President Obama made outreach to Iran a major goal for his administration. He used his inaugural address and then his first television interview to reach out to Iran. “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” he declared in his first inaugural address. Aides and presidents themselves obsess over such momentous speeches, and so Obama must have been so pleased with such symbolism that he repeated it eight days later. When it comes to symbolism, however, Obama is an amateur in comparison to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Take, for example, nuclear negotiations pre-Joint Plan of Action. In May 2012, the Iranian government finally agreed to sit down and talk about the nuclear dispute with American diplomats and their international partners. The State Department could barely contain its excitement. In conference calls and background briefs, senior U.S. diplomats and White House officials spoke about how historic the direct dialogue was. When Iranian negotiators proposed to hold discussions on May 23, no one in the White House, State Department or, apparently, the Central Intelligence Agency, questioned why Khamenei picked that date or suggested Baghdad as a venue. Iranian history informs, however: May 23, 2012, marked the 30th anniversary of Iran’s liberation of Khorramshahr, its key victory during the Iran–Iraq War. “The pioneering Iranian nation will continue its movement towards greater progress and justice,” Khamenei promised at a victory speech, adding, “The front of tyranny, arrogance, and bullying,” that is, in typical Iranian government hyperbole, the United States, and its allies, “is moving towards weakness and destruction.” Khamenei was seeking to embarrass the United States and use American diplomats in a scheme to show Iran as superior and America as weak, but American diplomats were too oblivious to Iranian culture and history to notice.

Misreading or dismissing Khamenei’s carefully considered symbolism has become the only constant in Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s engagement with the Islamic Republic. Take the Supreme Leader’s call for “Heroic Flexibility,” a speech which American officials and too often fawning journalists interpreted as an endorsement by Khamenei for the nuclear talks. The actual Persian suggested otherwise. “Heroic flexibility means an artful maneuver and utilizing various methods to achieve the various goals and ideals of the Islamic system,” he declared. In otherwise, it was about a change in tactics rather than policy. Of course, the phrase itself was deeply symbolic. Native Persian speaker Amin Tarzi, a professor at the U.S. Marine Corps University, points out that when Khamenei spoke of “heroic flexibility,” he was “invoking a truce initiated by Hasan bin Ali, Shi’a Islam’s second imam, in 661 to avoid bloodshed within Muslim community. Likening his country’s ‘flexibility’ to a wrestling match, Khamenei cautioned Iran’s negotiators that ‘a good wrestler at times shows flexibility due to technical reasons but does not forget his opponent or his main goal.’” Again, what Obama interpreted as a sign of compromise, Iranians understood to be a reference to a centuries-old episode in the development of Shi‘ite Islam, which has much to do with strategic patience but little to do with true compromise.

Fast forward to the current talks, now more than a week past their deadline. Many journalists and observers believe either that a deal will be achieved over the next few days or, in order to save face, diplomats will announce a partial deal. Few have considered why Iran might want to delay any announcement for a few days, U.S. congressional deadline be damned. Ever since the victory of the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government has commemorated the fourth Friday in Ramadan — this year on July 10 — as Qods Day, a commemoration that is usually marked with the most vile anti-Israel and anti-American rhetoric. It was on Qods Day back in 2001, for example, that former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani suggested Iran should use a nuclear weapon against Israel because it would wipe Israel out while Iran’s large size would allow it to absorb any retaliation. To announce a deal on Qods Day that effectively blesses a full-scale Iranian nuclear program and will allow Iran to break out and build not a bomb but an arsenal after as little as a decade will be the ultimate humiliation to the United States, and will be spun by the Iranian regime as the start of the countdown to the fulfillment of its promise to enable Israel’s ultimate destruction.

That Iran always manages to maximize such symbolism is no coincidence. It not only shows that reconciliation isn’t a goal for Tehran, but it also indicates the extent to which Iranian officials have been running circles around their American counterparts.

 

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