Negotiators Put Final Touches on Interim Iran Accord, But Ayatollah Khamenei Is Expressing Concern over Perceptions Created by Talks

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is frustrated by the popular perception that Iran was forced to make a deal on its nuclear program as a result of Western economic sanctions.

According to a January 13, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Negotiators Put Final Touches On Iran Accord,” Iran and the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia China, and Germany) completed a deal on January 12th that would temporarily suspend much of Iran’s nuclear program as of January 20th.  That would be done in exchange for limited relief from Western economic sanctions.  The interim agreement had already been announced in November 2013, however, its implementation was delayed until after negotiators and experts worked out technical details.  Reportedly, Iran will suspend its nuclear program to the extent that enrichment of uranium would be halted beyond 5 percent, a level deemed sufficient for energy production but not for developing a nuclear device.  Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a step toward weapons grade fuel, would be diluted or converted to oxide, preventing it from standing prepared for military purposes.  Iran also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, start up any that had were not already operating, or build new enrichment facilities.

While Western officials touted the degree to which Iran’s nuclear program had be temporarily curtailed, as reported in the January 13thNew York Times article, Iranian officials indicated that their program had not been curtailed at all. They claimed that Iran by its own volition, reached an interim agreement with the P5+1, but did not give up the right to enrich or the ability to return to enriching at any time.  To them, the interim agreement did not prevent Iran from enriching uranium above 3.5 percent or to dismantle any existing centrifuges.  Iranian deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs as well as lead negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, made it clear that while Iran would separate connections between centrifuges that have been used to enrich uranium to 20 percent, the interconnections could be reconnected in a day.

For Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, maintaining the nuclear program and the right to enrich was the main requirement that he gave to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when he released him to engage in a dialogue with the US and Western powers on economic sanctions, and consequently, Iran’s nuclear program.  Khamenei viewed the Geneva process primarily as an opportunity to counter economic sanctions while progressing in the area of nuclear technology.  However, as the process advanced, Khamenei began to publicly express concerns and some disappointment over its results.  Despite an initial sense inside Iran’s leadership that the negotiations would rapidly bring forth favorable results, it instead has been a complicated and deliberate process, the outcome of which remains uncertain.  Moreover, Iranian authorities became concerned by the fact that following their decision to engage in the negotiations with Western powers, a perception took hold that Iran was forced to make a deal on its nuclear program to stave off economic ruin.

In Iran, Khamenei is known as the leader of the Islamic Ummah and Oppressed People and the person in which the spiritual guidance and functional power Islamic republic resides.  For him, the notion that Iran was submitting to Western pressure is absolutely abhorrent.  Khamenei accused the US of engaging in strenuous efforts to promote this view of Iranian weakness.  He stated:  “The nuclear talks showed the enmity of America against Iran, Iranians, Islam, and Muslims.”  Nevertheless, the view that Iran was forced to negotiate in reaction to economic sanctions is not only accepted among most experts in the US.  It is the prevailing view worldwide.  Khamenei has held out hope that, through the Geneva process, Iran would reach an agreement that fits within the ideals of Islamic Revolution as well as achieve success over what he has referred to often as “the economic pressures and propaganda campaigns of the West.”  However, perceptions of Iran’s standing in the talks could very well impact Khamenei’s final decision regarding Geneva.  At this juncture, it is not necessary for Khamenei to decide whether to proceed to halt negotiations as a final agreement has not even been outlined.  In the interim, perhaps Khamenei and Iranian foreign and defense policymakers might consider how Iran’s own efforts to influence the global policy debate on the Geneva process in its favor, how in reality, it did more to propagate perceptions on why it entered into negotiations.  Interestingly, a few changes in Iran’s approach may ameliorate the situation and may very well make the situation tolerable enough to allow reaching an agreement to become the main focus of all parties.

