Iran's Ministry of Intelligence did something remarkable last month: It used its website to publish a report (link in Farsi) calling for direct talks with the country's foe, the United States. In the report, entitled "The Zionist Regime's Reasons and Obstacles for Attacking Iran," the traditionally hawkish ministry highlighted the benefits of diplomacy and negotiations with the United States: "One way to fend off a possible war is to resort to diplomacy and to use all international capacities."
The authors took care to draw a line between the approaches currently taken towards Iran's nuclear program by the U.S. and Israel, Iran's archenemy. President Obama, the report's authors wrote, "hopes to solve this issue peacefully and through diplomacy" -- in contrast to Israel, which, it said, favors a unilateral strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. By implementing "severe sanctions," the report contended, Obama is actually trying to control the situation without resorting to military action. The text concluded that there is a high risk of war and "it is an unforgiveable sin not to prevent it."
The Ministry of Intelligence report signals an intriguing shift in the Iranian political landscape. The ministry, a key player in the power structure of the Islamic Republic, could have chosen to use its considerable leverage to influence the debate internally -- but instead it chose, in an entirely unprecedented way, to enter a public debate. The man who runs the Ministry of Intelligence, Heydar Moslehi, is no outsider; he is, in fact, a confidant of the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on all matters of state. Ayatollah Khamenei habitually refers to the United States as "the enemy" and has denounced negotiations.
"The report shows that there is still space in the Iranian system for more pragmatic, nationalistic voices to publicly float ideas in favor of solutions to the U.S.-Iran conflict," said Reza Marashi, Director of Research at the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based advocacy group. "By publishing its report online, Iran's Intelligence Ministry has taken a step to take a subtle shot at inflexible hardliners who could raise the cost of pursuing peace."
The most likely reason for the shift is the dire state of Iran's economy. International sanctions leveled against the country because of its nuclear program are having a devastating effect. Inflation is soaring, sparking worries among ordinary people and government officials alike. Demonstrations rocked Tehran's bazaar in October after the Iranian currency, the rial, collapsed 40 percent against the U.S. dollar. Local newspapers are filled with daily reports on the effects of skyrocketing prices around the country.
The European Union and the United States have enforced crippling sanctions in recent months. (The latest round of EU sanctions just came into effect on December 22.) The measures have led to a sharp decline in Iran's oil revenues. European countries that used to buy 20 percent of Iran's oil have suspended their imports since July. Other countries, such as China and India, have sharply reduced their imports under pressure from the international community. An embargo on the Iranian financial sector blocks its banking system from transferring money. American and European firms, fearing hefty fines, refuse to do business with Iran. U.S. authorities have levied hundreds of millions of dollars in fines against Standard Chartered Bank and HSBC for moving Iranian money through the U.S. financial system.