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Ayatollah Khamenei gives Iran nuclear talks unprecedented legitimacy

For Mr. Khamenei, an open involvement in current nuclear talks conveys a message that Iran’s negotiators have his explicit approval.

With a second round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the “P5+1” powers just weeks away, analysts inside the Islamic Republic say Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has lent upcoming nuclear negotiations unprecedented legitimacy.

For Mr. Khamenei, who traditionally maintains a quiet, albeit fundamental, role behind the scenes of Iran’s foreign policies, an open involvement in current nuclear talks conveys a message that Iran’s negotiators have his explicit approval.

This means their final commitments won’t be protested by lawmakers back in Tehran, as they were after the country’s 2009 nuclear negotiations. But it also means Iran’s supreme leader, long known to harbor a deep distrust of US intentions, will expect the country’s negotiators to take a hard-line on final nuclear agreements, according to domestic analysts.

“The Leader’s [open] involvement in the whole process is a major shift because until now, he had never done it,” says a Tehran-based analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak with the media. “This means Iran’s negotiators will have a lot more leeway in the compromises they make, and that whatever they commit to will stick.

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“So Iran will negotiate,” the analyst adds. “But he’s taking the lead in foreign policy because he thinks [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad was too compromising in the past.”

On Wednesday, a chief adviser to Iran’s supreme leader told local media that Tehran’s “minimum expectation” for the May 23 talks in Baghdad is the lifting of sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel‘s blunt comments mark the first time a senior political figure has specifically stated Iran’s expectations since nuclear talks were rekindled in April.

In October 2009, Iran’s nuclear negotiators reached an agreement with the “P5+1” to ship its low-enriched uranium out of the country in exchange for higher-refined fuel ready for use in a medical research reactor. But discussions ground to a halt after Iran asked for changes in the initial agreement. Since then, Washington has used harsh economic sanctions against Iran’s financial system as a key component in its strategy to force Tehran to the bargaining table – a strategy for which it has amassed broad international support.

To date, the measures have reduced Tehran’s oil sales and hindered Iranian banks from accessing most oil revenues held in accounts overseas. In January, the European Union formally agreed to an oil embargo starting July 1.

 The Iranian economy – already struggling with recession due to the global financial crisis and the free-spending economic policies of Mr. Ahmadinejad‘s government – has thus suffered an especially harsh blow from the implementation of US and European financial sanctions against it.  

A tough compromise?

If the survival of the Islamic Republic is at stake, then Mr. Khamenei – who has final say in all matters of state – is widely expected to endorse compromise. But the public’s knowledge of the supreme leader’s involvement in the talks means Iran’s negotiators will have to take a tough stance on what those compromises ultimately are.

Inside many government circles, the coming talks are viewed as a moment of truth for the country’s Islamic regime. They’re being compared to a domestically controversial decision in 1988 by Khamenei’s predecessor – the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – to drink the so-called “poison” of accepting a UN Security Council resolution ending Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq.

“When Ayatollah Khomeini decided to end the [Iran-Iraq] war, he drank the ‘poison,’” says a senior government official, speaking from Tehran on condition of anonymity. “For the sake of the system, the regime will maybe decide again to drink the ‘poison,'” the official says. 

At the same time, analysts counter that Iran’s ruling elite remains highly wary that the US and Europe will aim to achieve fundamental changes beyond the nuclear dossier. If demands from the “P5+1” powers – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – go beyond the nuclear issue to encompass policies considered intrinsic to Tehran’s regional security interests, Khamenei will not support them, in the view of the Tehran-based analyst. 

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“Khamenei believes the issue at hand isn’t, fundamentally, the nuclear dossier,” says the analyst. “He thinks that even if Iran agreed to the nuclear dossier, the West would then start pressuring Iran on its support for Syria,” says the Tehran-based analyst.

Tehran’s support for the Lebanon-based Shiite militant group Hezbollah could be another target.

Iran, US both optimistic about May 23 talks

While Iran has insisted it will never give up its nuclear program – which it says is for peaceful purposes – Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, told reporters Sunday the Islamic Republic hopes to move “several steps forward” at the May 23 nuclear talks between Tehran and the P5+1 in Baghdad.

“In Istanbul, we reached the beginning of the end regarding the nuclear subject,” Mr. Jalili said, according to a report by Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency. “If we took one step forward in Istanbul, then surely … we will move several steps forward in Baghdad.”

In Washington, analysts remain cautiously optimistic about the extent of any nuclear compromises Iranian negotiators will finally agree to make. They say Iran’s governing regime will remain ideologically opposed to the United States, and will want compromises the “P5+1” may not want to give.

“There are indications Iran could be preparing its elite and the population for some sort of deal. But the Iranian side will also be looking for some of the sanctions to be rolled back, and that could be more difficult,” says Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation in Virginia.

“There are a lot of steps to be taken, and the process could really face hurdles along each of those steps. Looking at the Baghdad negotiations, I don’t think you should expect a ‘final solution,’” Mr. Nader says.