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Calling Iran's Bluff

By Ali Reza Eshraghi (Source: Mianeh)

Whatever Ahmadinejad's motives for offering talks with President Obama, a meeting could open the way to progress in US-Iranian relations.

President Ahmadinejad has repeatedly offered to meet his counterpart Barack Obama, encouraging him not to miss this "historic golden opportunity." (Photo: Mahdi Marizad, Fars News Agency)

"If need be, we will negotiate with the devil in the fiery pits of hell." That might sound like something Machiavelli might have said 500 years ago, but in fact it comes from Mohammad-Javad Larijani, an ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The devil he was talking about was the "Great Satan", the United States.

President Ahmadinejad has repeatedly offered to meet his counterpart Barack Obama, encouraging him not to miss this "historic golden opportunity". Previously, he used to describe such a meeting as an opportunity for debate - to deflect possible criticism at home for reaching out to the US - but nowadays he is calling for a "man to man talk".

But what about the US? Would it make sense for Obama to meet his Iranian counterpart?

For the moment, the US administration does not seem too enthusiastic about the idea. Speaking on August 3, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs rejected the idea of face-to-face talks because Iran was not seriously prepared to discuss the nuclear dispute. If it was prepared to do so, the US would be willing to hold talks on the matter, he added.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Ahmadinejad might have made the offer of talks as Iran was "feeling the bite of sanctions".

Although Washington has backed four sets of United Nations sanctions as well as imposing its own measures against his country, Ahmadinejad has hinted that he wants to enter into negotiations with the US on a number of occasions since he was first elected in 2005.

It may well be that the Iranian leader's latest offer is a result of the most recent round of US and UN sanctions, imposed in June. He describes such measures as "negotiating with a stick" - but he may nevertheless be responding.

Even if we assume Ahmadinejad is bluffing, it might make sense to take him at his word. The parties to negotiations do not necessarily have to be there out of good will; the main thing is what any talks achieve and how they are received.

The Obama administration has clearly been put on its guard by its initial attempts to reach out to Iran, in the shape of two letters it sent to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last year. It may well be that these letters made the Iranian authorities worry less about their international position, and gave them the confidence to rig the July 2009 presidential election and crack down on the ensuing protests.

It is natural that Obama should now be concerned that a face-to-face meeting could further strengthen the position of the Ahmadinejad camp in Iranian politics. It is hard to predict whether this would actually happen, though. It is also possible that in the long run, such a meeting could serve to moderate Tehran's policies at home and abroad, and even offer the reformers some breathing-space.

The White House will also be wondering whether Ahmadinejad's offer is backed by a consensus of the various political factions in the Iranian establishment. That has always been a question in Iranian foreign policy - who has ultimate authority to initiate negotiations of this kind?

Even if Ahmadinejad seems to have tried to consolidate his position since his re-election, when it comes to relations with the US, the Supreme Leader clearly has the final say.

As often as not, Iranian policies are generated not through coordination and consensus, but rather through trickery and presenting things as a fait accompli. This applies even when the Supreme Leader's approval has to be sought - if one successfully overcomes the difficulty of convincing him, one can always hope that he will remain silent even if he is unhappy with the end result.

For years, various political factions have wanted the glory of being the first to negotiate with Washington. Any time a rival group gets close to doing so, they accuse them of treachery and of deviating from the values of the regime, and go out of their way to undermine the plan.

The nuclear talks held in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 group - comprising the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus German - showed a degree of flexibility on the part of the Ahmadinejad administration, although this could also be a result of their inexperience.

The Geneva talks achieved nothing in the end, because Ahmadinejad's opponents, in the shape of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his allies in the Expediency Council and the Centre for Strategic Research, run by former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani, managed to convince the Supreme Leader that the deal was not in the best interests of Iran.

This underlines the extent to which real power is still fractured in Iran.

What sets Ahmadinejad apart from other regime figures is that he is so headstrong that he would not hesitate to meet Obama if he chose to do so, despite the risk that this would rebound on him at home. He might get away with it, as he did after sending Obama a letter of congratulations when he won the 2008 US election. But in a worst-case scenario, he might face a reprimand from Ayatollah Khamenei, in which case the scene would be set for removing him from office.

Then again, what more could his opponents ask for?

Obama, of course, has his own reasons for avoiding a direct meeting with Ahmadinejad.

The Iranian president is prone to off-the-cuff remarks, and might spend his time with Obama haranguing him about Israel and the Jewish lobby in Washington. But in general, on his excursions abroad he has proven himself a master of sophistry. For example, time and again he has sat in front of seasoned American and European reporters and batted away their questions by asking one of his own.

After watching these interviews, many Iranians experienced a combination of sorrow, shame - and anger that no one was able to put Ahmadinejad on the spot.

If a meeting were nevertheless to happen, Tehran would inevitably exploit it to the hilt for domestic propaganda purposes, portraying the event as a great victory in which the US president was lost for words in the face of Ahmadinejad's reasoned arguments.

Yet that would not really detract from its value. Simply breaking the 30-year taboo on talking to the "Great Satan" would be a step forward, and make further negotiations much easier.

Twelve years ago, Iran's reformist president Mohammad Khatami was forced to play hide and seek so as to avoid coming face to face with US president Bill Clinton in the corridors of the United Nations. On one occasion, he reported had to seek refuge in a bathroom.

This year, it seems to be the US president who has to take care not to accidentally run into Ahmadinejad under similar circumstances. He could use the excuse that Khatami offered - "Those who wanted to make trouble for me could have exploited the meeting."

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of Mianeh.

About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting ( the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.

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