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Iran's Hard-Liners May Try To Scuttle Possibility Of Talks With U.S.


The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have accused Iran of a role in an attack on Saudi Arabia. That attack came amid a wider U.S. pressure campaign against Iran. Now Iranian leaders are divided over talking with the United States. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports on Iranian views, starting with the cleric who tops Iran's political system.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: For Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's way forward in this crisis is most notable for what it's not going to do. Iranian media quote Khamenei as telling seminary students in Tehran, there will be no negotiations with the U.S. unless Washington makes major reversals in its foreign policy, starting with the nuclear deal.


SUPREME LEADER ALI KHAMENEI: (Through interpreter) If the United States backs down, repents and returns to the nuclear deal, it can then participate in the talks alongside other countries that signed it. Apart from that, there will be no negotiations at any level between Iranian and American officials, neither on the New York trip, nor anywhere else.

KENYON: The New York trip refers to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's expected appearance at the United Nations annual General Assembly. President Trump had suggested a meeting was possible, but after Khamenei's remarks, Trump said he'd prefer not to meet with Rouhani. Analysts say that could be a real missed opportunity to defuse the crisis in the Persian Gulf.

Tariq Rauf, a former senior official with the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, says it's likely Khamenei spoke out because he knows Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif favor talking with the Americans about the nuclear agreement known as the JCPOA.

TARIQ RAUF: It seems that President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, if given an opportunity, would like to engage with the U.S. It's more the supreme leader who has taken a much harder line. He never really was a firm believer in the JCPOA, but he sort of reluctantly went along with it.

KENYON: Rouhani is also facing an Iranian military establishment that Rauf describes as being in a militant mood these days. Laura Rockwood, who directs the Open Nuclear Network, which works to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons being used, says if Iran was behind the attack on Saudi oil facilities, she's at a loss to see a coherent strategy at work.

LAURA ROCKWOOD: But I can't believe that the Iranian government would've thought that this was an effective way to get the U.S. to respond more positively to the JCPOA.

KENYON: Iran insists it had nothing to do with the attack, as the Trump administration claims. Rockwood says as far as she can tell, the current situation serves neither the American nor Iranian president well. Trump, she believes, is eager for a big foreign policy win, whereas Rouhani appears boxed in by military hard-liners in the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

ROCKWOOD: But extremely difficult for Rouhani. I think he's between a rock and a hard place. He's heavily invested in the JCPOA, which hasn't been working out well.

KENYON: Rockwood says it's not far-fetched to imagine the military carrying out the attack on Saudi Arabia with an eye toward making sure Rouhani and Zarif have no chance politically to reengage in talks with the U.S.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.