President Barack Obama appears ready to hold the Islamic Republic to a September deadline for negotiations. However, recent comments coming out of Tehran show that at least for now, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is not interested in including the nuclear program as part of any bilateral negotiations.
One important reason for this refusal is that recent demonstrations have increased security concerns inside the regime. The nuclear program is seen by both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad as an insurance policy against the possibility of the Islamic Republic falling apart. The West already has enough problems with instability in places such as nuclear Pakistan. Washington does not want chaos to create an opportunity for Pakistan's nuclear arsenal to go missing, or worse, fall into the hands of extremists. As a result, Washington decided to deal with different Pakistani administrations, even though the White House knows that the Pakistani intelligence service has aided America's enemies in Afghanistan.
It is very possible that Khamenei believes that once he gets his hands on a bomb, the United States will come knocking on Tehran's door for the same reasons - stability and security. Fearing that instability in Iran may result in Iran's bombs falling into the hands of extremists, it may actually decide to prop the current regime up. This may not be the preferred option for America, but it's certainly one that Washington may be compelled to adopt were Iran to go nuclear.
Another reason Iran is refusing to negotiate over its nuclear program with the U.S. could be regional influence. Khamenei may fear that an agreement would eventually erode Iran's other spheres of influence in the Middle East. This could include Iran having to reduce its support for asymmetric groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as Shiite groups in Iraq, and Persian speaking and Shiite groups in Afghanistan. With instability increasing at home, Iran needs its influence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon more than good relations with the U.S. Such influence provides Tehran with pillars of power, just as Syria's involvement in Lebanon has provided the Assad dynasty with levers which it uses for its economic and political ambitions.
There is also the question of timing. No one wants to enter negotiations with a weak hand. Prior to the June 12 elections, Iran's bargaining hand was much stronger. Many Iran observers, as well the White House, believed that Khamenei was captaining a stable ship; that they were dealing with a sophisticated chess player who applied an intricate system of checks and balances to maintain stability at home and abroad. The recent events in Iran have severely damaged this perception. Should Khamenei enter negotiations now, the regime's chipped facade could prove detrimental in negotiations. Therefore, it may be a better policy for the Supreme Leader to wait until the situation stabilizes.
At the same time, the Iranian government faces a dilemma. Refusal to enter negotiations with the U.S. could lead to tougher sanctions. This is a possibility that Iran would like to avoid. The best way to do this would be to create a rift in the UN Security Council between the United States, France and the United Kingdom on one hand, and Russia and China on the other. This is why Iran recently agreed to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors access to the Arak heavy water reactor, after a year of refusing any such visits. This is in addition to allowing the IAEA to upgrade its monitoring equipment at the Natanz enrichment plant. Iran's hope is that once the September deadline passes, such actions will make it difficult for the U.S. to garner support from China and Russia in the Security Council.
However, Khamenei may find such cooperation to be insufficient. Even if Iran can convince Russia and China to back them, any refusal to negotiate could strengthen Washington's stance in the European Union. This could mean much tougher EU sanctions; with countries such as Germany being one of Iran's biggest source of industrial equipment, and the UK hosting bank accounts of numerous Iranian officials, such action could still be very harmful to Iran's economy. There is also the question of Switzerland, which provides a portion of Iran's gasoline. It's unlikely that the Swiss would go against their European neighbors, thus making EU sanctions even more painful.
President Obama's offer of direct talks with Iran has significantly increased the costs of ignoring the West for Iran. This puts Khamenei in a bind. If he cooperates with the West, it would come at a cost, as would ignoring them. But for now, the latter burden appears to be the lesser of two evils for Iran's Supreme Leader. This of course could change, especially if troubles at home continue to reach a crescendo.
The clock is ticking on Khamenei's nuclear dream, and it seems he is more keen on confrontation than reconciliation with the Great Satan.