On Negotiating With Iran, Or "Of Vexing Topics And Muddled Campaign Promises"

Ever since Barack Obama said that he would meet with the leaders of Iran, North Korea and Venezuela without preconditions, politicians from Hillary Clinton to John McCain have pilloried him for doing so. Passions are particularly intense concerning talks with Iran since Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is such a polarizing figure. In an apparent attempt to ratchet down such passions, the Obama campaign has been at pains to point out that while Ahmadinejad is the president, he may not be when talks actually take place and that the real power in Iran is the Supreme Religious Guide, Ali Khamenei. Presumably, negotiating with Khamenei should be less polarizing than talking with Ahmadinejad.

But why should this be the case? Well, presumably because Khamenei’s power relative to other Iranian politicians is much greater and therefore, it is more worth our while to strike a deal with him. But it is clear that Khamenei is also a useful stand-in as an interlocutor for those who believe that Ahmadinejad is too noxious a figure with whom to deal. The search for “moderates” in positions of power in Iranian politics has taken on a fabled quality and listening to some of the rhetoric concerning negotiations with Iran, one can be forgiven for thinking that those who advocate discussions with Khamenei believe they have found just the “moderate” they have been searching for.

If that is the belief, it is sorely mistaken. Those who sit down with Khamenei will likely find him to be at least as hardline as Ahmadinejad is. Indeed, the chances are good that he will be found even more unreasonable an interlocutor than the current Iranian president.

One of the less appreciated facts about Ayatollah Khomeini, the intellectual father and political progenitor of the Islamic Revolution and the republic (we are using the term loosely here) that followed, was that in addition to being as much a revolutionary as Marx, Lenin or Robespierre, in addition to being a savvy and clever politician who knew how to get and keep power–even if it meant drenching his hands with blood, Khomeini was seen as a learned theologian, endowed with significant gravitas as far as the clerical community in Iran was concerned. This sentiment clearly trickled down to the masses as well. Khomeini changed Shi’ite theology by orders of magnitude. In the past, the Shi’ite clerical community in Iran would give its blessing to the rule of the Shahs in return for the Shahs’ promise to defend the faith. All the while, the clergy presumed that this situation would ultimately give way to the rule of the Mahdi or the Hidden Imam, once he finally came out of hiding in order to rule the world. The thought that the clergy would directly involve themselves in attempts to rule until the return of the Hidden Imam was considered unthinkable. The clergy did not like to think of itself as being part of the political world, though, to be sure, politics could not be fully escaped by the clergy.

Khomeini changed all of this. Instead of contenting himself with giving–along with his clerical colleagues–the blessing of the religious community to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his successor(s), Khomeini stole a page from Plato’s Republic, took the idea of having a philosopher-king rule and applied it to Iran by working to bring about a political society in which the clergy would directly wield political power, with a Supreme Religious Guide to lead the way.

The advancement and realization of this idea gave Khomeini great intellectual heft in the eyes of clerics–indeed, Khomeini’s interest in the works of Aristotle and Plato set him apart from other clerics (it should be noted that for all of his appreciation of Greek philosophy, Khomeini was shockingly ignorant of most things outside his native Iran). There was no controversy when Khomeini–years before the advent of the Islamic Revolution and the republic–achieved the title of “Grand Ayatollah.” Indeed, so great was Khomeini’s prestige as both a revolutionary and a theologian, that in the run-up to the Revolution and throughout the rest of his life, he was actually known as “Imam Khomeini.” His assumption of the title of “Imam” was stunningly audacious–again, this was a title that was only supposed to have been assumed by the Mahdi when he came out of hiding to assume his destiny as ruler of the world.

Because of Khomeini’s perceived rock-solid revolutionary and theological credentials, he was given significant elbow room with which to maneuver as a politician. Saddam Hussein’s decision to start a war with Iran in 1980 was one of the best things that could have happened to the infant Islamic Revolution and republic, because the prosecution of that war from Iran’s end kept the revolutionary fires burning. Inherent in the Islamic regime’s exploitation of the war for political purposes was the belief that the war would not–should not–end until Iraq was completely and comprehensively defeated.

