The stage is set. By now it’s established Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has given full authority to the new administration of President Hassan Rouhani to talk directly to Washington about Iran’s nuclear program.
This happened only a few days after US President Barack Obama leaked that letters had been exchanged between himself and Rouhani.
Rouhani’s empowerment was first confirmed later last week by extremely credible former nuclear negotiator ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian in this op-ed published in Japan. Mousavian was Rouhani’s deputy in Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) from 1997 to 2005. Then Rouhani himself expanded on it this Wednesday in an interview with NBC.
It’s crucial to consider the Supreme Leader’s exact position. This past Tuesday, he addressed the elite of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Tehran.1 The key quote: “We don’t accept nuclear weapons, not for the sake of the US or others, but because of our beliefs, and when we say that no one should have nuclear weapons, certainly we are not after them either.”
Khamenei fully endorsed Rouhani’s diplomatic offensive, emphasizing — not cryptically — two concepts: “heroic flexibility”, as in a wrestler sometimes giving way for tactical reasons but never losing sight of the rival; and “champion’s leniency” — which happens to be the subtitle of a book Khamenei himself translated from Arabic about how the second Shi’ite imam, Hasan ibn Ali, managed to prevent a war in the 7th century by showing flexibility towards his enemy.
Does that mean that a historic meeting between Obama and Rouhani next Tuesday on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly in New York is all but certain? No. Predictably, the White House has already exercised plausible deniability — as in Obama “not expected to meet” Rouhani.
What the process implies though, is that Washington and Tehran should be talking, sooner or later, at the highest level.
Watch the spoilers
Crucially, Khamenei also told the IRGC, “It is not necessary for the guards to have activities in the political field.” This implies they are out of the new nuclear negotiations, in a further confirmation of how the nuclear dossier has been transferred to the Foreign Ministry. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is the man in charge. He will be traveling to New York with Rouhani. Here is an excellent insight into his frame of mind. As for former foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi, now appointed by Rouhani as the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, he told the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna that it was time to “end the so-called nuclear file”.
The whole process, now in dizzying speed, is a radical departure from the Ahmadinejad years, when the IRGC was politicized to the extreme. One day before Khamenei’s speech, Rouhani himself asked the IRGC to “stay above and beyond political currents”.
So Iran is now advancing pieces in the chessboard. There’s no substantial American response, so far. But the spoilers in the game are already on overdrive.
Not by accident Israel has ramped up its moves to stress the great “existential threat” to itself is the “strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut” — as expressed by outgoing Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren.2
What is now clear is that Tel Aviv would rather have al-Qaeda-style jihadis of the Jabhat al-Nusra mould in power in Damascus than a secular Arab republic under Bashar al-Assad. That’s yet another proof, if needed, of the confluence of interests between Israel and those paragons of democracy, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) petro-monarchies. No wonder all these players are bitterly despised by the Arab street.
Tel Aviv will go no holds barred to bombard the Syrian chemical weapons dossier — pressuring for “conditions” that might include non-existent Iranian weapons and pressuring for everyone to believe Assad — with Hezbollah and Iran’s complicity — is not cooperating with chemical weapons inspectors. Syrian “rebel” military leader, General Selim Idriss — an Israeli-GCC puppet — has already started the campaign, saying Damascus has transferred chemical weapons to Lebanon and Iraq.
As for the House of Saud, the monarchy regards Russian diplomacy as worse than poison. They don’t want even the possibility of a Geneva II conference — as Prince Bandar bin Sultan, aka Bandar Bush, head of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate, told Putin in person. They want regime change, they want it now, and they will keep weaponizing the most lethal “rebel” factions, now on overdrive.
The Obama administration must have registered Moscow’s message that Syria is indeed a Russian “red line” — as important to Russia as Israel to the US. And the White House must have registered Khamenei’s own message via Sultan Qaboos of Oman; the gist of it was that “whoever intends to destroy Syria should be prepared to lose their oil and gas in the region”.
The solution for the Syrian chemical weapons impasse, as reported by Asia Times Online, was worked out by Damascus, Tehran and Moscow – and later supported by Beijing. It did, in fact, save the Obama administration from itself.
Yet, in an interview late last week, Obama reverted to the same old (misleading) message, when referring to Iran:
I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue, that the threat against … Israel that a nuclear Iran poses is much closer to our core interests. That a nuclear arms race in the region is something that would be profoundly destabilizing.
There is no “threat” to Israel because there will be no nuclear Iran — as Khamenei, once again, has just stressed. The (undeclared) nuclear power is Israel, not Iran. And chemical weapons were never an issue to begin with; Obama’s own, reckless, “red line” turned into an issue as a means to possibly enforce his previous red line, “Assad must go”.
Here, I had a shot at drawing the Big Picture. Last week, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Kyrgyzstan, Rouhani met with both Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping. They are now working on a concerted strategy not only in Syria but also in terms of Iran’s nuclear dossier.
Russia and China firmly support Iran’s right for a civilian nuclear program. And first and foremost, the BRICS group (Brazil, India and South Africa being its other members), as well as emerging regional powers such as Indonesia, Argentina and Iran itself, will keep increasing their push towards a multi-polar international order under the rule of law, instead of the usual US hegemon going on a rampage.
Diplomacy is trying to have a shot at solving the Syrian tragedy. And diplomacy should have a shot at solving the 34-year Wall of Mistrust between Washington and Tehran. The question is whether Obama will have the “heroic flexibility” to stare down the spoilers.
- Supreme Leader Reiterates Iran’s Opposition to N. Weapons, Fars News Agency, September 17, 2013. [↩]
- Israel wanted Assad gone since start of Syria civil war, Jerusalem Post, September 17, 2013. [↩]