March 8, 2022 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1629

Iran Is Insisting On What It Demanded From The Biden Administration A Year Ago, Part II: The Debate In Iran About Direct Negotiations With The U.S. – Supreme Leader Khamenei Approves It In Principle, Reformists Are In Favor, Ideologues Are Against

March 8, 2022 | By A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1629


In light of the Biden administration's determination to return to the 2015 JCPOA to return to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal` developed in recent weeks in the Iranian media on the question of direct negotiations between Iran and the U.S.

It should be noted that in Iran's talks in Vienna with the U.S., that are being mediated by Europe, Russia, and China, the U.S. delegation is, according to Iran's demands, confined to a separate room as "punishment" with the aim of underlining that it is not part of the JCPOA or of the group that is conducting contacts with Iran.

As far as the Iranian regime is concerned, direct talks with the U.S. is ideologically prohibited, because publicity for and normalization of Iranian meetings with U.S. representatives would constitute the Iranian regime's official recognition and acceptance of the U.S. as leader of the world order. In addition, Iran's exclusion of the U.S. from the Vienna talks about a return to the JCPOA is principled and fundamental; Iran considers the U.S. to blame for the situation that followed President Trump's withdrawal from the agreement in 2018, and therefore it sees it as incumbent upon the U.S. to not only take the first step but to agree to Iran's demands.

These Iranian demands are: The U.S. must lift all the sanctions and verify that they have been lifted; the American leadership – the presidency, but, if there is no possibility of dictating policy to future presidents, then the heads of the House and Senate – must declare their commitment to the JCPOA; and the U.S. must provide guarantees that it will not again withdraw from the JCPOA. Only after these conditions are met will the Iranians take any step whatsoever to return to the 2015 agreement.

Iran's pragmatic/reformist circles have criticized the regime circles' practice, particularly under President Ebrahim Raisi, of negotiating indirectly with the U.S. while publicly shunning it, especially in light of reports that the American negotiating team has requested direct negotiations numerous times. On February 26, 2022, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, reported, citing Iranian sources, that Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Hossein Abdollahian had repeatedly rejected requests from U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris to meet with him on the margins of the February 18-20 Munich Security Conference.[1] The pragmatists are calling for direct contacts with the U.S. so that Iran can fully actualize its interests with it, as the U.S. is the principle and primary actor in the JCPOA, and the superpower with the most significant political and economic weight vis-à-vis Iran. An additional argument in favor of direct contact with the U.S. is the need to avoid having to pay the European, Russian, and Chinese mediators for their services.

In contrast, Iran's hawkish ideological circles are continuing to reject any official acknowledgement of the U.S. as a legitimate partner for talks. They attribute this rejection to a high moral position, presenting the U.S. as untrustworthy and without credibility and as being motivated by ideological/political scheming against revolutionary Iran.

As he did in 2013 prior to the direct public U.S.-Iran negotiations, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has again allowed contact with the U.S., saying in January 2022 that "conducting negotiations, talks, and interaction with the enemy at a particular stage does not mean surrender to it."[2]

This report will review the range of views in the Iranian regime on the nuclear issue and on the return to the JCPOA:

The Iranian Regime's Institutionalized Hostility To The U.S. – The "Great Satan"

In the view of the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the U.S. is the "Great Satan." This is not mere propaganda – it is a principled ideological position vis-à-vis the U.S., that is expressed in the fact that the government of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, like the government of President Hassan Rohani before it and others before that, insist on no public contact whatsoever with the U.S.[3]

The Iranian revolutionary regime's institutionalized ideological hostility towards the U.S. is fed by the predominant ideological perception in the regime that the U.S. is to blame for the political, moral, and cultural injustices of the world, and that it must step down from its position as leader of the world order to make way for the new leader – revolutionary Iran.

