By Hooshang Amirahmadi
The US, from its position of strength, perceives that tightening sanctions will bring Iranians to the negotiating table and force them to suspend the nuclear program. Contrarily, the US language of threat, intimidation, and humiliation intensifies Iran’s paranoia and mistrust. The language is also perceived extremely disrespectful, effectuating progressively more resistance by a “proud” regime that can ill afford suspension of its nuclear program. The US approach obstructs the likelihood of negotiations, let alone a negotiated solution. Can the Obama Administration consider a paradigm shift in US policy towards Iran?
On October 20, the New York Times broke the news that, “the United States and Iran have agreed for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program,” after the US Presidential elections. Although topping headlines, both countries denied any such agreement. However, following Obama’s reelection, the debate in Tehran on direct negotiations with the US has gained new grounds. President Ahmadinejad has even stated that the only solution to Iran’s nuclear dispute is direct talk with the US. Even conservatives are not rejecting the idea except claiming that Iran’s “resistance” has provided new opportunity for successful negotiations with the U.S.
Other unconfirmed reports claimed that as recently as in the beginning of October, a “three-person delegation of the Obama administration led by a woman engaged in secret negotiations with a representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” in Doha, Qatar. The “woman” is said to be Valerie Jarrett, a Senior Advisor to President Obama. Ms. Jarrett was born in Shiraz, Iran, to American parents. The man representing Khamanei is likely Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister and Senior Advisor to the Supreme Leader. These secret talks, however, were not clearly disputed.
It is unclear whether such “secret talks,” even if true, could be taken as serious breakthroughs. In more than three decades, despite numerous secret and backchannel talks, there have been no enduring and meaningful talks between Iran and the US; only the stubborn plight of non-communication and non-compromise. This failure to communicate or compromise was not even matched by that of the Cold War between the US and its adversaries. Case in point, the US sustained diplomatic and economic relations with the communist bloc.
The conflict between Iran and the US is complex and multi-dimensional. Iran’s challenge to US hegemony in the region, the clash between the Islamic culture of the system in Tehran and the Western culture, and Iran’s support for anti-Israeli groups and its hostile stance toward the Jewish state are considered major components responsible for the perpetuation of hostility between Iran and the United States. However, none of these factors explains why the two states should not conduct a meaningful and sustained dialogue to resolve their differences.
During the watches of all US presidents since the Islamic Republic’s incarnation, one or both countries have proffered to assuage relations, illustrating that the “will” for reconciliation exists, and that no factor, regardless of weight or importance, precludes decision-makers on either side from cogitating formal relations. Yet, while the intentions may have existed, the state of sustained, meaningful dialogue between the two countries has not yet materialized.
One example of the past ad hoc efforts at dialogue was Iran’s 2003 offer for a grand bargain, rejected by the Bush administration. The most recent example was president Obama’s call for a “new beginning” in March 2009. Another one was in 2000 when Secretary Madeline Albright gave the historic speech at AIC conference, expressing regret for past U.S. policies and offered Iran a “global settlement” of their differences. Numerous attempts of this kind are documented in US-Iran relations since the Islamic revolution.
Two key factors prevent meaningful dialogue between Iran and the US; one, profound mutual mistrust, and two, lack of in-depth knowledge about Iranian society, culture, and politics by US policy-makers and analysts. These factors lead to policies that only intensify hostilities, and deepen mistrust between the two countries, thus blocking sustained and meaningful dialogue.
The seeds of hostility and mistrust between the two states had already been sown by the time the Islamic Republic began. The United States’ admitted role in the 1953 coup d’état that overthrew Mossadegh, Iran’s popular Prime Minister, is central to, and the beginning of, the problem with mistrust between Iran and the US. Following the coup, successive US administrations fully backed the Shah’s regime. The Shah emerged as a solid ally of the US and Israel, while marginalizing, if not repressing, traditionalists and Islamists who appeared as major obstacles to the regime’s modernization program.
Seizing the American embassy in 1979 led to the disclosure of US espionage documents and plans to undermine the theocratic regime. The revelation elevated the Iranian regime’s mistrust of the US in an already unsteady relationship. Since then, the fear of regime change has acted as a barrier to the restoration of relations. The hostage crisis harmed American feelings and prestige and created a cycle of unyielding mistrust that has not been broken or even addressed to this date. Iran still owes American an expression of regret.
