When President Hassan Rouhani said in late August he would hold talks “with a certain individual” for the sake of the Iranian people, everyone knew who he was talking about.
Almost at the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif flew to France on board the Iranian equivalent of Air Force 1 to meet French officials. And U.S. President Donald Trump said he would meet with his Iranian counterpart in the right situation.
But in less than 24 hours Rouhani changed his mind and reverted to the position of America should repent and return to the JCPOA before any meeting.
What prompted Rouhani to change his mind? This is a valid question, but the main question is: Was Rouhani's initial ascent to hold talks expressed without prior coordination with Khamenei? What about Zarif's visit to France, was it also not coordinated with Khamenei?
Knowing that nothing like these can happen in Iran without Khamenei's permission, the question is, why Khamenei changed his mind.
Some say Rouhani made the decision himself and wanted Khamenei to face a fait accompli, leaving him with no option but to accept it. But this cannot be true knowing Rouhani's mindset particularly in his second term when he has been overtly timid and intimidated by Khamenei and other hardliners.
Moreover, there is no way Zarif could have paid the sudden visit to France without Khamenei knowing about it and agreeing with it.
This gives way to a new question: Why Khamenei allowed Zarif's visit in the first place and why he has been silent since, evading an explanation.
The problem between Iran and the United States is not about this or that administration in Tehran or Washington. It is largely about the Islamic Republic's foreign policy doctrine which is based on fighting the “enemy”, “annihilating imperialism and Zionism” and strengthening the Resistance Front.
However, the government in Tehran has shown tactical flexibility to save the regime on at least three occasions when it was really worried: Releasing U.S. hostages in 1981, accepting UN Resolution 598 and ending the war with Iraq, and accepting the nuclear deal with the West [JCPOA, short for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action].
The latter case in particular, showed that the Iranian leader is prepared to adopt a softer policy only when he is convinced that his uncompromising posture will endanger the existence of the regime. However, a softer policy does not mean a change of strategy. The Islamic Republic Khamenei leads perpetually thrives on the notion of real and imagined enemies. A real and strategic softening would be tantamount to changing the regime.
In fact Trump's problem with the JCPOA is the same as the Obama administration's problems with Iran: The JCPOA did not mean a change in Iran's foreign policy.
Subsequently, Khamenei keeps insisting on “no negotiations” with the U.S. At the same time, Iranians suffer the backbreaking pressure of U.S. sanctions in the country's worst economic crisis ever.
At this juncture of renewed sanctions, no oil exports and Rouahni saying the country's day to day business cannot continue by printing money, Khamenei appears to have succumbed to the idea of limited talks to ease the pressure of sanctions without compromising his strategy.
It was this decision that led to Zarif's visit to France to negotiate permission for oil sales in return for tactical concessions by Iran. The other side [U.S. or France] does not trust Iran and demands clearer signs of change and more significant concessions. That probably explains why Rouhani expressed readiness to meet Trump.
There could be two reasons for the failure of this scenario: Khamenei is not willing to offer the concession of sending Rouhani to meet Trump, and Trump team rejects giving the oil export concession without getting anything significant from Iran, including a meeting at the presidential level.
Khamenei, however, is playing with a card that is no longer a secret to the other side: Tactical withdrawal to preserve his long-term strategy.
But America clearly demands a change in Iran's strategy and behaviour, not tactical concessions.
Tensions between Iran and the United States are at a crucial juncture. They will end without an all-out change replacing hostility with full normalization. Either Khamenei changes his strategy or he continues his previous tactical manoeuvres and accepts their consequences. In the meantime, Iranians become poorer and poorer on a daily basis.