There is cautious optimism about the talks between P5+1 and Iran getting under way in Istanbul later today. (AP, NYT, CSM, Reuters) A lot of mutual signaling has taken place between the protagonists in the recent weeks, including at the level of the US President Barack Obama. The White House has even spoken about “reciprocal actions that are responsive to concrete actions by the Iranians.” That is, Obama will be wiling to meet the Iranians half-way.
Again, WaPo featured a rare article by the Iranian FM Ali Akbar Salehi as ‘curtain-raiser’ to the Istanbul talks. The gist of Salehi’s message is that Tehran is serious about negotiating a comprehensive understanding. No one expects a breakthrough at Istanbul, but the positive sign is that there is already an indication of a follow-up meeting in May in Baghdad. Tehran has signalled that it may present new proposals at the Istanbul talks.
Most important, Iran’s former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who is traditionally identified with the school of thought in Tehran advocating normalisation of ties with the US and Saudi Arabia has reappeared in the top echelons of power. His wide-ranging interview with the Iranian quarterly journal International Studies last week contained a profound critique of the country’s foreign policy. Excerpts:
“The current attitude towards the US in which we [Iran] neither talk with it nor have any relations cannot be sustained. The US is the most powerful country in the world. What is the difference in our view between Europe and the US, China and the US, and Russia and the US? If we have talks with these countries, why not with the US? Talks do not mean we are surrendering to them. We talk to see whether they will accept our position or we will accept theirs; that is all.”
“I wanted to establish relations with Egypt, but could not. I wanted to start negotiations with the US on the conditions that I had set, but could not. I could not is not the same as I did not want to.”
“Relations with Saudi Arabia are not a small feat for the region. First, it is a wealthy country and most Islamic clerics have some kind of relations with Saudi Arabia because of the Hajj and the pilgrimages, and they also have interests. They [Saudis] repair their mosques, provide them other benefits and publish the Quran. They provide a lot of resources for the spread of religious affairs of others. What the Al Zahra university used to do in Egypt is now largely done by Saudi Arabia. This includes academic work. Most important is the issue of oil. If Saudi Arabia had good relations with us, could the West have created these sanctions against us? Only Saudi Arabia can replace Iran [in oil]. Saudi Arabia does not have to do anything, If only it restricted itself to producing oil according to the OPEC quotas, nobody could attack us. This is because the world economy cannot operate without our oil. I think it is still possible to have good relations [with Saudi Arabia]. But there are some people here [in Tehran] who do not want this. You, as experts in international affairs and foreign policy, know this. If they utter just one irresponsible word, there will be an immediate reaction. Some of the harsh rhetoric that comes from both sides is not acceptable and must be corrected.”
“If we pursue our aid to Lebanon and Palestine within the framework of the right international policy, then, there would be no problem. If we correct the climate of our relations with the world, then, we must separate this issue. These are issues [read help to Hezbollah and Hamas] that are possible to be defended, provided we do not use them to create problems for others [read US, Israel] and if we let them do their own things. When the regime [in Iran] does not pursue adventurism in the world, then such issues [help to Hamas, Hezbollah] are tolerated.”
“We really have no intention of building nuclear weapons and do not have nuclear military systems. I myself once advised the Israeli occupying regime that nuclear weapons were not in Israel’s interest. If a nuclear war ever broke out one day, Israel is a small country and cannot tolerate nuclear weapons. It is a small country and all of its resources will be easily destroyed. Even though they interpreted this advice to be a threat, we deeply believe that the region must have no nuclear weapons and this has been a principle of our policy and is now.”
What is happening? The reinstatement of Rafsanjani to his old position as the head of the powerful EXpediency Council underscores that a pragmatic political line is trying to assert at the moment in the faction-ridden Iranian power structure.
Read the article by Mansour Salsabili
, an Iranian foreign ministry official on sabbatical at Harvard. (How interesting that the US and Iran go to great extents to keep lines of communication open!)