The issue of talks with the U.S. is highly charged and sensitive because of the Iranian regime's extreme ideological position against the U.S., the "Great Satan." Leader Khamenei does not permit official talks with the U.S., except for his extraordinary permission in 2012, that he called "heroic flexibility," to the Iranian negotiating team to conduct direct talks with the Obama administration in order to arrive at the JCPOA in 2015.[4]

It should be emphasized that the JCPOA was fully planned, agreed on, and coordinated in advance by the entire regime echelon, with the leadership, consultation, and oversight of Khamenei, in order to upgrade Iran's strategic status. Iranian representative to the United Nations Majid Takht-Ravanchi said on January 19, 2021 that it was "not correct to say that the nuclear agreement is the product of the Rouhani government, [because] the Supreme National Security Council provided its opinion and Khamenei gave instructions in this matter as well. The nuclear agreement was an issue that the group regime [decisionmakers] talked about, and now we have reached a critical stage, and we are moving ahead according to Majlis legislation."   

It should be recalled that Iran's direct talks with the U.S. began in Oman via secret channels, and only after President Obama extended to Tehran signed recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium. This took place a year before Rohani became president in 2013. In contrast to popular belief, this secret channel was not opened as a result of Iranian capitulation to the pressure of Western sanctions.[5]

A similar practice is in place at this time in the Vienna talks. Foreign Minister Abdollahian hinted that Iran sees no point in direct talks unless the Americans promise a final outcome in advance, and commit to it, as a condition for opening direct talks. In an interview with Abdollahian published by the Financial Times on February 16, 2022, titled "Iran calls for US 'political statement' on commitment to nuclear deal," Abdollahian said that U.S. officials had sent "many messages" to have direct talks with Iran, but that "Our last response to Americans and intermediaries was: Any direct dialogue, contact and negotiation with the U.S. would have very huge costs for my government. We are not ready to enter into the process of direct talks with the U.S. if we do not have a clear and promising outlook to reach a good agreement with sustainable guarantees in front of us." He added that Tehran had indicated to the U.S. that if Washington's "intentions are genuine, you should take some practical and tangible steps on the ground before any direct talks and contacts can take place." This, he explained, could include unfreezing billions of Iranian petrodollars stuck in foreign central banks because of President Trump's sanctions, or a presidential executive order to lift some of the sanctions.[6]

Iranian Reformists Are In Favor Of Direct Negotiations, Ideologues Are Against

The struggle in the past decade between Iran's two main political circles, the pragmatists/reformists and the ideologues, in the matter of negotiating with the U.S. can be summarized as follows:  While the pragmatic/reformist camp calls for using diplomatic channels and negotiations with the U.S. in order to improve the economic and geopolitical situation of the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the ideological camp rejects such open dialogue. However, it is important to note that both camps are working to strengthen the revolutionary regime and are expressing loyalty to the orders of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is Iran's supreme authority in political matters. Khamenei himself recently permitted talks with the U.S., though he did not call the situation "heroic flexibility" as he did in 2012 on the eve of the direct public U.S.-Iran negotiations.[7]

Khamenei Hints That It Is Permissible To Talk with The U.S.

In recent weeks, Khamenei has twice hinted that he permits President Raisi and his team to conduct talks with the U.S..

On January 9, 2022, Khamenei told residents of the city of Qom, in a livestreamed speech: "Refusing to submit to the arrogant, bullying enemy is also one of the principles of the revolution, and conducting negotiations, talks, and interaction with the enemy at a particular stage does not mean surrender to it, when we have never yet surrendered and from this point onwards will [also] not surrender."[8]

Khamenei livestreams his speech to residents of Qom. Source:, Iran, February 9, 2022.

In another livestreamed speech on February 17, 2022, to the residents of the city of Tabriz, in northern Iran, Khamenei hinted that the problems that were not solved in the 2015 agreement must now be solved – that is, the problem of the U.S. sanctions that have a severe impact on the Iranian economy. At the same time, he criticized how the Rohani government's negotiating team behaved with the U.S., saying:  

"With regard to the 2015 and 2016 nuclear agreement, my criticism was that there are points in the nuclear agreement that should have been insisted upon so that problems would not crop up in the future, and I even reiterated this in comments. But some of the points did not receive attention, and the problems that everyone sees did indeed crop up. For this reason, it is very important to look to the future [emphasis MEMRI's]... The way to deal with the economic pressure is by means of internal effort and by neutralizing the sanctions. Of course, along with this, diplomatic effort is also good, just like our good revolutionary brothers [i.e. the negotiating team] are engaging in lifting the sanctions and persuading the opposite side [to accept Iran's demands]..."[9]

Reformist Circles Criticize The Regime's Policy vis-à-vis The U.S. In The Nuclear Talks

