Originally published in Middle East Eye
By Kayvon Afshari and Michael Brooks
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, anti-American rhetoric has appeared frequently in Iranian politics. That rhetoric flared up again at the Supreme Leader’s recent speech in his home city of Mashhad. With the deadline for a political framework for a nuclear deal fast approaching, some have argued that Iranian chants of “Death to America” at that speech and elsewhere should delegitimise the negotiations.
While the rhetoric isn’t helpful from an American perspective, its presence is counterintuitively a good sign for a diplomatic resolution. Look forward to hearing more provocative language from Iran’s Supreme Leader, and possibly even from the generally soft-spoken President Rouhani, from now until the ink dries on a potential comprehensive deal.
This is due to the fact that for Iran to make pragmatic nuclear concessions to the US and its P5+1 partners, the Islamic Republic’s leaders must reconcile their revolutionary anti-Americanism with their unprecedented public diplomatic engagement with the US. In order to best understand this tension, one must consider the ideological foundations of the Islamic Republic, the history of US intervention in Iran, as well as the international and economic pressure empowering Iran’s pragmatic politics.
Ideology of the Islamic Republic
The legitimacy of the Islamic Republic’s leaders such as Ayatollah Khamenei is derived from the 1979 Islamic Revolution that they helped shape. That revolution was defined by anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, enshrined in Article III of its constitution, which calls for “the elimination of imperialism and foreign influence” in domestic affairs. Furthermore, the constitution stresses “the attainment of self-sufficiency in scientific, technological, industrial, agricultural, and military domains, and other similar spheres”.
The revolution also stressed non-alignment through an independent foreign policy, a position enshrined in the revolutionary phrase “neither East nor West”. Because of these principles and their revolutionary ideological lens, Iran’s contemporary leaders will need to explain and justify cutting a deal with the imperial “Great Satan” that will include curtailments to the country’s scientific and technological autonomy.
This fierce anti-imperialist commitment and quest for self-sufficiency did not occur in a vacuum; they are rooted in a longer history of American, British and Russian colonial interference and aggression on Iranian soil. With regard to the US, Iran’s first encounter with American interference began with the 1953 Operation Ajax, in which the CIA engineered a coup to overthrow then-Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in order to head off his oil nationalisation programme and - ostensibly -“communist influence”. This overthrow was followed by 25 years of support for the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled a repressive state that banned any dissent.
Following the 1979 revolution, the US provided military, financial and tactical support for Saddam Hussein’s eight-year brutal war on Iran, one that employed chemical weapons and left an estimated 600,000 Iranians dead. For Iran’s revolutionary leaders, this Reagan-era support for Saddam removed any vestige of doubt as to the pernicious nature of America’s regime-change policy toward Iran.
These coercive policies toward Iran continued for many years and included cyberwarfare such as the Stuxnet virus, espionage and support for militant opposition groups. Clearly, Iran’s mistrust is influenced more by political realities than religious zealotry, and has permeated its contemporary political culture.
Even if a comprehensive nuclear deal is reached, that same longstanding revolutionary lens will inevitably continue. It will complicate the necessary justification for signing a deal with a supposedly untrustworthy partner. This will go beyond Iran’s leaders assuring their populace that they got a “good deal”, to arguing that they have preserved the integrity of their revolution, despite accepting a compromise.
Revolutionary aspirations aside, Iran’s leaders run a modern nation-state with a bulging youth population, double-digit unemployment, income inequality, depressed international oil prices, and complicated relations with their neighbours. Part of Iran’s economic woes are due to unilateral and multilateral sanctions regimes that have been significantly ratcheted up under the Obama administration. This confluence of economic circumstances has empowered Iran’s pragmatists, including President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who have long sought a resolution to the nuclear issue and a lifting of sanctions.
Another force supporting the pragmatic current is Iranian public opinion. Although Iran’s democracy is severely limited by a Guardian Council which vets candidates for public office, decision makers must nevertheless take public opinion into consideration when establishing policy. When asked if they were “hopeful” that the nuclear talks would arrive at agreement, 70 percent of Iranians were either “somewhat hopeful” or “very hopeful,” according to a November 2014 Gallup poll.
Furthermore, the 2013 presidential election suggests that the Iranian public supports a deal. While campaigning, then-candidate Hassan Rouhani ran a campaign that emphasised, among other things, a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear file. “Iran has nothing to hide,” Mr Rouhanisaid just before election day. “However, in order to proceed towards settling the Iranian nuclear file, we need to reach national consensus and rapprochement and understanding on an international level. This can only happen through dialogue." Rouhani would go on to win a resounding victory in a contest that he was initially given little chance of winning.
What we’re seeing in Iran with Ayatollah Khamenei’s recent speech and the chants of “Death to America” is that tension between revolutionary ideology and pragmatism in a process of temporary and tactical reconciliation. The ideological demands are fulfilled through inflammatory rhetoric, while the pragmatic demands are fulfilled through real, tangible concessions. One tried-and-true method for balancing this tension is indulging in the Iranian government’s appetite for hyperbolic rhetoric designed for domestic consumption, even as its diplomats consistently reach for compromise in quaint European cities.
Far from indicating a rejection of the diplomatic approach, the rhetoric oddly reaffirms the diplomatic space, opened by the Supreme Leader in his support for Rouhani and Zarif’s project to begin with. Supreme Leader Khamenei demonstrated this parallel, seemingly contradictory, approach most directly and succinctly in 2014 when he outlined his pessimistic support for the negotiations. "What our officials started will continue. We will not renege. I have no opposition," he said. "But I will say again: there is no use ... Don't try to dress up America and erase its past record of terror, violence and ugliness."
Despite this resolute belief, if a comprehensive nuclear deal is achieved, it would be a major step in the right direction toward reversing decades of harm and mistrust.
Originally published in Middle East Eye