How America Can Win Iran's Trust

Khamenei has given Obama a green light to secure his foreign-policy legacy.

Several days after Iran and P5+1–the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany–announced that they had reached an agreement on the political framework for a comprehensive nuclear agreement; Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei finally broke his silence.

Speaking on April 9, Khamenei expressed his typical lack of trust in the United States and skepticism toward the nuclear negotiations. He emphasized that his skepticism is not an illusion, but rather that history has taught him that American leaders deceive, lie, and break their promises.

But Khamenei also expressed his strong support for the nuclear negotiations, and called for finalizing the agreement. He said that he sees the negotiations as bargaining between two equal sides, not as one in which the U.S. dictates its wishes to Iran. Khamenei has allowed the Hassan Rouhani administration to make major concessions to the West, and in his speech he demanded that economic sanctions be lifted as soon as the final agreement is signed.

He said, “If the sanctions can be imposed under other conditions, then why do we even negotiate? Why do we even sit around the negotiations table and argue and debate? We do this because we want the sanctions to be terminated.” Khamenei also said that he will support any agreement that protects Iran’s national interests and dignity, and does not humiliate the Iranian people.

Regime Change as the U.S. Goal

For a long time Khamenei was opposed to any negotiations with the United States. Over the last few years he has allowed negotiations over only the nuclear program. He emphasized in his speech of April 9 that “for now we do not want to negotiate with the United States about anything but the nuclear program.”

If Khamenei is skeptical about the nuclear negotiations, re-establishing relations with the United States is clearly unjustified to him. In nearly every speech over the last 26 years he has mentioned America’s desire for regime change in Iran. To him, the accusations that Iran has pursued nuclear weapons, violates human rights, and supports terrorism represent only “excuses” for toppling his regime. Khamenei has said that the United States has imposed crippling economic sanctions against Iran in order to provoke the Iranian people to revolt against his regime. Thus, he has always believed that even if the nuclear issue is resolved diplomatically, the United States will find another excuse for regime change in Iran.

Khamenei recalls that the George W. Bush administration rejected the comprehensive proposal by former reformist President Mohammad Khatami in May 2003. That proposal would have limited Iran’s uranium enrichment program to only 3,000 centrifuges. But, the Bush administration, “drunk” with it seemingly “quick” victory in Iraq, was thinking about attacking Iran. Some were saying, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad; real men will go to Tehran.” Dick Cheney declared that, “We do not negotiate with evil, we defeat them.” The Bush administration did not even rule out attacking Iran with nuclear weapons. The fact is, Washington hawks’ real desire is to change the Iranian regime by force, and a diplomatic deal on Iran’s nuclear program makes that less likely.

Khamenei has reminded President Obama the same in a letter to him. In a speech on April 19 Khamenei repeated that due to Islamic commitments Iran does not and will not pursue nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the Obama administration still says that the military option is on the table, and U.S. senators threaten Iran with military attacks, while at the same time the United States wants Iran to be defenseless. Khamenei declared that this dual approach is “stupid,” and that Iran is not the aggressor, nor is it a threat against any nation, “close or far.”

The Key to Relations with the United States

But, his most recent speech contained a little noticed, but very important point. Khamenei is looking at the nuclear negotiations as a new experience, one that if it results in desirable results, it can lead to negotiations between Iran and the United States regarding other important bilateral issues. In his speech Khamenei declared:

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