Monday, January 03, 2005

Negotiation with the US, A review

Monday December 11, 2000: "Monday December 11, 2000

The Best Hunters Will Be the Best Game-Keepers!

By Dariush Sajjadi
(, )
For two decades the Islamic Republic of Iran has deemed any negotiation with the US as a taboo. Recently, however, this taboo seems to have been broken by renowned conservative Mohammad Javad Larijani when he called on Iran-US statesmen to hold talks, on condition, of course, that the dialogs warrant Iran’s national interests.

This development is reminiscent of a statement by the first Shi’ite Imam Ali ibn Abi Taleb, whose moral advice is tantamount to religious decrees for Iranian Shi’ites who revere him. Addressing his disciples, Ali ibn Abi Taleb urged them not to utter all their curses against their worst enemies and not to impart all their secrets to their bosom friends.

This advice hinges on the possibility of tables turning in any relationship, such that if one is to reconcile with one’s worst enemy, one would not feel terribly embarrassed at having vilified the enemy during the period of animosity. And likewise if one’s cordial relations with a bosom friend turn sour, one would not stand to lose from the friend-turned-enemy if he does not know all of one’s secrets.

Iran and the US have, however, traded barb for two decades, and in case Iran hearkens to Larijani’s call for dialogs with the US, the two sides seem to have exhausted abusive diction. What then? Larijani furnished the answer to this question some 12 years ago when he presented his paper "10 Commandments" at the Logic Conference at Shahid Beheshti University. He said that language is a means not an end.

Except for Iran’s left wing whose unwavering combat with the US reached a zenith with the 1979 takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran, other Iranian wings have so far intermittently given different signals indicating their penchant for improving ties with the US.

A decade back, Ataullah Mohajerani, then legal-parliamentary vice-president to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, published an article in the Tehran-based moderate Ettela’at daily, mooting views similar to those recently set forth by Larijani.

But Iranian Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei immediately reacted to the article and while denouncing Mohajerani urged him and other statesmen not to approach this subject.

A few years later, Saeed Rajaee Khorasani, Iran’s former ambassador to the UN and right-wing member of the 4th parliament, sent a detailed letter to Ayatollah Khamenei specifying the need for negotiation with the US.

Even Larijani had time and again outlined the need for dialog with the US, on condition that Iran’s national interests are secured. The conservative Larijani is, personality-wise, a bold, outspoken, and somewhat unconventional politician. His unconventionality has even prompted his allied right wingers to be cautious when dealing with him.

Larijani is as slippery as a fish. Despite being a highly competent and qualified politician, he has not been able to occupy the position that he really deserves over the past two decades.

Notwithstanding his very high self-esteem, Larijani has always been compared to his fellow right winger, Dr. Ali Akbar Velayati, former Iranian foreign minister, a comparison that has all along shown Larijani eclipsing Velayati in more ways than one.

Larijani and Velayati are very different, and a good proof of this is Larijani’s recent stance where he speculated an improvement in Tehran-Washington ties if George W. Bush becomes US President, because Bush’s team is interested in tapping Iran’s oil resources and to reach this end needs to be on cordial terms with Tehran.

A month back Velayati was asked "which US presidential candidate’s election victory would benefit Iran?" and his reply showed just how different he is from Larijani. He said, "…It makes no difference for us. Both democrats and republicans have shown that they stand on the same platform in their hostile policies toward Iran."

Contrary to Larijani, Velayati is not avid to take any risks or to be bold. He mainly strives to recap the Leader’s stances. In most of his interviews on Iran’s foreign policy, Velayati quotes the Leader and is thus known for his catch phrase "As the Eminent Leader said…"

Larijani, who was once deputy to foreign minister Velayati, eclipsed his superior. Velayati sensed the threat posed by his deputy when Ayatollah Khamenei consulted with Larijani while writing the text of the speech he was to deliver to the Non-Aligned Meeting in Harare.

Iran’s traditional bureaucracy relies on clique collectivism. In this administrative structure, closeness to the power hubs insures admission to the clique, while submission to the power wielders warrants progress.

For this reason, it was a grave offense and insubordination on the part of Larijani to shine in a ministry that was run by Velayati, as the latter was to be the sole shining star there. Velayati insightfully realized that Larijani’s stay in the Foreign Ministry would jeopardize his own position there and gradually did away with him. Larijani left the Foreign Ministry and landed in parliament after being elected MP.

Right-wing presidential candidate Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri was expected to appoint Larijani as his foreign minister in case he won the 1997 elections.

However Larijani’s chances to become foreign minister became very slim following the suspicious disclosure of his secret negotiations with Nick Browne, the then British Foreign Office’s Director General for the Middle East and following the ballyhoo raised by Iran’s left wing over these secret talks.

These developments enabled Velayati to utter a sigh of relief, as Larijani’s inconceivable elimination guaranteed that Velayati could retain his post as foreign minister following Nateq Nouri’s highly possible election victory.

A year later when both Nateq Nouri and Velayati were no longer holding top-echelon government posts, Larijani, in an interview with Jame’ah daily, said, "The disclosure of my talks with Nick Browne was part of the election campaign that took shape in the Foreign Ministry, which felt threatened by the prospect of Nateq Nouri picking me as his foreign minister in case he won the presidential race." Those acquainted with Iran’s political milieu can easily grasp what Larijani is implying here.

Larijani’s recent invitation to the Iranians to opt for talks with the US will once again afford him the chance to assess the depth and breadth of domestic opposition with Tehran-Washington rapprochement. By extending this invitation, he is also becoming a butt of criticism in diplomatic circles.

Being the standard bearer of combat with the US, Iran’s left wing has so far been reluctant to take the first step toward improving ties with the US. But in case improvement of Iran-US relations becomes inevitable, President Khatami, if re-elected, can astutely appoint Larijani as his foreign minister and thus take an important step toward thawing the frosty Iran-US ties.

The appointment of this bold and self-confident right-winger will have dual benefits for Khatami: First, the reformists will save themselves from being branded the harbingers of talks with the US. Second, the move will minimize the conservatives’ bent to obstruct the détente with the US.

Right wing extremists have all along claimed that the US has, for over two decades, shown mischief toward and hatched plots against Iran. As a result, in case bilateral political relations are established and the US reopens its Embassy in Tehran, reformers will be able to justify it by noting that the US moves and measures are directed toward rule-governed diplomatic channels, as the US Embassy will be accessible and open to supervision and any mischief will be curbed and as the US will, contrary to the past, be accountable for its policies toward Iran.

In case Larijani, who is highly respected by Ayatollah Khamenei, breaks the taboo of talks and even resumption of relations between the anti-imperialist Islamic Republic of Iran and the US, he can justify his act before those claiming that Iranian revolutionaries have compromised with the big Satan by noting that the best hunters will necessarily be the best game-keepers!

Over the last 20 years proximity with the US has been as powerful a taboo as the religious repulsiveness of Muslim men shaking hands with "ghayr ul-mahram" women (females other than their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, and aunts). But as put by Larijani :

The Muslims know an incantation after reciting which they can do many things – other than shaking hands – with "ghayr ul-mahram" women!"