Image of Iran’s Power to Khamenei

Khamenei’s frustration over worldwide perceptions that Iran was forced into the Geneva process is almost palpable.  Khamenei saw Iran’s decision to enter the Geneva process purely from a position of strength as a regional power.  Such power was the basis of equality.  Viewing its entry into the Geneva process from a perceived position of strength Khamenei has made statements such as: “We had announced previously that on certain issues, if we feel it is expedient, we would negotiate with the Satan [US] to deter its evil.”  When it began the talks, Khamenei and Iranian policymakers believed an agreement favorable to Iran’s interests would be rapidly constructed.  Among experts and advisers on foreign and defense policy in Tehran, the accepted view was that US had become disinterested in the Middle East as events and issues in the region do not align with US President Barack Obama’s new vision of its national interest.  The failure of the US to respond militarily to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, despite red-lines, is a reaction to the trauma of its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Moreover, they viewed US President Barack Obama as analytical and frail, lacking the will to fight.  They asserted that Obama would unlikely be predisposed toward declaring war on Iran regardless of how they might proceed appears to have become dogma among political and religious hardliners and in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  It has compelled many Iranian officials, IRGC commanders in particular, to publicly deride the US government as being indecisive and predict it would be pliant to Iran’s demands at Geneva.

Khamenei and Iranian officials saw Iran moving in the opposite direction of the US, gaining power and becoming the driving force in the Middle East.  Khamenei stated:  “a regional power [Iran] has emerged which has not been brought to its knees despite various political, economic, security, and propaganda pressures.”  He further stated that “this major power [Iran] has influenced regional nations.”  Iran’s recent record indeed includes a number of bold and decisive actions in the region.  According to the January 13th, New York Times article, Iran has been sought to influence events just about everywhere in the region.  In Syria, Iran has deployed significant numbers of IRGC, Quds Force and regular Army forces.  It has sent an estimated 330 truckloads of arms and equipment to Syrian through Iraq to support the armed forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  An air corridor over Iraq has also emerged as a major supply route for Iran to send weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades to Assad.  Iran armed, equipped, and enabled Hezbollah to join the fight in Syria.  Iran has also facilitated the deployment of Iraqi Shiite militiamen trained by the Quds Force to Damascus.  To further supplement the Syrian Armed Forces hundreds of Shiites in Yemen and Afghanistan have been recruited for combat duty in Syria.  In Yemen, the New York Times reports Iran’s Quds Force has supplied arms to Houthi rebels fighting government forces in the northern part of the country.  Iran smuggles weapons into Yemen on small boats which are difficult for Yemeni authority to track.  It is estimated that only 1 out of 10 Iranian boats that illegally come into Yemen among the thousands of commercial and fishing boats in the Persian Gulf.  In Bahrain, Iran has capitalized on ties established with Shiite groups back in the 1990s, including some that have carried out small-scale attacks on police.  Bahraini operatives are typically trained in Iran and operationally controlled by Bahraini opposition leaders there.

Understanding US Power in Tehran

Despite Khamenei’s own perceptions of Iran’s power relative to that of the US and its Western partners, the US has proved not to be as relaxed on matters as his foreign and defense policy experts and advisers led him to believe.  Advice coming as a result of the “group-think” displayed in Tehran on the capabilities and possibilities of the US did not serve Khamenei well.  As a nation, the US is certainly not a push over.  It remains a nuclear armed superpower, regardless of any perceptions about its leadership.  It has become very apparent that for Iran, acquiring significant sanctions relief through the talks would be difficult, if not impossible to realize, without significant change regarding Iran’s nuclear program.  Additionally, the focus of the US and its Western partners in the Geneva process was not what Iran was doing away from its nuclear program regionally.  That has been put aside.  The focus of Geneva is specifically Iran’s nuclear program and potential for developing nuclear weapons.  The talks are aimed at preventing nuclear war.  For that reason, the talks to a great degree concern the very survival of Iran in the face of US military power.

Distress caused by coming to this understanding of the situation has increased Khamenei’s frustration over hearing economic causation theories on Iran’s decision to negotiation in the global media.  Clear and convincing evidence has been presented that Iran’s oil revenue has been reduced and its other trade has been disrupted.  Nevertheless, Khamenei still publicly rejects this perception of weakness.  He recently declared, “Our enemies do not know the great Iranian nation.  They think that their imposed sanctions forced Iran to enter negotiations.  No, it is a wrong.”

Iran has made an effort promote its own positions and arguments on the Geneva negotiations as part of the worldwide policy debate on its nuclear program and the Geneva talks.  This activity has been especially noticeable online, in the social media.  (See greatcharlie.com September 3, 2013 post entitled, “Iran’s President Tweets Condemnation of Syria Chemical Attacks: Is Twitter Part of Rouhani’s Approach to the West?”)  Indeed, just as many other nations, Iran has sought to adapt to emerging trends on the social media with the hope they can way global opinion and improve the nation’s public image as well.  However, perhaps its was not fully understood at the time the decision to engage in such activity was made that use of this type of eDiplomacy (via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, the blogishere, and other means) can create difficulties.  The real threat to national governments with an online presence or even in print, radio, and television media is the foreign and defense policy pundit.  Iran fell prey to endless numbers of pundits worldwide.