Thus, when Saddam offered Iran a cease-fire in 1988, acceptance of the cease-fire carried with it dangerous political risks for Khomeini because the cessation of hostilities might have brought with it the slackening of revolutionary zeal, and thus, the endangerment of the Islamic regime’s ability to survive. But Khomeini’s theological and revolutionary credentials helped save the day for him. He announced to the Iranian people that he would “drink from this poisoned chalice” as he decided to accept the cease-fire. Only Nixon could go to China and only Khomeini could allow the Islamic regime to cease its efforts to achieve total victory against Saddam Hussein’s secular, Arab nationalist government while at the same time ensuring that the regime’s revolutionary fires did not go out. The war ended and the regime lived on.

Now, let us take Khamenei and compare his rule as the Supreme Religious Guide to that of Khomeini’s. First of all, it should be noted that Khamenei was not even Khomeini’s first choice to succeed him upon Khomeini’s death. That honor initially went to Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. It was withdrawn solely and exclusively because Montazeri put principle above power and above mindless revolutionary zeal to denounce Khomeini’s rule as the slow-motion bloodbath and deprivation of political and human rights that it was. Only after Montazeri came out against Khomeini–and was punished for his dissident views–did Khamenei receive Khomeini’s blessing to succeed him once Khomeini died.

Khomeini died in 1989 and Khamenei succeeded to the post of Supreme Religious Guide without incident. But this was because the leaders of the Islamic regime wanted to make sure there was not too much political turmoil in the aftermath of Khomeini’s death. But at the time of Khamenei’s ascension to the position of Supreme Religious Guide, he wasn’t neither an ayatollah, nor did he possess the title of marja-e-taqleed (Source of Imitation). The Islamic constitution specified that unless a candidate for Supreme Leader was a marja-e-taqleed, he could not be considered for the post; Khomeini had to institute a kind of affirmative action policy for Khamenei by ordering that the constitution be amended so that Khamenei could succeed Khomeini:

The 1989 succession to the supreme leadership by Ali Khamenei and his hasty promotion to the rank of ayatollah was one such case. Khamenei was only a hojatoleslam but had served as president; the constitution was amended so the supreme leader no longer had to be a source of emulation (see article 109). With the deaths of Grand Ayatollah Abolqasem Khoi (1992), Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Golpayegani (1993), and Grand Ayatollah Ali Araki (died 1994), there was an attempt to promote Khamenei to the rank of source of emulation. Khamenei himself withdrew from consideration. (See “RFE/RL Iran Report,” 23 November 1998.)

Once Khamenei succeeded to the post, there was an effort to have him recognized as a marja-e-taqleed, but surprisingly, the Supreme Religious Guide had trouble convincing his clerical colleagues that he should be so honored:

Theoretically, the Islamic republic system (vilayat-i faqih, leadership of the supreme jurisprudent) is legitimate when a Grand Ayatollah who is recognized as a source of emulation (marja-yi taqlid) serves as the Faqih (jurisprudent). Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi, like many others, did not accept Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a source of emulation. According to “Human Rights in Iran” (2001) by Pace University’s Reza Afshari, Shirazi was “indignant” over Khamenei’s efforts to be recognized as the supreme leader and as a source of emulation. Shirazi, who died in late 2001, apparently favored a committee of Grand Ayatollahs to lead the country. Shirazi was not the only senior cleric to suffer for questioning the legitimacy of Iran’s political setup and its leading figure. One of the best-known dissident clerics was Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi. Others were Grand Ayatollah Hassan Tabatabai-Qomi and Grand Ayatollah Yasubedin Rastegari.

Thus, we see that Khamenei lacked Khomeini’s credentials as a learned theologian endowed with sufficient gravitas with which to command the allegiance and respect of the clerical community in Iran.

