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Dispatch | Iranians Appear to Favor US Nuclear Talks, But Doubt They'll Happen

by CORRESPONDENT

25 Oct 2012 23:30Comments
tehran+rain2.jpg A case is made that improved relations with the U.S. could benefit the opposition Green Movement.

[ dispatch ] According to a story that appeared in the New York Times this past weekend, unnamed officials in the Obama administration say that the United States and Iran have agreed "in principle" to engage in direct, bilateral negotiations over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.

In a handful of interviews with Iranians of various backgrounds, all favored such talks, but were skeptical they would ever come to pass.

"The U.S. is the superpower of the world, and a good relationship with a powerful nation is valuable," says Pari, a 57-year-old housewife. "Iran had a good relationship with America during the Shah's rule and had a good economy. I was in my 20s back then, employed at the Welfare Department. Everything was imported from the U.S. -- we ate the best rice for lunch at work, the rice that came from the U.S. We never woke up with any worries. Houses brimmed with American luxuries."

I break in to ask about the possibility of direct negotiations with the United States after the November 6 presidential election. "God is my witness, their mindsets doesn't accord with America's. I am talking about [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei. Actually, I [would] like Khatami to meet with Barack Obama." She is referring to former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist first elected to office in 1997. His efforts to improve Iran's relationship with the United States were thwarted by Khamenei and the Supreme Leader's conservative allies.

I remind her that the reformists now have little power, and ask if she wouldn't prefer those currently in office to negotiate with the United States to reduce tensions. "Yes, if things are going to get worse and slide toward destruction, it is better for someone to come out and negotiate."

She adds, "America isn't the enemy, though it is in the view of the government. I say, even if it was the enemy, you should try to keep your powerful enemy on your side." Reciting an old Persian proverb, "A wise enemy will raise you, a foolish friend will trip you," she observes, "Now they've gone and befriended the Syrian," referring to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic Republic's most important close ally in the region.

Pari retired ten years ago. She wears a short gray jacket and a headscarf that doesn't entirely cover her hair, as the Islamic Republic's morality code dictates. "Islam and the prophet's motto is to always be cordial," she says, "even if they do wrong. And still, after Barack Obama [has expressed his] respect for all Islamic principles, has extended a hand in friendship, they play coy."

Ramin, around 40, owns a translation and publishing firm. "I don't believe the news of negotiations is serious. Yet if it is so, we can call it Close Encounters of the Third Kind," he says, referring to Steven Spielberg's classic science-fiction film.

During his trip to New York last month to address the U.N. General Assembly, Ahmadinejad repeatedly stated his wish for an end to the 33 years of conflict between Iran and the United States. In at least five different speeches, as well as interviews with the CBC and BBC, he entreated American officials with variations of the question "Shouldn't we focus our strengths toward mutual forbearance?" Speaking on the Japanese network NHK, he emphasized that "at some point" the belligerent relationship between Iran and the United States "has to come to an end."

Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad retains little popular support in Iran and the Supreme Leader hardly celebrates his forays into foreign policy. Indeed, his declarations in New York met with strong criticism from Iran's right-wing camp. Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei's top international affairs adviser, dismissed the president's pronouncements. "Iran's overall policy, especially with regard to relations with the United States, remains as before, and there have been no decisions to alter this policy," he said. "Iran remains faithful to these policies established by the Imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini], and which have been confirmed by the Leader of the Islamic Revolution [Khamenei]."

So does Ramin think that the political players in Iran who wish to negotiate with the United States have the backing of Khamenei, or is this just Ahmadinejad's fancy?

"Both are possible. Let's not forget that they have a long history of drinking hemlock juice." The reference is to a speech Khomeini gave after signing the armistice that ended Iran's war with Iraq in 1988, in which he said, "We drank the chalice of poison."

Today, proponents of negotiations with the United States argue that it is in Iran's interest for the current Leader to gulp from the poison chalice again.

Ramin observes, "[Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton has said that if Iran stands down a bit, they will respond quickly. Just sitting at a table without any intermediaries would be the most important news of the year."

