Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei claims he has no interest in engaging with Washington. But the U.S. president, fighting right now to win reelection, tells a different story.
At a recent campaign rally in Florida, U.S. President Donald Trump boasted that his administration had killed "the world's number one terrorist... a mass murderer of American troops and many many people all over the world."
He was talking about Qasem Soleimani, the general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards assassinated this past January in a U.S. drone strike. Now he's "dead, gone," the U.S. president told the crowd of cheering supporters.
Trump also talked about how he withdrew from the "disastrous Iran nuclear deal, which was a catastrophe... they cannot have a nuclear weapon." He went on to suggest that after he wins the election, "the first call I'll get... will be from Iran dying to make a deal, because they're down 28% GDP. Nobody's ever heard of a thing like that."
In recent months, whenever Trump has mentioned Iran in his speeches, he tends to stress four points: leaving the 2015 nuclear pact with the West, the strike on Soleimani, blocking Iran's bid to access nuclear weapons, and the Iranian regime's desire to talk with the United States.
The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has added his voice to these comments, telling Newsmax TV that the administration saw the deal as idiotic and dangerous, and fundamentally changed the approach to stabilizing the Middle East. Thanks to American pressures and restrictions, he argues, Iran's regime had little money left to pursue its nuclear program or terrorist activities.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tells a very different story. His claim, made repeatedly over the past two years, is that the country simply refused to negotiate with the United States.
So who is right? Is there a current or political sector in Iran, separate from top officials, sending signals to the United States? And if it's true, who is sending such signals without Khamenei's approval, when there can be no negotiations and no deal without his permission?
Khamenei repeated his position in an online speech to military graduates on Oct. 12 — the same day that Trump led the aforementioned rally in Florida. "Certain cowardly people are unwittingly repeating the enemy's words inside the country," the supreme leader said.
Khamenei's partisans consider the nuclear deal a failure.
He referred to U.S. officials as "boastful louts' and said their provocative declarations on Iran's defensive and ballistic capabilities were due to their fears. Iran, he said, would turn the maximum pressure it faces into "maximum disgrace" for the United States.
Khamenei's partisans consider the nuclear deal a failure, one they attribute to the government of President Hassan Rouhani and the fruit of fear. And yet, there is no doubt that it happened with Khamenei's go-ahead.
The Rouhani team, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, came to power with Khamenei's blessing and represent his notion of "heroic flexibility." In a 2016 interview, Khamenei's foreign affairs adviser, Aliakbar Velayati, said that negotiations with the West had been a state decision, taken to avoid the only other option: war.
Iran's circumstances then were very similar to those it faces today, with the difference being that the Trump administration is setting far tougher conditions. Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, set conditions that the regime was able to meet. And not only was Iran in a position to resume its nuclear program, once the pact expired, but it was was surreptitiously engaged in activities at various sites during the pact.
Now, with or without Trump, there can be no other such deal while Khamenei lives. Otherwise he would have to demonstrate a "heroic flexibility" that could prove his undoing.