ABOVE THE FOLD:Iran’s supreme leader: No Iran-US thaw

Macron, like Western pundits, fails to understand the power – the all encompassing, ruthless and manipulative power – of Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei.

September 3, 2019 13:41
4 minute read.
ABOVE THE FOLD:Iran’s supreme leader: No Iran-US thaw

IRANIAN PRESIDENT Hassan Rouhani attends the unveiling ceremony for the mobile Bavar-373 system in Tehran last month. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

French President Emanuel Macron stepped out onto the world stage last week and captured headlines. Simply hosting the G-7 would never have made front page news. But inviting Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to attend? That was another story. And broadcasting the surprise visit as a plan to break the ice between the United States and Iran was a sure way to keep the story interesting and keep it on the front pages of Western press.

Pundits ran with it. They explained how this might be the start of interaction between two arch enemies. They predicted what would happen when Iran and the America sat down to talk. They even predicted a face-to-face between US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Muhammad Rouhani. They assumed it would take place the last week of September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s annual meeting in New York. But they all missed the big story.

The big story is not what might happen between the United States and Iran: The big story is what is happening inside Iran. Yes, there is still a possibility that there will be a thawing between the countries, but that is as highly unlikely today as it was before Macron tried to reshape the international arena.

Macron, like Western pundits, fails to understand the power – the all encompassing, ruthless and manipulative power – of Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei. The Iranian Foreign Minister’s appearance at the G-7 could never have happened without the permission of Iran’s supreme leader. Similarly, a face-to-face between a senior-level Iranian representative, and arch enemy and nemesis the United States, will never happen unless the supreme leader specifically gives his nod.

But that doesn’t mean that the supreme leader approved the G-7 visit in order to advance relations with the United States. Maybe, actually probably, he did it to sabotage the “moderates” – aka Zarif and his immediate boss, Iranian President Muhammad Rouhani.

There has been a backlash in Iran over Zarif’s surprise attendance at the G-7 on August 25. And some of the most vehement responses to that visit have come from none other than the supreme leader himself and from the Majlis, Iran’s parliament.

Zarif’s arrival at the G7 seemed – certainly as seen from the Western perspective – to be a masterful move to position Iran in a more positive international light and to give Macron a diplomatic advantage over Trump. What it really was, however, was a way to weaken Zarif, and by extension Rouhani, at home.

Rouhani and Zarif lead the moderates in Iran. And in the Islamic republic, that means anyone who wants interaction and engagement with the West. Zarif’s presence at the G-7 united all of Iran’s conservative factions and leadership against the moderates and their open platform.

IRAN’S RELIGIOUS, political, military and intelligence communities all came out against the G-7 visit. Rouhani and Zarif are now marginalized; they have alienated Iranian leadership. On Tuesday, August 27, two days after the surprise visit, the Majlis passed a resolution condemning Rouhani by declaring that he violated a direct order of the supreme leader forbidding all contact with the Trump administration. And that explains why Rouhani announced that he would only consider talking to Trump after sanctions were lifted.

The plot thickens. Because of Israel’s recent military successes striking Iranian targets in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, extremists in Iran are demanding a visible response to Israel. Conservatives are gaining momentum, moderates are appearing powerless and the Majlis has appropriated more money to confront its enemies, Israel and the United States.

The most important nail in the coffin of the attempt by Iran’s moderates to break the ice with the United States and have sanctions lifted through negotiations, came in the form of an open letter by the supreme leader – and there is no clearer indication of the direction Iran is taking than an open letter from the supreme leader. The letter was published on the front page of the his weekly magazine. The headline read: “Negotiations with the US are Definitely Out of the Question” – and the letter was addressed to Zarif and to the diplomats of Iran.

Israel was worried that, should the United States enter into direct talks with Iran, it would be pushed under the proverbial bus. Worried that the United States would run towards Iran the way it ran toward North Korea. Worried that Washington would be consumed by the need to mend relations with Tehran, and worried that their ability to guide the US regarding Iran would be diminished. Iran is much easier for Israel to deal with when it is mono-dimensional and sworn to the destruction of the United States and of Israel.

On that level, Israel has little to worry about – for now. It was Rouhani who was pushed under the bus. Was the supreme leader testing the waters of both his own country and of the international community? Perhaps he was. Or perhaps he knew full well the response Zarif’s arrival at the G-7 would generate in his country. It is Zarif and Rouhani, along with Macron and the West, who were caught off guard, not the supreme leader. Never the supreme leader.

The author is a political commentator. He hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern.

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