Joshua PollackThe Ayatollah Shuts the Door, Again

It’s been a busy week or so on the Iran front. Just getting caught up may take a little while. Let’s start with the diplomacy. Technology will be tackled in a follow-up post.

Starting in late June, there were some hints and suggestions from Tehran that they’d like to re-open negotiations with the West on the nuclear issue, but delivered in the least promising way possible. President Ahmadinejad announced that talks would be held, subject to a series of conditions. Also, as a “punishment” for the other side, talks would be delayed until September. It seems that any conciliatory initiative must be wrapped in aggressive language to be acceptable at home.

Nevertheless, in early July, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy representative, received a “quite long” letter from Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, who represented Iran last October at the talks in Geneva. It almost seemed as if new talks might be in the air. But in late July, more or less at the same time that Ahmadinejad gave an interview reaffirming his position of June, Jalili sent new letters to Ashton and to the IAEA taking a tougher line. Jalili denounced Ashton’s pursuit of talks in the wake of new sanctions as “astonishing” and “unacceptable,” and the Security Council’s sanctions policy as “irrational” and “illegal.”

Just Say No

Whatever was happening behind the scenes in Tehran, the debate has now been settled in the same way that it it was, more or less, last year — with a speech by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying, “No.” The highlight:

We have rejected negotiations with the US for clear reasons. This is because engaging in negotiations under threats and pressure is not in fact considered as negotiation. And it is due to the same reason that the honorable officials of the country have stated that the Islamic Republic is ready to engage in negotiations but not with a US that is seeking to conduct negotiations under threats, sanctions and bullying.

It’s often argued in the U.S. that Iranian flirtations with negotiations are a way of playing for time. That presumes that Iran has a strategy.

There’s probably no real way of knowing, but it would be interesting to learn what precipitated this decision. Perhaps it was something said by an American official? Probably not. But let’s consider the possibilities, anyway.

Admiral Mullen, in the TV Studio, with a Soundbite

Explaining the part about being under threat, Iran’s acting UN ambassador circulated letters pointing to recent remarks by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ADM Mike Mullen. Here’s what Mullen had to say a few weeks ago on Meet the Press:

MR. GREGORY:  The president has said he is determined to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.  He doesn’t just say it’s unacceptable, he says he’s determined to stop it.  Is force against Iran by the United States on the table in a way that it has not been even in our recent history, past six months, a year?

ADM. MULLEN:  No, I, I think the military actions have been on the table and remain on the table, and certainly in that regard it’s, it’s one of the options that the president has.  Again, I hope we don’t get to that.  But it’s an important option, and it’s one that’s well understood.

MR. GREGORY:  There was a concern among Israelis, among Americans, that there weren’t very many good options when it came to attacking Iran, should it come to that.  Is that still the case?

ADM. MULLEN:  I think that’s the case.

MR. GREGORY:  There aren’t very many good options.

ADM. MULLEN:  No, no.  I mean, there aren’t–it depends on what you mean by that.  None of them are good in a sense that it’s certainly an outcome that I don’t seek, or that, that we wouldn’t seek.  At the same time, and for what I talked about before, is, is not just the consequences of the action itself, but the things that could result after the fact.

MR. GREGORY:  But the military has a plan, should it come to that?

ADM. MULLEN:  We do.

Mullen has never been a fire-breather on Iran, and these remarks were entirely in character.

White House Rashomon

It’s also possible that the Ayatollah was responding to someone more senior than Mullen. Back in early August, President Obama appeared at a briefing given to a handful of journalists to discuss American policy on Iran. He was followed by a group of senior administration officials who spoke on background. The only problem is, everyone in the room came away with a different impression of exactly what was being said. So if Khamenei truly understood the message, he’s more discerning than this reader.

The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder thought the intended point was to declare that the sanctions policy was starting to bite, and that the Iranians might be reconsidering their position, although it’s possible they might never do so.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post believed Obama was appealing for a return to negotiations.

Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic thought the President and his national security team were taking a “victory lap,” highlighting the achievement represented by getting tougher sanctions through the Security Council.

As related by ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, the message was carefully balanced between willingness to pursue further sanctions and willingness to negotiate, although the details weren’t spelled out in either case.

On the basis of the talk, Time‘s Joe Klein predicted a return to negotiations in September. He also described background briefings on Iran’s difficulties in the face of tougher financial sanctions and its continuing struggles with its centrifuges at Natanz.