Reformist Etamad-E Meli Party Leadership Member Mohammad-Javad Haghshenas: "The Heart Of The Matter Is Between America And Iran... When We Cannot Sit To Talk With The Americans, At That Moment, The Other Countries Come In"

In an interview published January 13, 2022 by the Iranian ILNA news agency, Mohammad-Javad Haghshenas, member of the leadership of the reformist Etamad-e Meli party, criticized Iran's refusal to negotiate directly with the Americans. He stated that this refusal, and the negotiations with the 4+1 as mediator, do not work in Iran's favor. This is because the other countries in the 4+1 are taking advantage of the situation to further their own interests, and benefiting at Iran's expense. The following are the main points of his statements:

"When governing a state, it goes without saying that when a country's officials, who represent the people, take on the fate of a country like Iran, they should have no other concern, thought, or fear other than those which serve the national interests of the country and its people. As a teacher of foreign policy, I always told my students, and was always told by my lecturers, that the most important characteristic and standard for foreign policy officials and for laying out a strategic policy as part of the cornerstones of the state must be consistent with the fulfillment of national interests.

"Those who currently control the fate of the country, in the Majlis Supreme National Security Council and in the Expediency Council, and determine our foreign policy, must be aware of and mindful of laws and principles when making decisions. The implementation of a foreign policy is no place for disagreement, because the administration and implementation of this policy are carried out in the Foreign Ministry, which is the only place where policy can be put into action and represented...

Mohammad-Javad Haghshenas, member of the leadership of the reformist Etamad-e Meli party (Source: ILNA, Iran, January 13, 2022)

"Unfortunately, we have been using the wrong policy for years; it has only managed to serve the interests of countries that had no role or power in the negotiations. Thus, we found ourselves negotiating with the 5+1, even though all five were not necessary [that is, only the U.S. was]. The heart of the matter is between Iran and the U.S. The disagreements between the two countries should have been dealt with based on shared interests, and disputes should have been resolved without the presence of a mediator.

"When we cannot sit and talk to the American side, that is when other countries can get involved. It is crystal clear that each country involved in the negotiations is pursuing its own benefit and interests... What ends up happening is that Iran's benefits are divided amongst these five countries. Since the Americans have their own position, they have no reason to want to provide benefit for someone [else] – which is why we have only damaged our country by taking this approach...

"During the Leader's conversations with the public in the city of Qom, and during the previous round, [direct negotiations with the U.S.] were clearly treated as heroic, and the same stance was maintained this time as well. Their fears at the time were clear, but the question is: Why was this [approach] abandoned for all these years? Today, there is no doubt that this inattention to our national interests places us in a position of inferiority, both within our country and in negotiations with foreign powers. This hobbles us, causing damage and weakness. We cannot actively tie the hands of the Iranian negotiation team and tell them 'go negotiate.' Negotiations of this sort will cause nothing but damage."[10]

Former Iranian Ambassador And Foreign Affairs Analyst Javid Ghorban-Oghli: "The Country Interested In Getting The Sanctions Lifted Is Us, And The Country That Must Lift Them Is America – And If That Is The Case, Why Not Negotiate Directly With This Country?"

Former Iranian ambassador and international affairs analyst Javid Ghorban-Oghli said on January 18, 2022 that the continuation of the talks in Vienna and the activity of President Raisi's ideological negotiating team, which has been working since November 2021, will not necessarily achieve a better outcome than the previous pragmatic negotiating team under President Rohani did with the Biden administration from April-August 2021. Referring to the need for "direct dialogue with the U.S. at this time in order to accelerate the negotiations, conclude agreements, and reduce the disputes," he said that "this point has been stressed many times by me, by others, and even by ideological analysts: There is no reason for us to convey our positions to the other side via mediators whose reliability we do not know. Likewise, it should be recalled that every country has its own interests. From the European troika to Russia and China, no country will sacrifice its own interests for the sake of another country. In addition, there is no ban on direct talks with America, and recently the Leader again clarified that dialogue with the enemy does not mean surrender.