Iran’s Lost Cause Against the Pundits

The Oxford English Dictionary defines pundit as an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called on to give views about it to the public.  In the US, they are typically former government officials, political leaders and political operatives, think tank scholars, and academics allegedly with official access, particularly in Washington, DC.  Pundits respond to issues as they arise.  The serious foreign and defense policy observers among them will typically focusing on their areas of expertise.  Ideally, pundits will fill in information gaps to help an audience better understand an issue, policies, decisions, and actions taking place.  They may provide constructive criticism, “reality therapy,” and perhaps thinking that is outside of the box based on good judgment.  In this manner, pundits can make very valuable contributions to the foreign and defense policy debate.  (It is hoped visitors feel greatcharlie.com falls into that honorable category of punditry.)  However, there are also those pundits whose responses come in the form of trenchant criticisms of policies and decisions, pointing more to what is wrong than explaining how things could be improved.  Pundits are not journalists.  While they operate in the same sphere, they do so using different “standards.”  Some paraphrase and misquote to the extent that they occasionally create false impressions within the media of what was stated by an official.  This is made easier by use of sound bites and clips of official presentations.

Pundits respond to official statements on all issues that may arise.  Pundits, great and small, popular and unknown, are commenting on official statements and reports on such a rapid and immeasurable scale that even when corrections and misquotes are acknowledged such efforts to repair mistakes are obviated by new urgent and important issues.  Moreover, whenever official provide statements or attempts are made at leaking information through “trial balloons” and unofficial statements, in the end they are made in the pundits’ court: the media.  How those presentations eventually reach the public will be shaped by pundits responses, which some pundits often allege are gleaned from their own official sources.  The media is the pundits’ court, and within it, they cannot be defeated.  Whenever officials attempt to set the record straight by offering rebuttals or rebuffing such commentaries by pundits, their statements may drown among the thousands of commentaries on the blogisphere or may be met by an additional roundla of harsh remarks.  Interestingly, an effort by officials to engage a pundit in a debate in the media over a commentary, the pundit’s visibility and standing is elevated.

Grabbing the attention of an audience is most important in all media.  As a blog, greatcharlie.com, itself, is very interested in the number of visitors and views it receives on a given day, week, or month on its site.  While it would be better if blogs were sought out for their veracity and insights they present, attention is generally given to the ones that are more interesting or intriguing.  More often, those commentaries lack depth, and will more likely be unfriendly.  The more acceptable a negative view might be regarding a particular issue, the more likely this will be the case.  This has been one of Iran’s problems.  While Iran sought to promote its positions and arguments in the media, attempting to cope with popular pundits, who feel they should be hostile to its official statements, has proven to be a failed exercise.  Khamenei once expressed the hope that what he perceived to be an anti-Iran publicity campaign by the US would backfire and lead to its own global isolation.  However, that will unlikely be the case.  Among those people interested in foreign and defense policy worldwide, very few would ever take the position that Iran was equal or stronger than the US and its Western partners.  Far more people worldwide might accept more negative perspectives of Iran, due to security and economic concerns or ethno-religious and nationalist reasons.  The fact that the Geneva process is primarily referred to worldwide as the Geneva nuclear talks, which is how the US and its Western partners view the process, and not the Geneva talks on economic sanctions, as Khamenei and Iranian officials might view it, is an indicator of the perspective from which the global media has viewed the situation.

Assessment

As the supreme leader, it is understandable that worldwide perceptions of Iran would matter greatly to Khamenei.  Further, he was correct when he stated an enmity exists between Iran and the US.  Until the talks began, relations were uncongenial.  Yet, what is most important regarding the Geneva nuclear talks is what is said at the negotiation table and not what is stated in the media.  Boasts and declarations, the strong suit of the pundit, are of no value in the process.  Pragmatic thinking is required of all parties to the negotiation on this matter.

The quality of the agreement reached naturally should far outweigh concerns over what pundits far away from the negotiating table might argue.  An agreement, negotiated with the idea of equality among the parties at the table, that is respectful of the interests of all parties, that all feel is sustainable, and will preclude all from considering military solutions to the matters in discussion, will ensure peace.  This is the concept that should drive forward the Geneva process among all parties.

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