The Ayatollah Always Says No

The Farsi word for “no” is na h, which is easy enough to remember. Maybe even Joe Biden won’t forget it the next time the U.S. tries to reach out diplomatically to Iran.

We’re speaking of the Administration’s latest effort to come to terms with Tehran over its nuclear programs, which Mr. Biden made last weekend at the Munich Security Conference. The U.S. offer of direct bilateral talks, he said, “stands, but it must be real and tangible.” Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who was also at the conference though he refused to meet with U.S. officials, called Mr. Biden’s comments “a step forward.”

ayatullah khamenei

Mr. Salehi’s remark set the usual hearts aflutter that Iran is finally serious about a deal. But the optimism was brief. On Thursday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei flatly rejected direct talks with the U.S. “The U.S. is pointing a gun at Iran and wants us to talk to them,” he said. “Direct talks will not solve any problems.”

This isn’t the first time Mr. Khamenei has played chaste Daphne to President Obama’s infatuated Apollo. Just after becoming President in 2009, Mr. Obama sent the Ayatollah two private letters and delivered a conciliatory speech for the Persian new year of Nowruz. Mr. Khamenei’s answer: “They chant the slogan of change but no change is seen in practice.” He told a crowd chanting “death to America” that “if a hand is stretched covered with a velvet glove but it is cast iron inside, that makes no sense.”

That was in March 2009. In October of that year the U.S. and its allies tentatively worked out a deal with Iranian negotiators to move some of their enriched uranium outside Iran. Western analysts were confident that Mr. Khamenei would give his blessing, given the international pressure he was said to be under following the fraudulent elections and the bloody crackdown that followed.

The Ayatollah quashed that deal too: “Whenever they [Americans] smile at the officials of the Islamic revolution, when we carefully look at the situation, we notice that they are hiding a dagger behind their back.”

It was the same in January 2011, when diplomacy also collapsed. Ditto in 2012, when negotiations in February, May and June each ended in failure. Washington went into those talks thinking they were going to succeed on the theory that Tehran desperately wants relief from the supposedly crippling pressure of economic sanctions.

Why does the Ayatollah keep saying no? The conventional wisdom is that previous U.S. offers weren’t generous enough, or that the wrong President was in the White House, or that Iran wants only to deal directly with the U.S. and not in multilateral forums. Each of these theories has been tested and shown to be false.

A more persuasive explanation—get ready for this shocker—is that Iran really wants a bomb. The regime believes, not unreasonably, that Moammar Gadhafi would still be in power had he not given up his nuclear program in 2003. Mr. Khamenei also fears a “velvet revolution” scenario, in which more normal ties with the West threaten the ideological foundations of the Islamic Republic. Confrontation with America is in this regime’s DNA.

Meantime, the pretense of negotiations has allowed Tehran to play for time to advance its programs. When Mr. Obama took office, Iran had enriched 1,000 kilos of reactor-grade uranium. In its last report from November, U.N. inspectors found that Iran has produced 7,611 kilos to reactor grade, along with 232 kilos of uranium enriched to 20%, which is close to bomb-grade. Last month, Iran declared that it would install 3,000 advanced centrifuges at its Natanz facility, which can enrich uranium at two to three times its current rate.

As for the sanctions, they may hurt ordinary Iranians but this regime is famously indifferent to the suffering of its own people. The Ayatollah also doesn’t seem to take the Administration’s talk about “all options being on the table” seriously. Mr. Obama’s nomination of Iran dove Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense reinforces that impression, as do reports that the White House blocked Pentagon and CIA plans to arm the opposition that’s fighting to overthrow Iran’s client regime in Damascus. An America that won’t help proxies in a proxy war isn’t likely to take the fight directly to Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In rejecting Mr. Biden’s offer, the Ayatollah said frankly, “I’m not a diplomat; I’m a revolutionary.” Another round of multilateral talks with Iran is set to resume this month, but maybe Joe Biden and his boss should start taking no for an answer.

A version of this article appeared February 9, 2013, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Ayatollah Always Says No.

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