Four reasons prevent Iranian officials from negotiating with America

Bymajid mohammadi

Despite the US President Donald Trump calling directly and continually on the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran to negotiate as well as his openness to negotiations, Khamenei, Rouhani, and Zarif have all said that they are not ready to negotiate with Trump’s administration. Direct negotiations with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un, shows that Trump is serious in negotiating with political leaders – including those who lead rogue governments. But at this juncture, the leaders of the Islamic Republic are seriously against any negotiations. Ali Khamenei has said: “Negotiations with the current government of this country [America] is double poison.” (Kayhan, May 14, 2019) Hassan Rouhani said: “The claim of the other side as to bring us to the table is baseless. We are not ready to negotiation, even if all powers of the world stand side by side.” (May 18, 2019) Javad Zarif, too, has said explicitly: “There is no possibility for negotiations.” (BBC Persian, May 16, 2019) The officials from the different political factions of the Islamic Republic, including the “reformists” and the “hardliners”, too, are against negotiations with Trump’s administration. Of course, there have been behind-the-scenes talks with countries such as Japan and Oman to act as mediators between Iran and America. Refusing open negotiations with America is one of the few issues that has united the different factions in Iran. Is this unity a result of their concern for Iran’s national interests, or are there other deeper factors involved here?

The Islamic Republic’s Justifications for rejecting negotiations with the US and their refutation

The justifications that the Islamic Republic’s officials offer in this regard are:

1- The futility of negotiations with Trump’s administration after it left the nuclear deal (JCPOA)
2- The US administration demanding the surrender of Iran
3- Hurting national pride by sitting at the negotiation table

All three reasons can be cited to avoid any negotiation process in the world. In negotiations among countries, there are always historical precedents that can be used to avoid negotiations. The United States has been negotiating with North Korea for decades, and the relationship between the two countries has seen many developments. But this cannot be used to prevent new negotiations. Countries first offer a list of their demands for negotiating and put any cards they have on the table (such as sanctions or threats), but then they make compromises in order to reach an agreement (“heroic flexibility” in Ali Khamenei’s words). What is more, negotiations do not indicate hurting national pride or surrendering in any language, except for nations that are imperialistic, authoritarian and belligerent.
Despite the US sanctions on Iran’s oil, banks, and industrial materials as well as the possibility of their expansion to encompass petrochemical products, the leaders of the Islamic Republic do not want to negotiate with Trump’s administration. The same authorities were ready to negotiate during Obama’s presidency, at the time when sanctions did not impose as much pressure on Iran. Under Obama, at the peak of the oil sanctions, Iran was allowed to export one million bpd, but during Trump’s administration, this amount fell to 500,000 bpd in the middle of May 2019. Given the fact that the Islamic Republic has numerous means of leverage in the region (its military presence in Syria as well as having allies in Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon) and a growing economic crisis (50% inflation rate and unemployment up to 60% in some cities), how is it possible that the Islamic Republic does not want to find a solution to its problems with the United States through negotiations? There are four reasons for this:

Hope for Trump’s impeachment or his defeat in the 2020 elections
Zarif’s contact with John Kerry and Dianne Feinstein shows that he, just like the Democrats, hopes that Trump will be soon impeached or will be defeated in the 2020 US presidential elections. As such, negotiations with Trump will have no use or prospect. Iran’s diplomatic team doesn’t seem to think it is possible for Trump’s administration to continue for a second term, despite good economic conditions in the United States pointing to Trump’s re-election. Furthermore, neutralizing some of Trump’s decisions such as designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization will be very difficult for any incoming Democratic government in the United States. Delisting the IRGC from the US terrorist list will be very costly. Since the outset of the election of Trump, the Islamic Republic has put all its diplomatic eggs in the Democrats’ basket, hoping to have their support.

Pompeo’s 12 conditions
Nuclear talks with Obama’s administration had a limited horizon (the nuclear program), and if there were any compromises, it would have limited consequences for the Iranian regime’s foreign relations and its oppressive apparatus. But Pompeo’s 12 conditions indicate that any negotiations with Trump’s administration will involve a series of intertwined issues that will force the Islamic Republic to retreat in many cases. Obviously, the Islamic Republic does not want to hand over what is of vital significance to it (i.e. its nuclear and missile programs) to the American administration or to the European powers. Also, the Islamic Republic does not want to weaken its regional hand by succumbing to the conditions imposed by the Trump administration for negotiations.

Meccan boycott of the Hashemites
Ali Khamenei has always been after building a resistance economy and has always praised the conditions that the Hashemites endured during the boycott imposed on them by the Meccans [in the history of Islam]. This means that Iran’s isolation in the world is praiseworthy as the Hashemites faced a similar situation. His position against Europe, America, and its Arab neighbors and, on the other hand, his policy of looking towards the East to lessen the pressures of the western governments point to Khamenei’s objective of developing a resistance economy. The continuation of sanctions allows Khamenei and the people who think like him to isolate Iran even more, reducing the impact of foreign countries on Iran. For example, when there were no sanctions, more than 9 million Iranians traveled abroad annually. Khamenei was against Iranians traveling abroad unless they went for pilgrimage. Sanctions and the subsequent fourfold increase in the price of foreign currencies in a one-year period have meant traveling has become very expensive for most Iranians.

Profiting from the sanctions
The ruling class in Iran “does business” with the sanctions, meaning that they benefit from the sanctions. Apart from the structural privileges, corruption, and the ruling class abusing their power, part of their personal interests are attained via the sanctions. It has been almost a year since the sanctions were reimposed by the US, during this time roughly $30 billion has left the country, and $30 billion of export money (forex) has not returned to the country. This $60 billion is not in the hands of the private sector nor in the hands of individuals who are independent of the Iranian government. The private sector in Iran doesn’t have such a capacity. This is the reason for unanimity among the political factions in Iran for not negotiating with the US, their agreement in benefitting from the sanctions than advancing Iran’s national interests.

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

majid mohammadi
majid mohammadi
Non-resident researcher at Rasanah IIIS.