In its October 19, 2017 Iran News Round-Up, American Enterprise Institute (AEI) analysts reported, “Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati and Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Secretary Ali Shamkhani have both stressed that Iran will not negotiate on Iran’s ballistic missile program or other regional activities.”
The day before, U.S. government-sponsored media outlet Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (RFERL) quoted senior foreign policy adviser to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Akbar Velayati, in comments he provided to Iranian media on October 17: “To say that they accept the JCPOA [nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] but should negotiate on Iran’s regional presence or talk about Iran’s missile defenses is to set conditions on the JCPOA, and this is not at all acceptable.”
It is unclear whether Velayati meant that Iran will not accept the ex post facto attachment of ballistic missiles and regional issues to the nuclear agreement as conditions for the US to uphold the latter or whether he is asserting that Iran will not negotiate on ballistic missiles and regional issues, period, as AEI’s analysts concluded. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s rebuff of President Donald Trump’s reported interest in meeting him must also be considered within the context of the latter’s remarks against the Iranian government the day before on September 19. Lacking any sense of diplomatic tact or nuance, Trump’s comments were particularly unlikely to be accepted in stride by Iranian leaders.
It is Khamenei’s policies on regional issues and his interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence, rather than Iran’s Islamic identity per se that make continued U.S. acceptance of the current Iranian government challenging.
Concerning the ballistic missile issue, Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a professor of English Literature and Orientalism at the University of Tehran who has close ties to the Rouhani administration, commented in an email communication, “Iran has stated that it will not discuss the missile program at all.” On regional issues he clarified, “After the signing of the JCPOA Ayatollah Khamenei said that if the US abides by its commitments in the JCPOA the two sides could start discussing regional issues.”
He directed me to a speech Khamenei gave on April 9, 2015, in which he stated, “We do not negotiate with the Americans on regional issues, different domestic issues and international issues. Today, the only matter for negotiation is the nuclear matter. This will become an experience for us. If the other side stops its usual obstinacy, this will be an experience for us and we will find out that we can negotiate with it over other matters as well.”
Khamenei appears to have since contradicted himself, however. He stated in a November 2, 2017 speech, “people think that we should compromise with the U.S. That is while the more compromise we make, the bolder they become. The way to proceed is to confront, to challenge and to resist.” Khamenei seems to believe that the ultimate U.S. goal toward Iran is regime change and that it will not be satisfied with moderation of Iranian policies. His paranoia, not entirely without basis in reality, is reinforced and perpetuated to a great degree by self-fulfilling behavior.
It is Khamenei’s policies on regional issues and his interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence, rather than Iran’s Islamic identity per se that make continued U.S. acceptance of the current Iranian government challenging. In a speech on June 26, 2017, for example, Khamenei stated, “According to Islamic fiqh—whether Sunni or Shia fiqh, or fiqh in other Islamic denominations—there’s no doubt that when an enemy dominates Muslim lands, it’s a legal obligation upon everyone to engage in jihad against them—whichever form of jihad possible. Today, fighting against the Zionist regime is obligatory and necessary for the entire world of Islam.” For the Supreme Leader of Iran, “Muslim lands” include not only Israeli settlements expanding beyond 1967 lines but all Israeli territory.
This aggressive policy—the religious justification for which is debatable—also seems to have a partly defensive motivation. Khamenei contended in a speech on September 21, 2017, for example, that, “America had a certain plan for West Asia, which they refer to as the “Middle East.” They had this plan since 15, 16 years ago—and perhaps since before that…. The main axis and heart of this plan was comprised of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq…. How was it supposed to be implemented? Some governments were supposed to come to power in those three countries [that] would completely obey and serve the US…. What would the result be? The result would be that the whole region would turn into a doormat for the Zionist regime and they would somehow achieve “From the Nile to the Euphrates” that they had in mind.”
“From the Nile to the Euphrates” refers in part to Iranian officials’ longstanding fears that Israel intends to resurrect its own ancient kingdom–whose borders extended not only into the West Bank but also into parts of modern-day Lebanon, Syria, and much of Jordan–as well as establish hegemony over the broader region.
Though Israel does not likely have territorial designs over these countries beyond maintaining control over strategic terrain for defensive purposes, the current Israeli government does intend to annex the West Bank and has disdained a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Moreover, the U.S. has become openly indulgent of these policies—not only within the Trump administration but within both parties of Congress as well. On June 5, 2017, the Senate passed a resolution stating, “Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel,” with a vote of 90-0. Two months before, 29 Republican and 14 Democratic Senators introduced legislation that would impose criminal penalties on Americans who support attempts to exert economic pressure on Israel for its colonization of the West Bank—an outrageous affront to democracy and unconstitutional assault on Americans’ First Amendment rights.
Considering these developments, Khamenei has reason to be wary of U.S. and Israeli intentions in the Middle East. The religious nationalist ideologies that now dominate Iranian, Israeli, and U.S. foreign policy also overshadow the more rational and pragmatic impulses in the three countries.
Still, it would be dangerous to conclude that there is fundamentally no space for compromise. The Iran nuclear agreement was one such compromise. It still holds, though tenuously. The Trump administration is using “regional issues” as one strategy to undermine the agreement. Although Iran won’t agree to folding such issues into a renegotiation of the JCPOA, at some point Iran, Israel, and the United States must address their conflicting interests in the region, ideally before the current regional proxy conflict in Syria expands into a Third World War.
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