Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in early February 2013, Vice President Joe Biden made headlines by reaffirming the Obama administration’s willingness to hold bilateral negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran over its nuclear program and other issues.
While holding fast to the Western narrative about Iran’s “illicit and destabilizing” nuclear project, Biden stated that the U.S. government “would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership,” provided it “is serious” and the talks would be “real and tangible.”
Biden also noted, “there is still space for diplomacy, backed by pressure, to succeed. The ball is in the government of Iran’s court.” These statements apparently refer to artificial deadlines placed upon such talks by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,
The initial response from Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who was also attending the conference, appeared positive. Salehi said that Iran was open to direct talks and that Biden’s remarks were “a step forward.” The foreign minister also noted that such an offer, when coupled with “the threatening rhetoric that everything is on the table” (read: a military attack on Iran to ostensibly prevent it from building nuclear weapons that the U.S. intelligence community continues to affirm it is not building and Iran consistently says it does not want), might not be completely genuine. Still, he said, there was “no red line for bilateral negotiations” if the American offer was indeed sincere.
Mainstream media in the West exploded just days later when Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei poured cold water on the prospect of bilateral talks. “You are pointing the gun at Iran and say either negotiate or we will shoot,” Khamenei said of the United States. “But you should know that pressure and negotiations are not compatible and our nation will not be intimidated by these threats.”
“Talk is meaningful if it is based on goodwill, equal standing and when both sides do not want to apply tricks,” added Khamenei. “Talk as a tactic, a gesture of superpower, is only a deceptive move.”
Khamenei’s reaction to Biden’s conditional offer was widely viewed as evidence of Iranian obstinacy and unwillingness to engage substantively over the nature of its nuclear program – this, notwithstanding the fact that multilateral talks between Iran and the P5+1 (Russia, China, France, Britain, the United States, and Germany) will resume in Kazakhstan at the end of this month.
At least one crucial detail was routinely excluded from commentary related to Khamenei’s statements: the ongoing U.S.-led economic war against Iran. Just one day before Khamenei’s speech, U.S. Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen announced that the United States was “expand[ing] the scope of sanctionable transactions with the Central Bank of Iran and designated Iranian financial institutions by restricting Iran’s ability to use oil revenue held in foreign financial institutions as well as preventing repatriation of those funds to Iran.”
These actions were taken despite the fact that such measures are well known to produce shortages of medicine and medical supplies that severely impact Iran’s civilian population while leaving its government relatively unscathed.
Meanwhile, European Union courts have been striking down EU-imposed sanctions on Iranian banking institutions as illegitimate and illegal. Nevertheless, just this week, the U.S. State Department levied still more sanctions on Iran.
While the United States clearly wishes civilian suffering will turn the Iranian population against its own leadership, a recent Gallup poll reaffirmed what many already knew: Iranians blame the United States, not their own government, for their hardship and deprivation.
“The new round of sanctions,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast declared, “are designed to put pressure on the nation and to create a gap between the (Iranian) nation and government” by attempting “to create tension, crisis and instability.”
Khamenei himself has frequently and consistently pointed out the futility of accepting an offer to negotiate when under threat, siege, sanction and sabotage. In March 2009, he noted that such offers are duplicitous. “If you go on with the slogan of discussion and pressure, saying that you will negotiate with Iran, and at the same time impose pressure, threats, and changes, then our nation will not like such words,” Khamanei said.
The following year, in August 2010, he reiterated this position. “In spite of all these measures, the Americans shout the slogan of negotiations. They impose unilateral sanctions, issue resolutions and make military threats, but at the same time they propose negotiations,” he explained, adding that “negotiations that are conducted under threats and pressures are not in fact negotiations.”
This is not just an Iranian conclusion. Robert Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, recently lamented that “in the last three administrations, we have been unwilling to put on the table a negotiating position that has a chance to succeed,” and added, “No country can negotiate seriously when it is under military threat, facing sanctions that only help to strengthen the regime domestically, and with no serious proposals on the ‘plus’ side.” Ironically, those who most talk about going to war with Iran also tend to be those who most oppose the U.S. dealing directly with Iran and putting a realistic set of proposals on the table.”
While some informed commentators continue to hold out hope for a détente, without clear American acknowledgement of Iran’s inalienable right to a domestic nuclear enrichment industry and the cessation of criminal collective punishment against the Iranian population, it remains difficult to imagine this happening any time soon.
*Nima Shirazi is co-editor of Muftah’s Iran, Iraq, and Turkey Pages. Follow him on Twitter @WideAsleepNima.