Prospects of a possible US-Iran dialogue looked dimmer after Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruled out talks with American officials "at any level." During a speech in Tehran Sept. 17, Khamenei downplayed the impact of the US "maximum pressure" campaign that has sought to elicit a "change of behavior" from Tehran and a renegotiation of the 2015 nuclear deal, which the United States withdrew from in May 2018.
"Everyone should understand that this is a ploy," Khamenei said of the latest US outreach. Those offers, according to the Iranian supreme leader, are meant to prove that the US "maximum pressure" has succeeded. "The Iranian nation attaches zero value to that policy," he added, boasting about the "unanimous" voice of Iranian officials in rejection of dialogue with Americans.
In recent months, the White House has not ruled out rapprochement, with President Donald Trump keeping open the possibility of a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani in New York, where the two leaders are expected to address the UN General Assembly this month. Yet there have been occasional shifts from "conditional" to "unconditional" in US offers. To Khamenei, those mixed pulses are an indication of either "a chaotic foreign policy" or a "trick" to confuse the other side. "But the Islamic Republic won't be duped, because we have a clear road map and a vision as to what we are doing," he added.
Earlier in August, Rouhani sent a seemingly conciliatory signal to the Trump administration, noting that talks could be possible should the United States lift sanctions on Iran, regardless of whether the latter returns to the nuclear accord. However, in his speech Khamenei — who maintains the final say on Iran's key state matters — appeared to negate Rouhani. "If the United States retracts its words, repents and returns to the nuclear deal which it breached, then it could attend talks involving the other signatories to the pact. Otherwise, there will be no negotiations between Iranian and American officials, be it in New York or anywhere else."
Iran's hard-liners have been placing the Rouhani administration in hot water for what they believe is excessive reliance on the "mirage" of the sanctions relief promised in the nuclear deal and for keeping the country's economy hinged on talks with the remaining European parties. Corroborating the same position, Khamenei said, "We do favor engagement and talks … but the country's affairs should not be pinned on such interaction."
As yet another sign that the Islamic Republic's overall stance toward the American government as an archenemy remains unchanged, Khamenei promised that Iran will overcome its enemies, "especially the United States."
The defiant speech by the Iranian leader followed a further complicating twist in the US-Iran tensions, involving a fresh episode in Saudi Arabia — a key Washington ally but Iran's toughest regional rival. Both Saudi and American officials have implicated Tehran in the devastating Sept. 14 attacks on two Saudi oil refineries. The strikes, which have significantly jolted global oil markets, were claimed by Iran-aligned Yemeni Houthi rebels. The Islamic Republic has denied any involvement but has supported what it calls the Shiite group's right to self-defense.
Despite pointing the finger of blame at Tehran, both Washington and Riyadh have exercised caution by refraining from threats of a potential all-out conflict. The current "no war, no talk" situation was envisioned earlier in May by Khamenei. And his latest speech appeared to uphold the same ethos, along with an implicit order to the Iranian delegation heading to New York to look the other way should they run into US counterparts inside UN corridors.
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