Iranian officials split over response to
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[May 23, 2018]
By Parisa Hafezi
ANKARA (Reuters) - For all of Iran's fierce
verbal response to fresh U.S. threats of tougher sanctions, some senior
officials in Tehran believe the door to diplomacy should stay open.
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented a list of
sweeping demands for Iran, including abandoning nuclear enrichment, its
ballistic missile program and its role in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, or
face "the strongest sanctions in history".
Four senior Iranian officials contacted by Reuters interpreted Pompeo's
remarks as a "bargaining strategy", similar to Washington's approach to
Last year U.S. officials were pressing for tougher sanctions against
Pyongyang and sent an aircraft carrier to the region in a show of
strength before relations eased to a point where President Donald Trump
may hold talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
"America does not want to get involved in another war in the region.
Iran also cannot afford more economic hardship ... always there is a way
to reach a compromise," said one of the Iranian officials, who was
involved in Iran's nuclear talks with major powers for two years.
"The era of military confrontations is over," the official said. Like
others giving their views on relations with the United States, the
official asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
However, it will be difficult for Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei to back any diplomatic solution, because doing so could
undermine his credibility among his hardline power base, who reject any
detente with the West.
"They (Americans) are lying. Even if Iran accepts all these demands,
they will continue to demand more. Their aim is changing Iran's regime,"
said one official who is close to Khamenei's camp.
"Americans can never be trusted. We don't give a damn to their threats
and sanctions," he said, echoing Khamenei's public statements.
Pompeo's speech did not explicitly call for a change in leadership in
Iran, but he urged the Iranian people to reject their clerical rulers.
"CUP OF POISON"
Earlier this month the United States withdrew from a 2015 multinational
deal which restricted Iran's nuclear program in return for lifting
sanctions that had crippled the economy.
Tehran says its right to nuclear capabilities and its defensive missile
program are non-negotiable.
But with Iran's economy so fragile, weakened by decades of sanctions,
corruption and mismanagement, Khamenei may yet consider diplomacy over
confrontation with the United States.
Some insiders said that, though difficult, he could drink "the cup of
poison," as his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini described it
when he reluctantly agreed to a U.N.-mediated truce that ended the
1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
"For most Iranians, the economy is the main issue, not what Iran does in
the region or the country's nuclear program," said a senior Western
diplomat in Tehran.
"That is why Iranian leaders will show some flexibility despite the
TROUBLE AT HOME
It was Iran's weak economy that forced Khamenei to give tentative
backing for the 2015 nuclear agreement with major powers. The deal,
engineered by pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani, ended the country's
economic and political isolation.
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Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during Friday
prayers in Tehran September 14, 2007. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/File
The establishment's core support comes from lower-income Iranians,
who joined anti-government protests in January. The unrest was a
reminder to authorities that they were vulnerable to popular anger
fueled by economic hardship.
"If they fail to manage the economy, then the regime will not be
able to resist the pressure. It does not mean it will fall apart,
but the economy could reach its worst ever breaking point," said
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born expert on Iran at the
Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel.
European parties to the nuclear deal are trying to rescue it after
Washington's exit by keeping Iranian oil trade and investment
flowing. But they concede it will be difficult.
A third Iranian official said he expected that the United States
would eventually have to accept some level of Iranian uranium
enrichment activity and ballistic missile work, because "these are
Iran's red lines".
In his speech, Pompeo tried to quash talk of war by saying
Washington would lift punishing sanctions it is now moving to
impose, restore diplomatic and commercial ties and allow Iran to
have access to advanced technology if Washington saw tangible shifts
in Iran's policies.
"DECLARATION OF WAR"
Several Iranian officials told Reuters that the hardline elite,
including Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), viewed Pompeo's
demands as a "declaration of war" against Iran.
Analysts said the risk of a broader conflict could not be ruled out,
despite running counter to Trump's own stated desire to disentangle
the United States from a generation of costly conflicts in the
"If Americans push Iran to the corner ... then Iran will have no
other option but to react harshly," said Tehran-based analyst Saeed
Leylaz. "This is what hawks want."
While Tehran has said it would respond to any military aggression by
targeting U.S. interests in the region and Israel, some experts said
the country would struggle to defend itself against a direct,
"Iran has done well in proxy wars, but they cannot confront Israel
or the U.S. in a direct war," said the Western diplomat. "They don't
have modern weapons."
Shi'ite Muslim Iran backs President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil
war, Shi'ite militias in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen's conflict and
Lebanon's Hezbollah movement.
Washington's regional allies, Sunni Gulf Arab states and Israel --
staunch foes of Tehran -- have all praised the United States'
toughening stance on Iran.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Mike
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