Iran’s nuclear issue further heightened the wall of mistrust. On the one hand, the US maintains that Iran’s government is untrustworthy and dangerous because it attempted to conceal its nuclear program for several years, and suspects that Iran might be intending to build bomb-making capability. On the other hand, Iran reasons that the US does not really perceive Iran’s nuclear program as a threat, that it uses it as a “pretext,” and that its unfriendly actions, specifically the sanctions, reflect hostile US intentions to change the Islamic regime.
In his October 10 speech, Ayatollah Khamenei reiterated that, “sanctions [against Iran] began prior to any discussion regarding [a dispute over] nuclear energy.” Indeed, the long list of US sanctions against Iran dates back to the Islamic Republic’s formation. In November 1979, following seizure of the US embassy in Tehran by radical Muslim students, President Jimmy Carter ordered the first set of sanctions by freezing Iran’s assets. Most of the nuclear-related sanctions are of recent origins.
Iran’s mistrust is further intensified by conspiracy theories, an inescapable phenomenon in Iran politics. Iranians from all walks of life and ideological orientations have relied on this “culture of conspiracy” as a basic mode of understanding politics. Any word or action by the US is interpreted as a plan backed by ill intention. For example, Khamanei steadfastly maintains that, “every time they [the US] smile at the Iranian officials, it comes with a dagger hidden behind them.” This paranoid perception is solidified, simply by reading stories of the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Similarly, in response to Obama’s 2009 televised message for “a new beginning,” Ayatollah Khamenei analogized Obama’s “stretched hand” to a “cast iron hand” hidden in “a velvet glove.” Many at the time blamed Khamanei for his rejectionism and maintained that Obama’s offer was genuine. Yet, based on the New York Times revelations, we now know that in the early months of his presidency, president Obama, in collaboration with Israel, ordered the expedition of Stuxnet cyber-attacks on Iran while concurrently appealing for reconciliation.
The second factor preventing meaningful dialogue between the two states is a lack of in-depth knowledge about the Iranian society, its culture, and politics by many influential American analysts and policy-makers. For example, regarding the Green Movement that followed 2009 disputed Presidential elections in Iran, Ray Takeyh would argue that ‘the only thing standing between the mullahs and the bomb is the Green Movement.’ Richard Haas also would posit that ‘control [over Iran’s nuclear program] won’t be won at the negotiating table, but on the streets. The West must make clear its support for the protesters.’ Former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, once remarked that Iran is, “a very opaque place and it’s a political system I don’t understand very well.”
Pride plays a significant role in the aggregate of Iranian national identity. This sentiment is rooted in Iran’s long civilization and cultural heritage. Speeches and texts reflected in books and media repeatedly emphasize the Iranian pride in its farhang (culture) and tamaddon (civilization). Khamanei has constantly linked Iran’s nuclear program to national pride. Hence, the Iranian leadership, at least amongst its supporters, would be vulnerable to charges of selling out the country’s dignity if its nuclear project were surrendered. Complete suspension of the nuclear program would incur such high political costs to Khamanei, that it cannot be considered.
In its foreign policy on Iran, the US almost entirely ignores the pervasive role of pride in Iran’s political domain, and particularly with regard to the nuclear issue, US authorities pursues a humiliating, threatening and condescending tone. While Americans perceive the “carrot and stick” policy (i.e., a combination of rewards and punishments) as a solution to the nuclear impasse, Iranian leadership sees that very policy as the problem. In the Iranian context, carrots and sticks are understood to apply to donkey, which is extremely derogatory in the Iranian culture. What is alien to most American analysts and policy-makers is that the Iranian government’s pragmatism and cost-benefit analysis disintegrates under intimidation, coercion, and humiliation. Only resistance and rejection is then left, blocking engagement.
So, the stalemate continues. The US, from its position of strength, perceives that tightening sanctions will bring Iranians to the negotiating table and force them to suspend the nuclear program. Contrarily, the US language of threat, intimidation, and humiliation intensifies Iran’s paranoia and mistrust. The language is also perceived extremely disrespectful, effectuating progressively more resistance by a “proud” regime that can ill afford suspension of its nuclear program. The US approach obstructs the likelihood of negotiations, let alone a negotiated solution. Can the Obama Administration consider a paradigm shift in US policy towards Iran?
This article is part of Insider & Insight, a new AIC program aimed at providing different perspectives and analyses on key developments in US-Iran relations. The commentary and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official position of American Iranian Council.