Khamenei has always understood that his lack of theological credentials poses a handicap to his rule and that he must make up for this handicap by being more hardline than any other Iranian political or religious figure. Thus, throughout his time as Supreme Religious Guide, Khamenei has been a loud and insistent voice on behalf of Muslims worldwide. He was a consistent advocate of the Bosnian Muslims during the upheaval in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s and he has been a zealous and fierce advocate on behalf of the Palestinians. Indeed, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently made the comment that the Iranian people could be friends with the Israeli people despite the differences between the governments of both countries, Khamenei shot the president down:

“Who are Israelis?” Khamenei told thousands of worshipers gathered for Friday prayers in downtown Tehran. “They are responsible for usurping houses, territory, farmlands and businesses. They are combatants at the disposal of Zionist operatives. A Muslim nation cannot remain indifferent vis-a-vis such people who are stooges at the service of the arch-foes of the Muslim world.”

[. . .]

The comments came amid a controversy in Iran over remarks attributed to an Iranian official close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a vice president in charge of tourism, was quoted in a July interview as saying that Iranians were friends with the Israeli people, despite the conflict between the governments.

“Today, Iran is friends with the American and Israeli people,” he said, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency. “No nation in the world is our enemy.”

Hard-liners close to the government pounced on Mashaei’s remarks. But Thursday night Ahmadinejad appeared to back up Mashaei, voicing sympathy for the Israeli people, even as he predicted Israel’s demise.

“The Iranian nation never recognized Israel and will never ever recognize it,” he said at a news conference. “But we feel pity for those who have been deceived or smuggled into Israel to be oppressed citizens in Israel.”

[. . .]

Khamenei left little doubt about Iran’s position on relations with Israel, saying he was raising the issue “to spell an end to any debates” on it.

“It is incorrect, irrational, pointless and nonsense to say that we are friends of Israeli people,” said Khamenei, who delivers prayer sermons only on special occasions.

Realist theory posits that a nation-state will act in its own long-term, rationally perceived interests and that those interests are influenced very little by the particular political composition of the governments of those nation-states. But while realists put the emphasis on long-term, rationally perceived interests (rightly, in my view), it is foolish to be entirely inconsiderate of the political composition of the government of a nation-state, especially when one contemplates negotiations with that nation-state. So we are left with the following question: Just how on Earth we are supposed to conduct negotiations with the likes of Khamenei when Khamenei not only is the most stubborn of the hardliners, but when any softening of that hard line might endanger Khamenei and his regime due to the fact that Khamenei lacks both Khomeini’s revolutionary credentials as the intellectual and political progenitor of the Islamic Revolution and republic and lacks Khomeini’s theological gravitas amongst the clergy and the Iranian populace?

These questions have not been answered by the Obama campaign. Indeed, the Obama campaign does not even acknowledge the existence of these questions. It assures us that it will engage Iran in “tough” diplomacy designed to tell the Islamic regime that its behavior is considered “unacceptable” by the United States–as if the regime hasn’t had a heads-up concerning this fact since, oh, say, November 4, 1979. But beyond this promise of “tough” diplomacy, we have been offered no specifics whatsoever concerning the conduct of such diplomacy. I am not opposed to talks with Iran in principle, but such talks must have a strategy behind them. Here’s mine. Where is the Obama campaign’s strategy document?

Perhaps such a document simply does not exist. Perhaps it does not exist because the Obama campaign does not understand that negotiating with Ali Khamenei will not gain the United States an interlocutor more amenable to the honeyed discourse of sweet compromise. I suppose that it is too much to ask that Barack Obama and others who tell us that negotiating with Iran’s Supreme Religious Guide will yield good diplomatic fruit explain how the pickings are to be gotten given Ali Khamenei’s political position. In the four weeks before the Presidential election in this country, naïve enthusiasm concerning diplomatic dealings with Iran has ensured that no intellectual room is left for such hard questions to be asked.