David Sanger of the New York Times paired the briefing with an earlier conversation with Secretary of State Clinton, and concluded that the two statements “indicated a move to re-emphasize opening diplomatic channels.”

Robert Kagan of the Washington Post saw the session as emphasizing the success of the sanctions while betraying “no illusions” about the potential for negotiations. He chided others present for misconstruing Obama’s intent.

Chiming in again, Jeffrey Goldberg related a follow-up conversation in which he asked a senior administration official if the president had been unveiling a new diplomatic initiative. The response? “That’s not why you were there.”

On the basis of this news coverage and commentary, I cannot divine the message. So here’s a modest proposal. Why not release a transcript?


  1. blowback (History)

    “Also, as a “punishment” for the other side, talks would be delayed until September.”

    This is more likely to be because of Ramadan rather than any “punishment”. Would Washington start negotiations in mid-December?

    • joshua (History)

      The word is Ahmadinejad’s own. I believe his point was to start talks after Ramadan rather than before Ramadan, to emphasize that Iran wasn’t desperate for talks. Remember, this speech was made in late June; he could have called for talks in July.

  2. Scott Monje (History)

    It’s possible the Iranian turnaround is the result of an internal debate rather than a reaction to anything specific that we said. The Mullen reference was the result of someone having to come up with an excuse that blamed the other side. In an entirely unrelated matter, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority some years back toyed with the idea of buying Japanese subway cars. In those days, however, some people were afraid the Japanese were taking over the world, or at least buying it up, and it was determined that it would be politically inconvenient to go through with the purchase. Someone was told to come up with an excuse to cancel the deal, and it was promptly announced that a survey had revealed that Japanese subway seats were too small for American butts. This could just be case of negotiations being too small for Iranian butts.

  3. oogede (History)

    “He could have called for talks in July.”..then all the western commentariat declare that the sanctions worked and pushed the Iranians to negotiate, and if the iranians don’t behave we can just apply new sanctions.

    Joshua writes that, “It seems that any conciliatory initiative must be wrapped in aggressive language to be acceptable at home.”
    …this applies just as much in the US, and shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. It’s strikingly hypocritical in this context that when Mullen threatens Iran that this is written off as business as usual and nothing that the Iranians should take grievious offense to.

    It amazes me, as a person from the global south, that US threats against an entire country’s way of life have come to be seen as normal in the international system and Western commentators wonder only why the threatened country doesn’t buckle to the will of the almighty Western Powers and operate accordingly.

    • joshua (History)

      But Mullen didn’t threaten Iran. That’s the point. Read his words: I put them there for a reason.

      Scott’s observation, above, strikes me as sound: Iranian politics are largely inward-looking, and the words of American politicians and military professionals don’t signify much by themselves. However, actions speak louder than words. The imposition of sanctions by the Security Council and then by the European Union appear to have caught the Iranian government by surprise, and probably did influence its internal debates.

      I didn’t highlight it in the post, but probably should have mentioned that EU sanctions were announced in late July. See: Jalili’s second, tougher letter to Ashton appears to have come on the heels of that step.

      But whether any of this has anything to do with Khamenei’s speech in mid-August, I don’t know.

  4. Matt (History)

    ne·go·ti·a·tion   /nɪˌgoʊʃiˈeɪʃən, -si-/ [ni-goh-shee-ey-shuhn, -see-] –noun
    1. mutual discussion and arrangement of the terms of a transaction or agreement

    Could it be that Iran, faced with “new sanctions”: and “new threats of being bombed within a week,”: does not believe the US is interested in having a positive atmosphere for ‘mutual discussion and arrangement of the terms of a transaction or agreement’?

    Could it be that Iran wants to sit down and have a discussion about something mutually acceptable and doesn’t want to be told what the terms of the agreement are as it could have perceived last year with the nuclear fuel swap?

    One wonders what it would look like to analyze U.S. foreign policy from transcripts to an outsider. We want to negotiate, we want you to agree to what we already came up with and called the deal. We want a new beginning, we want to impose ‘crushing’ sanctions, we want to impose the most serious sanctions yet. We want to bomb you in a week because of an international nuclear plant, we talked Israel out of it for at least a year.

    In fact, the Iranians were able to sit down and start negotiating something with the U.S., but then the U.S. adopted a take it or leave it attitude. As well, Iran then sat down and negotiated something with Turkey and Brazil, and it was largely ignored even as a starting point. It seems to be more a question of how much the U.S. is actually willing to negotiate.

