The ayatollah’s advice to Hasan Rouhani comes at a time when a significant number of U.S. lawmakers are urging President Obama to cautiously explore possible openings with Iran’s next president.
A letter signed by more than 130 members of the U.S. House from both parties acknowledged the presidency’s limitations in the Iranian political system, previous disappointments as well as mixed signals on the nuclear issue from Rouhani himself.
But it argued that it would still be a mistake not to test whether his election “represents a real opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement on Iran's nuclear program that ensures the country does not acquire a nuclear weapon.”
Many hope that Rouhani’s election last month may lead to an improvement in relations with the West after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s often-turbulent two terms in office, but Tehran’s foreign and nuclear policy is controlled by the supreme leader. Khamenei, now 74, has held the post through three eight-year presidencies and is expected to remain at the helm until his death.
Addressing a Ramadan end-of-fasting iftar with senior officials including Rouhani and Ahmadinejad, Khamenei told them that “the Americans are untrustworthy, they are illogical, and they are not frank in their interactions.”
“Stands adopted by U.S. officials during the recent few months, too, once again confirmed the necessity of being pessimist about them,” the official IRNA news agency quoted him as telling his audience.
Khamenei repeated an earlier comment that he has not prohibited talks with the U.S. on certain topics, such as the situation in Iraq in past years. But IRNA reported that he also cautioned that, in its interaction with the outside world Iran “should not forget the conduct of our enemies.”
And, in apparent reference to the ongoing international dispute over Iran’s nuclear activities, Khamenei advised that “the art in interaction with the world is to continue your path without the other party being able to stop you. If interaction with the world causes retreat from the path, it is a loss.”
“We’ve always believed and continue to believe in interaction with the world but the important point is to understand the other party and determine its goals and tactics, because we will be tripped up if we don’t understand them correctly,” he told the iftar gathering.
Iran insists that its nuclear activity – which it carried out in secret for almost two decades before dissidents exposed it in 2002 – is for peaceful energy and research purposes only.
The U.S. and other governments suspect it is developing a nuclear weapons capability under the cover of the civilian program, however, and Iran is targeted with an array of international sanctions. Numerous rounds of multilateral talks over several years have brought no breakthrough in the impasse.
The letter to Obama on engaging Tehran, co-authored by Reps. David Price (D-N.C.) and Charles Dent (R-Pa.), was couched in guarded language, and stressed that the signatories were strongly opposed to a nuclear-armed Iran.
But it also noted that Rouhani had promised “constructive interaction with the outside world” and urged the administration to test this by using “all diplomatic tools to reinvigorate ongoing nuclear talks.”
The letter did not call directly for sanctions to be lifted or eased, but did say the U.S. should be careful not to carry out “actions that delegitimize the newly elected president and weaken his standing relative to hardliners within the regime.”
It also said sanctions, both multilateral ones and those imposed directly by the U.S., “must be calibrated in such a way that they induce significant and verifiable concessions from Iran at the negotiating table in exchange for their potential relaxation.”
Most of the 131 signatories are Democrats, but they were joined by a number of Republicans: Reps. John Campbell (Calif.), Howard Coble (N.C.), Tom Cole (Okla.), Charles Dent (Pa.), Sean Duffy (Wisc.), John Duncan (Tenn.), Mike Fitzpatrick (Pa.), Michael Grimm (N.Y.), Richard Hanna (N.Y.), Walter Jones (N.C.), Richard Nugent (Fla.), Thomas Petri (Wisc.), Jon Runyan (N.J.), Glenn Thompson (Pa.), Patrick Tiberi (Ohio) and Ed Whitfield (Ky.)
‘Message of congratulation’
In another Iran-related initiative, former diplomats Thomas Pickering and William Luers, joined by Jim Walsh of the MIT Security Studies Program, called for a “new approach to Iran,” saying in an article that Rouhani’s election and changes in the Middle East offer the opportunity to shift attitudes and behavior both in Iran and the U.S. after “more than three decades of mutual mistrust.”
“Pressure has helped get Iran to negotiate; but diplomatic negotiation cannot succeed unless each side gets some of what it needs and unless each side comes to believe that the other wants an agreement and is willing to comply with it,” they said.
Pickering, Luers and Walsh said they were not calling for a preemptive suspension of sanctions, but argued that “the piling on of more coercive sanctions and ultimatums, particularly when there are new hopes for the diplomatic process to get underway, will undermine or even preclude the possibility of negotiating a nuclear deal.”
To lay the groundwork, they advised steps including a private message of congratulation from Obama to Rouhani; and the expression of a willingness for Obama to meet with Rouhani, perhaps as soon as during the U.N. General Assembly session opening in New York in September.