Aryana, a 20-year-old theology student who wears a full veil, says, "Overall, I have no problem with the U.S. Direct negotiation is good too; it will lead Iran out of its isolation."

I ask if she would have no issue with pursuing one-on-one talks with the United States. "What issue? I don't like standoffish behavior. In fact, I have [other] issues with the current government, but overall, and in the interest of Iran, I would like such an agreement to appear sooner."

Strikingly, she also evokes Khomeini's line from a quarter century ago. "Of course, I have no hope that Agha will drink from the poison chalice." Agha -- mister, lord, master -- is the epithet by which Khamenei's ardent supporters refer to the Supreme Leader, one that many citizens deride in their daily conversations.

I ask Aryana if negotiations with the United States would affect the struggle for democracy and human rights in Iran. "Yes, it would lead to the country's progress. We are angry at the whole world, we don't allow knowledge and know-how to enter the country," she replies. "I hope very much that a relationship with the U.S. would lead to democratic progress, to reform of the country and this [political] system."

She concludes, "But it seems to be only a dream."

In the few reformist publications that the Islamic Republic has allowed to remain in operation, which can be counted on the fingers of a single hand, opinion about the news of a possible agreement was divided. In an article on the front page of Etemad, which recently reopened after a government-mandated shutdown, Behrooz Behzadi wrote,

The New York Times' report of the news shows that this issue has gained some depth in the American public's thoughts. The possible negotiations are important because one of the main issues argued by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney has been that of America and Iran, with many observers having predicted that in their third debate, the candidates would talk extensively about their approaches to it.

We recall what furor arose from the mere thought of such an encounter by an official in a publication in the 1360s [the Persian calendar decade corresponding to the 1980s], but today, this is discussed openly and many officials present some conditions under which they consider negotiations with the U.S. acceptable.

On the other hand, Professor Davood Hermidas Bavand, a member of the Iranian National Front, the country's longest-surviving liberal party, wrote in an editorial for Mardom-salaarie, "Once again, on the verge of a U.S. election, the media have reported the news, and the denials of the news, of negotiations between Iran and the U.S. It seems that as long as we don't resolve our issues with the U.S. on the basis of mutual interests, we will continue to encounter these very specific difficulties and impasses. Anyhow, the U.S. will act obstructionist vis-à-vis Iran, and the chances and opportunities that may have risen in Iran's favor may slip away through U.S. antagonism and influence."

The powerful right-wing daily Kayhan -- whose editor-in-chief, Hossein Shariatmadari, was hand-picked by Khamenei -- meanwhile ran a "special" report that described the Times report as "story weaving."

Ali, 60, says, "Certainly, Kayhan, which is managed under Khamenei's supervision, wouldn't say anything other than that." In his view, "If Khamenei retreats even one step, he has to follow it with more steps."

I ask him if he prefers the nuclear negotiations to take place within the P5+1 framework -- the talks with representatives from the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany, led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton -- or bilaterally with the United States. "In view of national interests, a bilateral discussion is better. Why? Because China, Russia, and even the Europeans, despite their proclaimed positions, prefer to continue the status quo."

Why is that?

"For their economic interests. They enjoy this 'no war, no peace' stalemate condition."

I ask him if he believes tensions wouldn't grow worse if bilateral negotiations failed. "Well, the bilateral negotiations don't have to negate the 5+1 discussions. They could be parallel to it."

I return to the question of whether Khamenei would actually authorize negotiations with the United States. Ali says, "It depends on the regime's weakness. The probability of a positive response is not low. But Khamenei wants that this doesn't lead to further retreats." Ali's best guess is that the Supreme Leader will "probably agree if Obama wins" -- implying that he will not if Romney emerges victorious.

Wouldn't establishing a relationship with the United States strengthen the current government and weaken the opposition Green Movement?

"It will strengthen the Green Movement in the intermediate term because it will improve the middle class's economic condition, which is the [underpining] of the Green Movement. Given the depth to which the Green Movement's unanswered demands have penetrated society, those demands will probably resurface."

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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