Closer Iran-US relations? Why Ayatollah Khamenei says, 'No.'

Iranian Supreme Leader says Tehran will have no negotiations with the US over bilateral issues, but other Iranian officials do not dismiss the possibility.

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers his sermon during the Eid al-Fitr prayer at the Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran, Iran, on July 18, 2015.

Over the past 13 years, Iran’s nuclear program has caused long-term quarrels among the international community and resulted in severe economic pressures on Iran. But it also eventually led to direct negotiations between decades-long arch-foes: Iran and the United States.

Iran and six world powers reached a historic nuclear deal on July 14 after talks that spanned 20 months. The deal was received by the negotiators with broad smiles and even tears of joy.

In the wake of that momentous pact, leaders of both countries hinted that the deal could lead the two nations toward a more cooperative relationship. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the agreement begins “a new chapter.” He added that if carried out correctly, “we can gradually eliminate distrust.” And President Obama noted: “This deal offers an opportunity to move in a new direction. We should seize it.”

But on Saturday Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vowed that Iran’s policy toward the US will not change. “We will have no negotiations with the US over bilateral, as well as regional and international issues. There are some exceptions like the nuclear program that has been previously going on as well,” Mr. Khamenei said.

Speaking at a Tehran mosque to mark the end of holy fasting month of Ramadan, Ayatollah Khamenei once again thanked the Iranian negotiating team for the nuclear talks, but added that Iran has not bowed to US pressure.

Over the past decades, the Islamic Republic has always said that bilateral relations with the US were Iran’s “red line" – a view of late that's mostly expressed by Iranian hardliners. Khamenei’s Saturday remarks are in line with that mindset. But amid such red-line rhetoric, there have been actions during the past two years that have blurred the “red line.”

The Sept. 27, 2013 phone conversation between Iranian President Rouhani and President Obama marked the start of direct talks, something that seemed impossible at one time.

And then came the nuclear talks, specifically the Nov. 24, 2013 interim nuclear deal. After the agreement was read, Iranian and American foreign ministers shook hands for the first time in front of cameras.

After 20 months of direct negotiations, some in the US and Iran suggest that the fence mending may continue – even amid the hardline rhetoric. Such positions reflect the divisions within Iran's body politic – and a similar divide among US politicians.

On July 8, former Iranian president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, told the Guardian that the reopening of the US embassy in Tehran is “not possible,” but added that “that depends on the behavior of both sides.”

A close confidante of Khamenei, Rafsanjani also hailed Iran’s decision to negotiate directly with Washington. “We have broken a taboo,” he added.

Khamanei's statements Saturday, on the face of it, appear to be a rebuke to any further cooperation between the two nations. But the two nations have allied goals on several fronts – including battling the Islamic State – which may in fact led them to a more normal bilateral relationship. 

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