For months, the attention of the U.S. news media,
pundits, and elected officials has been riveted on the aims of ultraconservative
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
President George W. Bush in particular has invoked Ahmadinejad's alleged drive
for nuclear weapons and rhetoric about Israel to justify U.S. isolation and
pressure on the regime.
But the almost exclusive focus on what Ahmadinejad does has been misplaced,
because all the evidence indicates that it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
not Ahmadinejad, who is directing Iranian foreign policy.
Despite Ahmadinejad's clever exploitation of the nuclear issue to strengthen
his domestic political position, he is a second-stringer on the issue. As David
Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington,
the most experienced non-governmental expert on Iran's nuclear program, told
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty immediately after his election, Ahmadinejad
"doesn't have much to do with the nuclear issue." Albright observed
that the policy on Iran's nuclear program is run by the Supreme National Security
Council "directly under the supreme leader."
At a briefing in Washington last week, Hadi Semati, a professor at Tehran University
who is now a visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, said
that Ahmadinejad "is third in command" after Khamenei and the Supreme
National Security Council. Khamenei and the Council, he said, "are not
going to let the president decide anything on the nuclear issue."
The Supreme National Security Council includes representatives appointed by
the supreme leader, as well as top officials from the military, foreign affairs,
intelligence, and other national-security-related agencies, including the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps. It determines national defense and security policies
on the basis of general guidelines laid down by the supreme leader.
Khamenei has not hesitated to set the record straight when Ahmadinejad has
strayed from the foreign policy line he and the Supreme National Security Council
have set. Ten days after Ahmadinejad declared in a speech last Oct. 25 that
Israel should be "wiped off the map," Khamenei clarified Ahmadinejad's
remarks, declaring that Iran "will not commit aggression toward any nations.
We will not breach any nation's rights anywhere in the world."
By shifting the focus from Ahmadinejad's provocative speeches and rambling
letter to Bush to the thinking of Khamenei and his senior advisers, one can
see the outlines of a consistent and coherent strategy toward the nuclear issue,
the region, and relations with the United States. These men may hold a theocratic
perspective on Iranian politics and social life, but they base their national
security strategy on an assessment of international power relations and their
own bargaining leverage.
Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council are keenly aware that Iran
must exist in a region in which U.S. military might dominates their own. But
they have long viewed negotiations with the United States as the key to Iran's
security, as well as its reemergence as a regional power.
They have long pondered the question of when to negotiate with Washington.
When then President Mohammad Khatami proposed in an interview with CNN in January
1998 to engage the U.S. in a dialogue, Khamenei responded several days week
later by denouncing the idea of talks or relations with the United States.
But historian Shaul Bakhash of George Mason University recalls that one of
the arguments Khamenei cited in the speech against engaging the United States
was that Iran should not negotiate until it was in a stronger position.
Since that January 1998 speech, much has happened to change Khamenei's perspective
on negotiating with Washington.
When the United States signaled that it intended to overthrow Saddam Hussein
and occupy Iraq, Iranian leaders saw both a danger and opportunity. On one hand,
they were concerned about a possible U.S. attack against Iran if it could consolidate
power over Iraq. But they also reasoned that the United States would need their
help to stabilize the post-Hussein political situation there, especially given
Iran's special relationships with militant Iraqi Shi'ite political-military
organizations which would reenter Iraq from their exile in Iran.
Iranian policymakers also knew that Washington wanted their help on al-Qaeda
leaders who had been detained in Iran after fleeing from Afghanistan. Even more
important was Washington's evident concern over progress in Iran's nuclear research
program by late 2002.
The awareness of a changed bargaining relationship opened a new stage of Iranian
diplomacy. The first effort to engage the United States was the secret proposal
of April 2003, conveyed to the State Department through the Swiss ambassador
in Tehran, which Bush chose to ignore.
Khamenei and his advisers believe Iran's leverage on U.S. policy toward Iran
has actually increased since that failed initiative. The United States has become
hopelessly bogged down in Iraq, and allies of Iran are in positions of power
in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. And most important of all, Washington is
now in crisis mode over Iran's enrichment program
Those developments are shaping the views of Iran's top policymakers about negotiations.
The best indication of Khamenei's current strategic thinking is a recent statement
by his top foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign minister from
1981 to 1997. Velayati's closeness to Khamenei is indicated by the fact that,
when Khamenei was president in 1981, Velayati was his first choice as prime
In a seminar in Tehran May 18 reported by the official news agency ISNA, Velayati
addressed the evolution of Iran's bargaining position in relation to the United
States. "We have at no time until now had such powerful means for haggling,"
he said, nor "the influence we have now in Iraq and Palestine." He
referred to friendly forces in power or in key positions in neighboring Iraq
Velayati drew the obvious conclusion: "Now that we have the power to haggle,
why do we not haggle?" The word "haggle" suggests bargaining
over a Persian rug rather than negotiations on international security issues.
But it conveys accurately the present mentality of the Iranian leadership about
negotiations over the nuclear program.
Merchants "haggle" over the price of the goods, and Khamenei and
his advisers are hoping to extract a high price from the United States in regard
to a new regional order in return for guarantees against an Iranian nuclear
weapons program and other concessions of concern to the Bush administration.
The secret Iranian proposal of 2003, which called for U.S. "recognition
of Iran's legitimate security interests in the region with according [i.e.,
concomitant] defense capacity," suggests what Iran hopes to get from the
haggling with Washington. The regional order sought by Tehran would still recognize
the predominance of U.S. power, but with new limits.
The evidence suggests that the realists who rule in Tehran are offering Washington
a transition to a new, more stable Middle East in which Iran's role is more
prominent but also more consciously devoted to bring about change without violence.
Up to now, however, the Bush administration has not been willing to accept any
such limitation on its power.
(Inter Press Service)