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May 30, 2006

Khamenei in Control
and Ready to 'Haggle'

by Gareth Porter

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 minister.

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 and Afghanistan.

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)


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  • Gareth Porter is a historian. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press).

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