Western diplomacy in recent years has focused on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as the key to resolving the crisis. But this approach is a blind alley, because he is not the one who decides.
All parties need to find a formula to resolve the issue before it again threatens to erupt into conflict. Western diplomacy in recent years has focused on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as the key to resolving the crisis. But this approach is a blind alley.
Let us recall the fate of Ahmedinejad's two immediate predecessors. Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) tried to implement dramatic political reform, while Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97) tried to open the Iranian economy to the West. Both failed, because Iran's presidents do not run the country. A solution to the nuclear dilemma - or any other problem in Iran's foreign relations - is in the hands of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameneh’i.
Among his responsibilities, Khameneh’i serves as commander-in-chief of the military, controls the intelligence services and appoints directors of the national media. His appointees effectively control most ministries and Iran's major cities.
In diplomacy, Khameneh’i tends to operate in a clever but recognisable fashion. He sends different diplomats into negotiations with contradictory instructions. Each claims to be acting with the supreme leader's full authority, but ultimately are unable to make commitments because they have little idea of what Khamenei wants to do. After a time, they are removed and a new set of representatives is dispatched.
In order to dominate decision-making, Khameneh’i prefers weak presidents. Ahmedinejad is no different. His political base has faded, owing to Iran's deepening economic crisis, which has been intensified by the conflict with the West over the nuclear issue. His support in the parliamentary election next March seems particularly weak, which will no doubt please Western observers. But the election results will not matter: parliament, too, has little influence over Iran's foreign policy.
Some Western diplomats recognise the supreme leader's role. In practice, however, Western diplomacy tends to ignore Khameneh’i, who sabotages any effort to get around him as the final arbiter of Iranian policy. This might partly explain why Khameneh’i has been mistrustful of negotiations with the West. Westerners don't seem to understand who is in charge. Indeed, some analysts argue that former President Bill Clinton's efforts to achieve a breakthrough with Iran failed because they were addressed to Iran's presidents.
The "President" in the political system of the Islamic Republic of Iran has less power than a prime minister in France.
The West should learn from the example of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who did not travel to Iran until he was allowed a direct meeting with Khameneh’i, during which Putin is reported to have made a proposal to end the nuclear stand-off. There has been no answer yet, though there does seem to be some recent movement between Russia and Iran on the provision of nuclear fuel for Iran's controversial reactors.
To be sure, Khameneh’i is reluctant to meet non-Muslim foreign leaders. But that shouldn't stop the West from reaching out to him directly or pressing him to publicly appoint the representatives who negotiate with the West.
One American politician who understands how to work with the Iranian power structure is former Congressman Lee Hamilton, now head of the Woodrow Wilson Centre. When Wilson Centre researcher Haleh Esfandiari was arrested in Iran, Hamilton wrote to Khameneh’i, pleading for her release on humanitarian grounds. Khameneh’i responded - reportedly the first time he answered an American - and Esfandiari was released in a matter of days.
Khameneh’i would be hard-pressed to ignore a direct invitation from the US to negotiate on Iran's most vital concerns. His clear priority is the Islamic republic's survival, not the fate of particular Iranian politicians. While Ahmedinejad's apocalyptic vision makes it difficult for Westerners to deal with him, Khamenei does not want to stumble into a military confrontation with the West, which would destabilise Iran and possibly lead to the regime's downfall.
To resolve outstanding issues with Iran, the West should be dealing with the only person powerful enough to make deals and deliver concessions. That person is Khameneh’i, not Ahmedinejad. ENDS KHALAJI ON KAMENEH’I 4308
Editor’s note: Mr. Mehdi Khalaji, a political analyst and former journalist, is a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy. He studied for 14 years in seminaries in Qom, Iran.This article was syndicated by Project Syndicate and posted by the Paris-based Iranian site Iran va Jahan (Iran And the World).Highlights are by IPS