By Yeganeh Torbati
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Saturday he supported moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s diplomatic opening at the U.N. General Assembly last week but that some of what occurred there was “not proper”.
Khamenei did not elaborate on his objections, but he also said he did not trust the United States as a negotiating partner, hinting at some disagreement over an historic phone conversation between Rouhani and U.S. President Barack Obama.
But while Khamenei’s endorsement appeared limited, it could help Rouhani parry conservative hardliners opposed to his drive for “constructive interaction” with the world to ease Tehran’s economically damaging international isolation.
Khamenei – the ultimate arbiter of security and diplomatic policy under Iran’s hybrid system of clerical and republican rule – said prior to Rouhani’s trip that he supported “heroic flexibility” in diplomacy, while cautioning that the Islamic Republic must always remember who its foes are.
The Rouhani-Obama phone chat, the first between presidents of the two deeply estranged countries since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, capped a week of overtures by Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to the West.
The landslide election in June of Rouhani has raised hopes of a negotiated settlement to Iran’s long-running dispute with world powers over its nuclear programme – though it is Khamenei who will make the final decision on the contours of any deal.
“We support the government’s diplomatic movements and place importance on diplomatic efforts, and support what was in this last trip,” Khamenei said in a speech, according to the ISNA news agency. “Of course, in our opinion, some of what occurred in the New York trip was not proper.” He did not elucidate.
“While we are optimistic about our government’s diplomatic staff, we are pessimistic about the Americans. The U.S. government is not trustworthy, is self-important, and breaks its promises,” Iran’s top cleric said.
Rouhani also won a resounding endorsement for his conciliatory moves at the United Nations from the Iranian parliament, a significant gesture since the assembly is dominated by factions loyal to Khamenei.
The president and his team are hoping to secure a removal of international sanctions on Iran’s banking, energy, and shipping sector that slashed vital oil exports and hobbled the economy.
The sanctions were imposed over Iran’s failure to address suspicions that it is enriching uranium to develop a nuclear arms capability. Iran says it wants only civilian atomic energy.
The next round of talks between Iran and six world powers on the nuclear stand-off, which has raised fears of a new Middle East war, is to be held in Geneva on October 15-16.
A diplomat based in Tehran said Khamenei’s comments were likely an effort to play down expectations from negotiations, while distancing himself from any failure in talks.
“There have already been sceptical signs and in a way these comments are not that surprising,” the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The distance between Iran and the United States is very wide. It can’t just turn into smiles and friendliness. He (Khamenei) is giving it a chance, but if it doesn’t work he’ll go back to his own way.”
While in New York, Rouhani emphasised a changed atmosphere between Iran and the United States, and said his goal is to resolve problems and pursue “the shared interest between the two nations.
But while Rouhani’s efforts to undo some of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bellicose rhetoric on the world stage have met with cautious approval at home from conservatives, some hardliners in Iran’s complex power structure have been critical given their hostility to any thaw with the United States.
Upon Rouhani’s return to Tehran last week, he was greeted at the airport by a large crowd of supporters and a smaller group of protesters, who threw eggs and shoes at his official car.
And the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a pillar of the political establishment, said last week that Rouhani’s phone call with Obama was premature.
Both Rouhani and Obama face domestic resistance to rapprochement from those who fear their president may be too inclined to grant concessions before the other side takes any concrete steps. This wall of mistrust has impeded negotiations.