As Western diplomats prepare to sit down with their Iranian counterparts in Baghdad, wishful thinking and a desire to reach a deal regardless of its contents appears increasingly to shape American strategic thinking. It is fair, however, to ask what shapes Iranian strategic thinking. Here, Iran’s Supreme Leader, his inner circle, and former Iranian negotiators provide important clues.
Take Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Iranian government says their goal is energy generation, while Western officials believe the regime wants nuclear weapons capability. (The Obama administration’s argument parsing the difference between nuclear weapons capability and nuclear weapons possession misses the point, as only about a week of hard labor separates the two, and the U.S. does not have the intelligence assets to determine whether Iranian authorities have taken the final leap until it will be too late).
- On December 14, 2001, Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani –often described as a pragmatist in Western circles, declared, “The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would totally destroy Israel, while the same against the Islamic world would only cause damage. Such a scenario is not inconceivable.”
- Iran Emrooz quoted Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Kharrazi, secretary-general of Iranian Hezbollah, as saying on February 14, 2005, “We are able to produce atomic bombs and we will do that. We shouldn’t be afraid of anyone. The U.S. is not more than a barking dog.”
- On May 29, 2005, Hojjat ol-Islam Gholamreza Hasani, the Supreme Leader’s personal representative to the province of West Azerbaijan, declared possession of nuclear weapons to be one of Iran’s top goals. “An atom bomb . . . must be produced as well,” he said.”That is because the Qur’an has told Muslims to ‘get strong and amass all the forces at your disposal to be strong.'” Hasani may be widely reviled by Iranians, but he is nevertheless the Supreme Leader’s direct appointee and charged with carrying his messages.
- On February 19, 2006, Rooz, an Iranian website close to the Islamic Republic’s reformist camp, quoted Mohsen Gharavian, a Qom theologian close to Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, one of the regime’s leading ayatollahs, as saying it was only “natural” for the Islamic Republic to possess nuclear weapons.
No less important are the admissions by various Iranian officials that the purpose of negotiations was to divert Western attention while the Iranian regime accelerated its nuclear program:
- On June 14, 2008, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, former President Muhammad Khatami’s spokesman, debated advisers to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ramezanzadeh counseled Ahmadinejad to accept the Khatami approach: “We should prove to the entire world that we want power plants for electricity. Afterwards, we can proceed with other activities,” Mr. Ramezanzadeh said. The purpose of dialogue, he argued further, was not to compromise, but to build confidence and avoid sanctions. “We had an overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of the activities,” he said.
- This past October, Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s nuclear negotiator between 2003-2005, also acknowledged Iran’s insincerity: “We did not decide the nuclear goals of the country; they were decided by the regime. When I was trusted with the responsibility of the nuclear team, two goals became our priorities: The first goal was to safeguard the national security, and the second goal was to support and help the nuclear achievements… When I was entrusted with this portfolio, we had no production in Isfahan. We couldn’t produce UF4 or UF6. Had Natanz been filled with centrifuges, we did not have the material which needed to be injected. There was a small amount of UF6 which we had previously procured from certain countries and this was what we had at our disposal. But the Isfahan facilities had to be completed before it could remake yellow cake to UF4 and UF6. We used the opportunity [provided by talks] to do so and completed the Isfahan facilities… In Arak we continued our efforts and achieved heavy water… The reason for inviting the three European foreign ministers to Tehran and for the Saadabad negotiations was to make Europe oppose the United States so that the issue was not submitted to the Security Council.”
More telling has been the Supreme Leader’s comments on rapprochement with the United States. While diplomats and journalists cheered Obama’s offer to outstretch his hand if the Islamic Republic unclenched its fist, few bothered to cover the Supreme Leader’s response, delivered on the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran:
“This new president of America said beautiful things. He sent us messages constantly, both orally and written: ‘Come and let us turn the page, come and create a new situation, come and let us cooperate in solving the problems of the world.’ It reached this degree! We said that we should not be prejudiced, that we will look at their deeds. They said we want change. We said, well, let us see the change. On March 21, when I delivered a speech in Mashhad, I said that if there is an iron fist under the velvet glove and you extend a hand towards us we will not extend our hand… [Reformists] can’t roll out the red carpet for the United States in our country. They should know this. The Iranian nation resists.”
Just last month, Rafsanjani asked why, if the Islamic Republic had relations with Moscow and Beijing, relations with Washington should be out of the question. Hardliners surrounding the Supreme Leader pounced. Alef, a site close to the Supreme Leader and managed by his supporters, published an interview with Abbas Salimi-Namin, director of the Office for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies, in which he dismissed any notion of relations with the United States and suggested that Ayatollah Khomeini—the regime’s founding father—forbade them.
Only useful idiots would prioritize a deal over its substance. The Iranian regime reads poll numbers as much as any American inside-the-beltway politico. They understand that Obama will be much less likely to quibble over Iranian nuclear aims than would Governor Mitt Romney. No deal will change the overall trajectory of Iranian nuclear aims, however. The regime has already made those too clear, not only in terms of rhetoric but also in terms of action.