"Therefore, I see no reason for us to continue the negotiations in such a manner. The country interested in getting the sanctions lifted is us, and the country that must lift them is America – and if that is the case, why not negotiate directly with this country?"[11]

Former ambassador and analyst Javid Ghorban-Oghli (Source: ILNA, Iran, January 18, 2022)

Ahmad Hakimi Pour, Secretary-General Of The "Will of the Iranian Nation" Party: "It Is Better For Us To Be Able To Arrive At A Point At Which We Can Negotiate With This Country [The U.S.] In Order To Solve The Problems"

In a February 21, 2022 interview with the ISNA news agency, Ahmad Hakimi Pour, secretary-general of the reformist "Will of the Iranian Nation" party and head of the reformist faction in the Tehran city council, called for direct talks with the U.S. The following are the main points of his statements:

"The developments in recent years have proven more than ever that every country works to achieve its own interests. Since our main dispute is with America, it is best that we arrive at a point where we can negotiate with this country in order to solve the problems and improve the situation."[12]

The Ideological Camp's Opposition To Direct Negotiations With The U.S.

Senior ideological camp officials Foreign Minister Abdollahian and Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council which is the regime body that makes the decisions in strategic matters including nuclear matters, took head-on criticism from the ideological camp because they hinted that the Raisi government would consider direct talks with the U.S. if Iran's conditions were to be met. It is reasonable to assume that the statements made by the two officials reflected the views of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian (Source: ISNA, Iran, January 24, 2022)

On February 24, 2022, Abdollahian said: "The American side is sending us, through various pathways, messages according to which it is interested in a platform for direct dialogue with Iran. In the meantime, the dialogue with America is not direct, but conducted via [EU representative for the talks Enrique] Mora, and via one or two of the JCPOA member countries. At the same time, if we arrive during the negotiations process at a stage at which reaching a good agreement with high guarantees will require a level of [direct] talks with the Americans, we will not disregard this."[13]

Supreme National Security Council secretary Ali Shamkhani tweeted on January 25, 2022 that there would be an option for talks with the Americans if a "good agreement," by Iran's definition, was in the offing. He wrote: "Contact with the American delegation in Vienna has been through informal written exchanges, and there was no need, and will be no need, for more contact, so far. This communication method can only be replaced by other methods when #GoodAgreement is available. #ViennaTalks."[14]

Shamkhani's tweet., January 25, 2022

Kayhan: "The Question Is, Why And By What Logic Are Abdollahian And Shamkhani Talking About The Possibility Of Direct Negotiations With America?!"

In its January 26, 2022 editorial, the regime mouthpiece Kayhan, which expresses hawkish views, chastised the ideological camp officials. Penned by Kayhan editor-in-chief and Khamenei representative in the newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari, and headlined "[Constructive Criticism] For Our Brothers Amir Abdollahian And Shamkhani," it called for the two to wise up and beware of the scheming of the U.S.:

"It is hard to believe that Abdollahian and Shamkhani, with all their knowledge and experience, are unaware of the deception behind direct talks with America... America has shown several times that it wants to negotiate for the sake of negotiating, and not in order to solve the problems...

"America was certain that after it withdrew from the agreement there would begin a new round of talks on Iran's missile program and Iran's presence in the region, and that there would be nuclear agreements 2 and 3 (and, according to the wise statements of the martyr Qassem Soleimani [IRGC Qods Force commander killed by the U.S. in January 2020], [their] end point would be the elimination of Iran!). But this trick did not come about due to the wisdom of the leader [Khamenei] and the government did not permit entering this round of talks...

"Now, the question is: Why and by what logic are Abdollahian and Shamkhani talking about the possibility of direct negotiations with America?! What part of the issue whose clarifying requires negotiations, not to mention direct negotiations with America, is not clear?!...

"These claims have sparked a wave of concern also among a wide range of revolutionary forces and supporters of God, and it is hoped that [Abdollahian and Shamkhani] will quickly rectify their ill-considered statements and remove the suspicions that they created."[15]

* A. Savyon is Director of the MEMRI Iran Media Project.


[1] (Lebanon), February 26, 2022.

[2], January 9, 2022.

[6], February 16, 2022.

[8], January 9, 2022.

[9], February 17, 2022.

[10], January 13, 2022.

[11], January 18, 2022.

[12], February 21, 2022.

[13], January 25, 2022.

[14], January 25, 2022.

[15], January 26, 2022.

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