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September 22, 2017

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Iranian elite's priority power, not nuke deal

DUBAI -- Preoccupied with an intensifying domestic power struggle, Iran is unlikely to agree with world powers next week on ways out of a nuclear dispute: Surviving a turbulent period of pre-electoral infighting will be the priority for its faction-ridden elite.

Despite eye-catching suggestions among Iranian policymakers that a more imaginative approach is needed to engagement with its Western adversaries, Iran's electoral calendar may preordain several more months of stasis in the nuclear negotiations set to resume in Almaty, Kazakhstan on Tuesday.

With a presidential election looming in June, the latest round of negotiations, at which world powers will offer relief from some sanctions if Iran curbs activities of potential use in yielding a nuclear weapon, may amount to little more than "holding talks" to at least keep the diplomatic door open.

"Iran is in listening mode. They'll go back to Tehran and look at the offer," said a Western diplomat based in Tehran. "But they're unlikely to discuss issues in depth until the insecurity in the domestic power struggle has been clarified."

A closer look may give Western governments some reason for optimism. Iran's clerical leadership has recently offered signs of interest in closer engagement with them, helping lay the groundwork for Tehran's presence in the former Kazakh capital.

Iran's intelligence ministry published a report on its website last November touting the merits of diplomatic engagement to parry the threat of military action by enemies.

"It is clear that the outbreak of war and resorting to force is so serious and dreadful that the slightest neglect of it is an unforgivable sin," said the report by the ministry, which is controlled by Heydar Moslehi, a close ally of Iran's ultimate political authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"To prevent war different options exist. One of those is the adoption of diplomatic and political policies and the potential of international forums, which is a necessary way forward."

The idea of direct talks between Iran and the United States — resurfacing after comments by Vice President Joe Biden this month — has nested in the minds of Iranian power brokers with surprisingly few ruling out such a possibility.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has long been a proponent of engaging with the United States and has been joined by other political heavyweights including Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, who has said there was "no red line" to direct talks.

Consent came even from the head of Iran's Basij militia, a hard-line enforcer of Islamist orthodoxy that was instrumental in stamping out post-election unrest in 2009.

"If the United States reforms its behavior, negotiations are possible," General Mohammad Reza Naqdi said in December.

Within days Khamenei shot down such messages, saying that the Islamic Republic would not negotiate "with a gun held to it," but analysts say Tehran has kept itself some wiggle room.

"The Supreme Leader left the door open. Once you break down his comments, they show that Iran wants something done on sanctions and that unless a serious move on that is made, he won't or can't trust the U.S.," said Scott Lucas, founder of EA Worldview, a news website that monitors Iranian media.

Washington is also sending out arguably its most encouraging message to Iran since the 1979 creation of the Islamic Republic, which led to the severing of U.S.-Iranian relations.

"Obama has assembled the most pro-Iran-engagement national security cabinet in recent U.S. history and he's less encumbered by domestic political consideration in his second term," said Karim Sadjadpour of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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