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Media Watch | Two Friday Prayer Sermons and Iran's Nuclear Diplomacy

by ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI

28 Apr 2012 13:15Comments

[ in focus ] As noted in my blog, here are a few interesting points about Iranian conservative leaders' rhetoric in the run up to talks with U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany set for May 23 in Baghdad.

In his April 6 sermon Tehran's hardline Friday Prayer leader Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami stated that "The file pertaining to relations with the United States is under the sole control of the Supreme Jurisconsult."

While we should obviously be very wary of reading too much into such statements, Friday Prayer leaders are appointees of the Supreme Leader, and to a large extent fulfill the role of propagating and disseminating Ali Khamenei's line on the crucial issues of the day. Also of note was Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi's presence in the audience.

This was perhaps the first time I've heard Khatami speak in such terms about Iran-U.S. relations. There was obviously no indication in his sermon of what form such relations might take, other than that engagement should be reciprocal, and that Iran should be wary of what it might have to give up to receive something in return. The remarks have been interpreted as a rebuttal to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's recent interview with an Iranian international relations journal in which the former president and incumbent head of the Expediency Council emphasized the importance of engaging the United States, and similarly his efforts in the past to do so.

While Khatami's comments were certainly a slighting of the former president, it is interesting to note that rather than categorically repudiate the very idea of engagement, or at the very least condition engagement on a "fundamental reorientation or change in American behavior in the region," as Ayatollah Khamenei has in the past, relations with the United States are said to be determined as the sole prerogative of the Supreme Leader. Without getting into the vicissitudes and intricacies of the many historical failures of diplomatic engagement and who is to blame, there is no doubt a number of historical precedents, as far as Iranian diplomatic missteps are concerned, whereby Iranian overtures or cooperation with the U.S. have fallen victim to internal squabbling and personal rivalries. With the clear caveat that this is all highly speculative, Khatami's comments, alongside a few other senior regime figures and politicians, seem to indicate an impetus to clarify and establish beyond any doubt that the ultimate decision-making power vis-a-vis the prospects of Iran-U.S. relations reside solely with Ayatollah Khamenei, as opposed to the government, and in the event of a success, such a deal would be the sole success of Khamenei. This is obviously a risky strategy given that in the event of failure, the buck will also end with Khamenei alone.

Saeed Jalili's revamped title of personal representative of the Supreme Leader is also indicative that Khamenei is directly taking the reigns in a very palpable fashion, and because of this, senior Principalist politicians and state clergymen, will perhaps be more reluctant in denouncing the talks set for May 23 in Baghdad.

President Ahmadinejad's comments and responses in the coming weeks are anyone's guess however. The recent allegations by sources close to Ahmadinejad that associates and allies of Rafsanjani were active behind the scenes at Istanbul indicates that efforts will be made by those close to the president to publicly criticize in an effort to sabotage the process after having been largely sidelined.

In a more recent Tehran Friday Prayer sermon on April 27, albeit this time by Hojjat ol-Islam Kazem Sedighi (the same cleric who (in)famously blamed Iranian women's "revealing" clothing for earthquakes), the cleric stated that the "the West must show its good intentions in the Baghdad negotiations by removing sanctions." This change of tone seems to be a top-down directive, itself largely the product of Western economic pressure, whose severity has increasingly come to be felt, and this comes through, especially when compared to the rhetoric which came off the heels of the January 2011 Istanbul talks. Whether this rhetorical shift will continue is debatable, but the de-escalation of rhetoric in the United States post-Obama's AIPAC speech, and more recently in Israel, with the pertinent comments of IDF Chief of Staff Lt Gen Benny Gantz and former Shin Bet chief, Yuval Diskin, indicate an atmosphere more amenable to negotiation. While such negotiations might ultimately flounder, they perhaps won't be prejudiced from the outset by the incendiary and inflammatory rhetoric, which had become the staple diet of the aforementioned parties in the past.

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