Juan Cole already has a run down of some of the things Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei said in response to President Obama’s message on the occasion of Iranian New Year and the press coverage of it. I think Juan’s point about the speech not being a rebuff is on the money, but I do take issue with his characterization of the speech being more like a “grumpy old man response to Obama's call for engagement.”
I say this because I think the translations of the bits and pieces of the speech in the news (even the Persian language Farsnews upon which Juan relies) do not do justice to this carefully crafted response intended to set the parameters of US-Iran talks if they are to happen.
For those who can understand Persian, I recommend that you check Khamenei’s website. The Persian language section of the website - the site has translations in 12 other languages – has both the video of his speech as well as the whole text. The English section also has an abbreviated English translation which is decent but still does not relay the feel you get by watching the whole speech.
The speech was quite long, first dealing with domestic affairs and focusing mostly on the need to curb the consumption of resources. But it gets interesting around minute 40 when he explains why his public support for President Ahmadinejad should not be construed as support for him as a candidate in the next presidential election. This is of course a big issue for Iran’s domestic politics and the fact that the leader himself had to address it was significant since Ahmadinejad supporters are working very hard to give the impression that he is his candidate
The move to the subject of US-Iran talks is abrupt and Khamenei makes clear that this is the only external issue with which he will deal, spending more than 20 minutes on it. It is a powerful speech, calmly delivered, and mostly devoid of usual jargon. He does talk about US policies that have harmed Iran and continue to harm it, including sanctions, freezing of assets, support for opposition and secessionist groups, and Baluchi insurgents - communications of whom with US operatives he says the Iranian government has intercepted.
But he mentions these as reasons why mere conciliatory speeches cannot be considered real change in American policy. More significantly, he mentions them in order to explain why the continuation of these hostile policies has to make Iran wonder whether President Obama’s gestures are of any value: “They say they have extended their hands towards Iran. If the extended hand has a velvet glove but under it is an iron cast hand, then this does not have a good meaning.”
This leads to the point: “They say come and talk, come and establish relations, they change slogans. Well, where is this change? Clarify this for us; what has changed? Have you unfrozen the assets of the Iranian people; have you lifted the oppressive sanctions…? We do not have any experience with the new American government and president; we will look and judge. You change, and we will also change our behavior too.”
He also makes a clever play on the usual way the American policy community talks about Iran, turning it against US and saying “I don’t know who really makes policy in the US – the president, Congress or behind the scene players.” But no matter who makes decisions in the US, Iran makes decision "rationally and not based on emotions." The bottom line is: “Our nation dislikes it when you again proclaim ‘talks with pressure’; we talk to Iran while we pressure them as well – threat and inducement. You cannot talk to our nation this way."
Juan Cole interpret complains about US foreign policy as “Iran’s initial bargaining position which include everything but the kitchen sink.” I don’t.
Khamenei’s speech actually shows how attuned he is to debates in Washington. He makes no calls for U.S. apology for past actions. His focus is today. No doubt he wants sanctions to be lifted, assets unfrozen, and attempts to undermine the Iranian government ended at some point as a result of talks with the U.S.
But his concern now is the argument forwarded by powerful circles in Washington that negotiations with Iran should be combined with increased pressure to make sure that Iran will give in at the end. It is this type of what he calls “condescending language, arrogant approach, and patronizing moves” that he rejects.
Clearly from his view, engagement in talks must be accompanied with some concrete steps that show Iran that the United States is interested in a process and give and take and not a process based on “either deception or intimidation.” Deception because the objective remains the same while the softer language is a mere tactical change. Intimidation because talks are combined with further squeeze of Iran.
He leaves no doubt that further squeezing of Iran leading up to talks and during the talks will be seen as a sign that President Obama’s rhetoric of change is a farce. As such the speech should really be seen as a carefully calibrated attempt to shape the debate in Washington on how to go about talking to Iran.