It’s something of a cliché among seasoned U.S. diplomats that half the battle in negotiating with Iran is knowing who one is talking too. In other words, it is difficult to know if the Iranian negotiator has the backing of the behind-the-scenes powerbrokers in Tehran, principally the supreme leader.
This wisdom of sorts was gained through tough experiences dating at least as far back as the Iran hostage crisis. In trying to secure the release of the American diplomats being held hostage by radical Iranian students, the Jimmy Carter administration worked with everyone from shady European characters to the official Iranian administration at the time. Alas, none proved to be speaking on behalf of the only power in Iran that mattered at the time— Imam Ruhollah Khomeini.
The same fate would await the Obama administration and its P5+1 partners in late 2009 and early 2010 when then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would accept a proposed fuel-swap agreement, only to find that Ahmadinejad was unable to win support for this policy back in Tehran.
This is what makes the speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani’s statements to the Associated Press this week so significant.
In an interview with the AP ahead of the P5+1 negotiations next week, Larijani was quoted as saying of Iran’s 20 percent enriched uranium, “We have some surplus, you know, the amount that we don’t need. But over that we can have some discussions.”
This comment is significant for two reasons. First, it appears to lay the groundwork for Iran’s acceptance of at least two of the P5+1’s major three demands. The P5+1 has reportedly asked Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent levels, to ship its existing stockpile of 20 percent uranium out of the country, and to suspend operations at the Fordow enrichment facility that was built underground to shield it from Western airstrikes.
Larijani’s comments suggest that Iran is prepared to meet at least the first two of these demands. If Iran has a surplus of 20 percent enriched uranium it presumably does not need to continue enriching it at this time, and in fact could dispense with some of what it has already enriched. Importantly, by claiming to have a surplus of the uranium, Iran’s government could meet this demand while still denying to domestic audiences that they have capitulated to Western pressure.
And with only a slight stretch of the imagination, Larijani’s comments could be interpreted as paving the way for Iran to meet the P5+1’s final major demand: the suspension of operations at Fordow. If Iranian leaders decide they don’t need to enrich at current rates, then one could imagine them “unilaterally” announcing that they are suspending operations at Fordow simply because their other enrichment plant, Natanz, has adequate capacity to meet current needs.
But just important as the substance of Larijani’s comment is the person who made it. As noted, Larijani is currently the speaker of Iran’s parliament, the Majles. More importantly, he is one of five influential brothers in the Islamic Republic system who retain very close ties to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Indeed, unlike some of the other prominent leaders in Iran—such as former Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami— Ali Larijani isn’t seen as having a broad independent base of support. Rather, much of his influence in the Iranian elite comes from his close relationship to Ayatollah Khamenei, the ultimate decision-maker for Iran’s nuclear program.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that he is speaking on behalf of Khamenei, but it strongly suggests it. Given that he depends on the supreme leader to retain influence, Larijani would be unlikely to get out ahead of Khamenei on such a crucial issue.
On the other hand, Khamenei might be using Larijani as a mouthpiece to float a trial balloon; that is, to test how much backlash the comment provoked among Iran’s hardliners before the supreme leader himself lends support to the idea. This would itself still be a positive but it’s noteworthy that the comment has attracted a fair amount of criticism in Iran.
Indeed, some Iranian media outlets are now claiming Larijani was misquoted, just as they did with some of President Hassan Rouhani’s comments while in New York.