The immensely powerful Khamenei opened the door a bit six months ago by saying he wouldn't oppose closer diplomatic exchanges but did not believe the Washington was ready to make meaningful accommodations. Now, it appears Khamenei is giving President Hasan Rouhani critical room—for the moment at least—to explore potentially groundbreaking overtures with Washington.
A series of statements this week from Khamenei—including saying Iran can show "heroic flexibility" in diplomacy—suggest a significant shift could be underway. Khamenei appears to be aligning his views more closely with Rouhani's initiatives to repair tattered relations with the West and reopen stalled nuclear negotiations with world powers.
Perceived backing from Khamenei would bestow major credibility to the outreach appeals by Rouhani, who is scheduled to arrive in New York next week for the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly session. Already, Rouhani's foreign minister, Mohammad Jadad Zarif, was in New York on Thursday making preparations, and Iran's only Jewish lawmaker, Siamak Moreh Sedgh, told The Associated Press in Tehran that he will be part of the delegation.
There also is increasing speculation that Rouhani could use the sidelines of the U.N. gathering to seek—directly or indirectly—more dialogue with the White House following the recent exchange of letters with U.S. President Barack Obama. One possible pathway is a planned meeting in New York between British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Zarif.
While it's still too early to declare Khamenei clearly in support of Rouhani's quest for new diplomatic openings, some of his recent comments have closely mirrored Rouhani's in substance and tone. Rouhani also told NBC News in an interview Wednesday that he has "full power and has complete authority" to negotiate over Iran's nuclear program—an apparent reference to a unified front with Khamenei and Iran's ruling clerics.
The last Iranian president to advocate greater outreach to the West, Mohammad Khatami, did not have full backing from the ruling clerics because of internal battles over reforms.
"Nothing is possible without the supreme leader's approval," said Scott Lucas, an Iranian affairs expert at Britain's Birmingham University and editor of EAWorldView, a foreign policy website. "Khamenei seems interested in giving Rouhani the chance to see where his outreach leads."
The reasons most likely circle back to the painful Western sanctions, which have slashed Iran's vital crude oil exports by about half. Khamenei appears ready to re-explore the options of some nuclear concessions—possibly scaling back uranium enrichment—in exchange for easing the economic squeeze. Past negotiations, however, hit dead ends over the same type of scenario.
In the NBC interview, Rouhani repeated Iran's claim that the West is wrong to think Iran seeks nuclear weapons. But Rouhani also has stood strongly behind Iran's declarations that it will never relinquish its ability to make nuclear fuel for its energy and medical research reactors—a program the U.S. and allies fear could eventually produce warhead-grade material.
Any deeper diplomatic exchanges between Iran and the U.S. also cannot ignore Syria, where Tehran is a lifeline for Bashar Assad's government.
The U.S. has revealed that Obama's letter to Rouhani touched on the nuclear standoff and possible ways for Iran to demonstrate that its program was exclusively for peaceful purposes, said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Rouhani, however, has suggested the letter went beyond the nuclear impasse, though he's given no details.
"From my point of view, the tone of the letter was positive and constructive," Rouhani said in the NBC interview. "It could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future."
In a similar way, U.S. officials are parsing recent remarks by Khamenei that suggest his backing for Rouhani's moves.
On Tuesday, Khamenei echoed Rouhani's views that Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard—effectively the muscle behind the Islamic system—should steer clear of politics. Khamenei also told Guard commanders he is not opposed to diplomatic gambits, an apparent nod to Rouhani's appeals to ease the nearly 30-year diplomatic estrangement with Washington.
"I am not opposed to correct and logical diplomatic moves in diplomacy and domestic policy. I believe in the same thing that I described many years ago, heroic flexibility. It is all right," said Khamenei, who used the phrase in the past in reference to a peace deal between feuding Islamic factions in the early decades of the faith in the seventh century.
But hard-liners were quick to press their view that Khamenei did not mean any significant rollback from Iran's "nuclear rights" such as uranium enrichment. And pressure could mount on Khamenei's experiment with Rouhani if his outreach fails deliver positive results for Iran in the coming months.
Behrouz Shjaei, a journalist with the pro-reform Shargh newspaper, interpreted the comments as Khamenei's view that Iran "should break the taboo of direct talks with the U.S. if Iran intends to play a bigger role in the international arena."
Timing also plays a part.
Years of crackdowns have left opposition groups in disarray. Khamenei and others may now feel secure enough to work in tandem with Rouhani, who has urged the release of political prisoners but is not seen as a threat to the ruling system. On Wednesday, Iran freed dozens of prominent pro-reform figures and protesters detained after the massive unrest unleashed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed presidential re-election in 2009. Among them was Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer who defended opposition activists.
Khamenei's apparent unity with Rouhani is also another slap at Ahmadinejad, who had a huge falling out with the ruling establishment after attempting to challenge Khamenei's authority in 2011. Many analysts had predicted Khamenei would wait until Ahmadinejad was out of office before making any bold diplomatic forays with the West.
"Heroic flexibility clarified that Iran is ready for a historic step toward engagement with the world," wrote Jafar Golabi, a political affairs analyst in the pro-reform Etemad daily. "It is obvious that all these references set the ground for potentially important events during Rouhani's upcoming visit to the U.S."
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.