Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has given the clearest signal yet that the new president, the moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani, has the authority to conduct direct talks with the US and offer compromises in nuclear negotiations.
Khamanei told the Islamic republic's revolutionary guards there was room for leniency in diplomacy. "Diplomacy is the field of smiling and requests for talks," he said yesterday in a speech delivered to senior commanders of the elite forces in Tehran, according to his official website. "I am not opposed to proper moves in diplomacy, and I still believe in what I named years ago as champion's leniency."
As the supreme leader, the 74-year-old ayatollah has the final say in all state matters, especially concerning direct negotiations with the US, which Tehran considers its sworn enemy, and any major agreements about the nuclear programme.
In diplomacy, he said, one should have the flexibility of a wrestler, perhaps giving way at times for tactical reasons but never forgetting who is the "rival and enemy".
By referring to "champion's leniency", Khamenei was invoking the subtitle of a book he has translated from Arabic called Imam Hassan's Peace, which is about how the second Shia imam, Hasan ibn Ali, averted war by showing flexibility and entering an agreement with his enemy 14 centuries ago.
Khamenei was speaking a few days after it emerged that President Barack Obama had exchanged letters with Rouhani raising the chances of a historic meeting between the two men at the UN general assembly next week and possible future high-level meetings between Tehran and Washington.
Iran's foreign ministry spokeswoman, Marzieh Afkham, confirmed yesterday that letters had been exchanged, saying Obama had written to Rouhani congratulating him on his election victory, and Rouhani had responded.
Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian nuclear official who worked as Rouhani's deputy on Iran's supreme national security council from 1997 to 2005, wrote in an article last week that Khamenei had given consent for direct talks with the Obama administration. "Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued permission for President Hassan Rouhani's new administration to enter into direct talks with the US," he wrote in the Japan Times. "No better opportunity to end decades of bilateral hostility is likely to come along."
Khamenei told the guards, who are accused by the west of largely supporting Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria militarily and financially, that they should stay away from politics. "It is not necessary for the guards to have activities in the political field," he said, echoing Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the late founder of the Islamic republic, who banned the elite forces from involvement in politics after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Despite this, the guards have been extensively involved in Iranian politics recently, especially under the eight-year rule of the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when they expanded their political and financial operations.
Khamenei's words echoed those of Rouhani on Monday, when he asked the guards to "stay above and beyond political currents", and warned them against competing with the will of the people.
Khamenei's warning came as video footage allegedly showing Iranian guards in Syria aiding the Assad forces was released by a Dutch television programme.
It was unclear whether Khamenei was attempting to curb the guards' power or whether he was asking them not to cause difficulties for Rouhani's administration, should it choose to compromise over the nuclear issue.
Khamenei reiterated that Iran was not seeking to make an atomic bomb. "We are against nuclear weapons, not because of the US or other countries, but because of our beliefs," he said. "And when we say no one should have nuclear weapons, we definitely do not pursue it ourselves."
Former foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi, reinstated as the head of the country's atomic energy agency by Rouhani, said at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna this week that Tehran was ready to "end the so-called nuclear file". Iran's nuclear dossier, previously under the control of hardliners, has been transferred to the foreign ministry at the request of Rouhani.
Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is travelling to New York with Rouhani, is due to meet the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, and the British foreign secretary, William Hague, but it is unclear when and where the new round of nuclear talks will be held.
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
Original headline: Ayatollah signals that Rouhani can enter nuclear talks with the US
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