood in Western capitals has shifted in the direction of
caution and circumspection, given the specter that al-Qaeda
affiliates are taking advantage. If anything, the hurricane
of militant Islamism blowing through Mali only reinforces
that concern and reluctance.
Suffice to say, what prompted the Islamist leader of the
Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, last weekend to
show willingness to take part in direct talks with
representatives of the Syrian regime - and pushed him into
meeting with Russian and Iranian foreign ministers - was as
much the disarray within the Syrian opposition and his
failure to form a credible "government-in-exile" as his
acute awareness that the Western mood is now cautious about
To be sure, Iran played a signal role in the grim battle of
nerves over Syria through the recent months. Strangely, it
is Iran today, which is on the "right side of history", by
urging dialogue and negotiations and democratic elections as
holding the key to reform and change in Syria - or, for that
matter, in Bahrain.
The shift in Syria has actually enabled Iran to cross over
the Sunni-Shi'ite barriers that were tenaciously put up to
isolate it. Thus, President Mahmud Ahmedinejad's historic
visit to Egypt this week has a much bigger regional
dimension to it than the restoration of the Iran-Egypt
bilateral relationship. The trilateral meeting held between
Ahmedinejad and his Egyptian and Turkish counterparts
Mohammed Morsi and Abdullah Gul signified Iran's compelling
relevance as an interlocutor rather than as an implacable
adversary for the two major Sunni countries.
Interestingly, Morsi added, "Egypt's revolution is now
experiencing conditions similar to those of Iran's
Revolution and because Egypt does not have an opportunity
for rapid progress like Iran, we believe that expansion of
cooperation and ties with Iran is crucially important and
Needless to say, Iranian diplomacy has been optimal with
regard to the Muslim Brotherhood-led regime in Cairo -
neither fawning nor patronizing, or pushing and pressuring,
but leaving things to the Brothers to decide the pace. Basic
to this approach is the confidence in Tehran that the surge
of Islamism in the Middle East through democratic process,
no matter "Sunni Islamism", will ultimately work in favor of
The cordial welcome extended by Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, head
of Egypt's Al-Azhar, to Ahmedinejad and the strong
likelihood of his visit to Tehran in a very near future also
underscores the common desire to strengthen the affinities.
Simply put, the Syrian crisis has virtually receded from the
Iran-Egypt field of play as a serious issue of discord.
True, the Turkey-based Syrian National Council (SNC)
continues to reject any negotiation with the Syrian regime,
and the Muslim Brotherhood dominates the SNC. But this may
also provide the window of opportunity for Turkey, Egypt and
Iran to knock their heads together.
Besides, the SNC has no real influence over the rebel
fighters, and Ankara feels exasperated at the overall drift
of the Syrian crisis.
Thus, it was against a complex backdrop that US Vice
President Joe Biden said in Munich last weekend that
Washington is ready to hold direct talks with Iran over the
country's nuclear energy program. Iran's immediate response
was one of cautious optimism. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar
Salehi reacted: "I am optimistic. I feel this new [US]
administration is really this time seeking to at least
divert from its previous traditional approach vis-a-vis my
However, by the next day, he had begun tempering the
enthusiasm: "We looked at it positively. I think this is a
good overture... But we will have to wait a little bit
longer to see if their gesture is this time a real
gesture... so that we will be making our decisions
Salehi subsequently explained, "A look at the past shows
that whenever we have had talks with the Americans,
including efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan,
unfortunately the other side has failed to fulfill its
obligations. You cannot use a threatening tone and say all
options are on the table, on the one hand, [because] this is
an apparent contradiction... Exerting pressure and
[invitation to] talks are not compatible. If you have honest
intentions, we can place serious negotiations on the
Obviously, Salehi spoke in two voices, and his retraction
finally proved to be the "authentic" voice of Tehran. When
the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei broke his silence on
Thursday, he rejected the possibility of direct talks with
the US. He said, "You [Americans] are pointing the gun at
Iran and say either negotiate or we will shoot. The Iranian
nation will not be frightened by the threats... Some naive
people like the idea of negotiating with America [but]
negotiations will not solve the problems. If some people
want American rule to be established again in Iran, the
nation will rise up to them."
One way of looking at Khamenei's harsh statement on Thursday
is to put it in the immediate context of the announcement of
further sanctions against Iran by Washington the previous
day, which the US administration has explained as "a
significant turning of the screw" that will "significantly
increase the economic pressure on Iran".
But it does not fully explain the manifest harshness and the
comprehensive rejection by Khamenei. Meanwhile, three
factors are to be taken into account. First, Iran's domestic
politics is hotting up and the dramatic eruption of public
acrimony between Ahmedinejad and the Speaker of the Majlis
Ali Larijani last weekend testifies to a rough period when
Khamenei will have his hands full as the great helmsman.
Indeed, a lot of jockeying is going on as the presidential
election slated for May draws closer. Khamenei could factor
in that the talks with the US are best held after the
elections. (By the way, this may also be Obama's
preference.) Second, Khamenei has flagged by implication
that Tehran expects some serious goodwill gesture on the
part of the US before any talks take place. He has recalled
that the US did not act in good faith in the past - such as
when Iran helped out in the US's overthrow of the Taliban
regime in Afghanistan.
A third factor is that Khamenei genuinely sees that Iran is
on the "right side of history" as regards the regional
upheaval in the Middle East, whereas the US's regional
strategies are getting nowhere. In sum, whereas the US
propaganda is that the Iran sanctions are "biting" and the
regime is in Iran feels besieged, it is in actuality a
bizarre situation of Washington believing its own propaganda
while the ground realities are vastly different.
If the propaganda has us believe that the regime in Tehran
is living in fear of a Tahrir-like revolution erupting in
Iran, Khamenei's words show no such traces of fear or
timidity. On the other hand, Khamenei would have carefully
weighed Obama's capacity (or the limits to it) to bulldoze
the Israeli lobby and to initiate a genuine normalization
process with Iran.
When Richard Nixon worked on China in the early 1970s, he
had the benefit of a broad consensus of opinion within the
US political establishment. On the contrary, when it comes
to Iran, pride and prejudice influence still rule the roost
for most consequential Americans.
Khamenei's message to Obama is to get serious and think
through what he really wants instead of lobbing a vague
offer through Biden with no strings attached and no
commitments underlying it. The Iranian leader who has
continuously dealt with successive US administrations
through the past 22 years simply threw the ball into Obama's
court and will now wait and see how the latter kicks it
around when he is in Israel next month.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat
in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the
Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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