    • joshua (History)

      Let me put it this way: nobody finds out what the other side is willing to do until they sit down and talk with them. Which the Iranians haven’t been willing to do since the Vienna talks of last year. It appears that they are too divided to proceed.

      It’s possible to come up with a million excuses for avoiding talks, including what the other side is doing in response to one’s own failure to come to the table. As for John Bolton, at the moment, he’s not in charge of anything but John Bolton’s mouth. The Iranians were smart enough not to cite him as the source of their concern.

  5. Matt (History)

    So was the U.S. willing to consider the Brazil-Turkey-Iran negotiations or sit down and have a discussion about before it passed sanctions? Alastair Crooke ( recalls that “it is important to recall the curt response of U.S. Secretary Hillary Clinton to the initiative to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff and the far-reaching repercussions it is likely to have in the region. Indeed, just one week before the Turkish-Brazilian initiative, U.S. officials reiterated that the fuel-swap proposal for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) — a confidence-building initiative that was designed to open the way to Iranian negotiations with the West on a range of issues — was still on the table and that its terms could not be altered.”

    Meanwhile, the U.S. may indeed be sending differing messages by saying we want a new beginning and want a mutually acceptable agreement but also want crushing sanctions and veiled threats.

    • joshua (History)

      A fair question. I believe that the Tehran Declaration was perceived in Washington as something less than serious, a last-ditch attempt to avert sanctions from passing. Thus Secretary Clinton’s statement that agreement on a new UNSC resolution was a fitting response. Whether that was the ideal response, readers may judge for themselves. It probably did contribute to a Congressional decision not to proceed with sanctions unilaterally.

      The fact remains that American officials routinely reaffirm that “the door is open” to further talks, but the Iranians cannot bring themselves to come back to Geneva (or wherever). President Ahmadinejad has emerged as the figure in Tehran most vocal about Iran’s willingness to engage in nuclear diplomacy, but he can’t make that decision unilaterally. It is striking that those who seek to rationalize the Supreme Leader’s reluctance to go down that path are taking a harder line than Ahmadinejad.

      At various points, the U.S. and its partners might have been able to do more to get Iran to the table. At this moment, though, I don’t see it. The Ayatollah has spoken.

  6. Mark Gubrud (History)

    You seem to be ignoring what to me stands out as the single most significant development of the past week, the one that should put an end to the whole Popguns of August war scare campaign. Namely, the publication by the New York Times of a pseudo-leak from the administration framed as follows:

    “WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, citing evidence of continued troubles inside Iran’s nuclear program, has persuaded Israel that it would take roughly a year — and perhaps longer — for Iran to complete what one senior official called a “dash” for a nuclear weapon, according to American officials.”

    “Has persuaded?” What is that supposed to mean? Doesn’t Israel have the ability to make its own assessment?

    Seems to me this can only be read as a direct warning by the administration: 1. Don’t even think about it. 2. Call of your dogs of war.

    After all, if this is the US position – and I’m unaware of any denials of it – it implies preemptive rejection of any post-attack claims that an attack was urgent and necessary. Thus it implies that the US would not necessarily rally in support of Israel on the Day After.

    Whether that is credible or not, it is a strong message from the administration, even stronger because it was delivered publicly. Hats off to them.

    • joshua (History)

      I promise you, I’ll get to this and a few other items before too long. But just briefly, no, I don’t think this is a message to Israel — for that, there’s the telephone. This strikes me as a statement to American policy elites.

    • kme (History)

      I think Mark’s got a point – there’s a difference between a public statement and a quiet word on the telephone. The former represents a more binding commitment than the latter – in the case of a non-public statement, the Israelis may feel that they can call the US’s bluff when push came to shove.

    • Alan (History)

      I tend to agree with Josh, that it looks to be directed at the rising crescendo in the US for a strike on Iran. I do not think Israel would take this on, their strategy is simply to get the US to do it for them. That said, Obama directing it at a domestic target in many ways amounts to the same thing as directing it at Israel.

      It seems to me Obama’s task now is to create a situation where an Israeli attack is in open opposition to US policy. For that, he needs to get into a negotiating room with the Iranians.

  7. hass (History)

    Josh you’re confusing two things — nuclear talks and bilateral US-Iran talks. On the latter, when Obama sent his letter to Khamenei, the response was that Iran would judge US actions rather than words. And the actions by the US have thus far spoken far louder than words, and they say that the US is really not interested in resolving disputes with Iran. The US position on the uranium swap offer, where they literally pulled the rug out from under Turkey and Brazil, is case in point. Furthermore, you’re taking US claims of wanting to talk at face value. They make it clear that any talks will be about how Iran is supposed to cave in to US demands. that’s not a genuine basis for a talks.

  8. Jonny Lemon (History)

    Why does Iran by virtue of it’s big undiplomatic mouth have more influence in the world than it’s limited economic and military power gives it credit for? Can anyone answer this?

    • FSB (History)

      It has to with the irrational fear of Iran, primarily stoked by pro-Likud/hyper-right wing elements within the USG and related think tanks and media. They have found common cause. How could we justify missile defense if it wasn’t for the Iranian non-nukes, on Iranian non-ICBMs?

    • joshua (History)

      Or, because Iran has a rather well-developed nuclear program, possibly. That resonates across the region and beyond.

      I think this is an interesting line of inquiry in the abstract, but in practice, it is dragging down the level of discourse toward the internet mean. We can do better. From here on out, I’m going to be a little more attentive to keeping us on topic.

  9. Alan (History)

    Josh – more “info to digest”: on Iranian regime dynamics in the FT this morning, suggesting a split between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei.

    I’m unsure Khamenei genuinely does have the final say on things. The IR doesn’t appear to speak with one voice; the numerous checks and balances rendering the entire system of government dysfunctional.

    Also, it seems at least possible the real fear over the future of the Iranian nuclear program in the US military is what comes after Khamenei, which sort of suggests they are on the same side. A bit convoluted, I know.

  10. Matt (History)

    Iran today restated its willingness to conduct nuclear negotiations with the United States and other leading nations, but said it is up to them to determine the time and place for the talks, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported.

    “We are ready for both talks and as soon as we receive the final details from the other side [the International Atomic Energy Agency and the permanent U.N. Security Council member states and Germany] such as the date and venue, we will start,” said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast.

  11. Matt (History)

    I think the real question is why is the U.S. even interested in pursuing ‘negotiations’?

    A negotation for negotiation’s sake, where you simply restate your demand and put something on the table where “its terms could not be altered” as Alistair Crooke describes it, is highly unlikely to ever yield anything. Does anyone believe Iran is going to choose to give up its enrichment program after the investment it has made and the public national consensus which exists around it?

    Negotations as a justification for sanctions or military sake seems to hae their own drawbacks. The rationale for this approach, as described by Obama Iran advisor Dennis Ross,(,8599,2007246,00.html?xid=rss-mostpopular) is that “tougher policies — either militarily or meaningful containment — will be easier to sell internationally and domestically if we have diplomatically tried to resolve our differences with Iran in a serious and credible fashion.” Iran has been sanctioned by the UN Security Council four times and has other sanctions tightened multiple times, but sanctions haven’t done much to alter Iran’s course. Kimberly Ann Elliott, Peterson Institute for International Economics, writes that sanctions are only effective 13% of the time and usually work when the goals are modest, the target country is small and unstable, and the involved parties were or are friendly. Admiral Mike Mullen has also questioned the wisdom of an attack on Iran and the unintended consequences which would ensue.

  12. joshua (History)

    Here’s FM Motakki’s squaring of the circle, from a rather lively interview with Der Spiegel (see,1518,714513-3,00.html):


    SPIEGEL: It still isn’t quite clear what Tehran wants. The president recently announced that he intends to resume negotiations on Sept. 8, after the end of Ramadan. Shortly afterwards, revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruled out talks with the United States. What next?

    Mottaki: You have to keep these things carefully separated. We want to talk to the so-called Vienna Group about the exchange of fuel: We deliver low enriched uranium in return for 20 percent enriched fuel for our research reactor in Tehran. The negotiating partners are France, Russia, the United States, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. There are also proposals to include Turkey and Brazil in these talks.

    SPIEGEL: Still, are you unwilling to show any accommodation in the real conflict over uranium enrichment?

    Mottaki: We want to talk, but first the structure of the group, which consists of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, must be changed. Other countries must be added to the group. The talks can then be resumed with this new structure.

    SPIEGEL: And your president also wants direct talks with the president of the United States independently of that?

    Mottaki: Mr. Ahmadinejad has announced his willingness to engage in a public debate with Mr. Obama. This is quite different from official talks between the United States and Iran, which the revolutionary leader has spoken out against.

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