There was no shortage of western and even Iranian analysts who argued that the formation of the historic nuclear agreement between Iran and the six world powers on July 14 would pave the way for more talks and eventual reconciliation between Iran and the United States. They argued that frequent and grave security threats resulting from the rise of terrorist forces, and the urgency in bring under control the unsustainable, strenuous and tumultuous conditions in the Middle East, would act as catalysts to bring the two countries together. Apparently, however, they were wrong.
In his fiery speech on July 18, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, slammed the US and made it clear that Iran’s policy towards the US will remain unchanged. “Our policies and those of the US in the region are 180 degrees different, so how could it be possible to enter [into] dialogue and negotiations with [the Americans]?” Khamenei asked. He stressed: “We will not hold any negotiation with the US over the bilateral, regional and global issues, unless in exceptional cases, such as the nuclear [talks] that have also happened in the past.”
Over the last 25 years, Khamenei has appeared as a symbol of resistance to the “global arrogance led by the United States” among his staunch followers, i.e. the conservatives. He believes that reconciliation with the US would most likely disappoint the system’s conservative backbone, thus resulting in their indifference to the survival of the Islamic Republic. Grass-roots supporters of the institution of velayat-e-faqih (guardianship of the jurist), who are symbolised and represented by the Supreme Leader, resist moral, social and liberal political values. The conservative faction of Iran’s establishment (as opposed to the moderates/reformists) firmly believes that the US deliberately promotes liberal values amongst the Iranian youth — through Persian television stations based outside Iran — to erode their religious beliefs and ultimately undermine the influence of the Islamic system. They fear that a partnership with the Americans, no matter how fraught or fragile, would facilitate and expedite this threatening process.
Additionally, what gave more urgency to Khamenei’s reiteration of Iran’s anti-American stance was the fact that Iran, at this juncture, agreed to a nuclear deal with America. A refreshed anti-American posture by him was of vital significance in reassuring the conservatives that Iran did not accept the deal from a position of weakness. His statements also signalled that the process will not result in Iran — at least not readily and effortlessly — shaking hands with “global arrogance.”
Khamenei has repeatedly stressed that the only path to reconciliation runs through a change in the US attitude towards the Iranian government, acknowledging and respecting its values. In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 23, however, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, made it clear that America’s stance towards the Iranian government, despite reaching an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, has not changed. “I have extensive plans ... about how we’re going to push back against Iran’s other activities, against terrorism, its support, its contributions to sectarian violence in the Middle East and other things,” Kerry remarked.
Where Does Javad Zarif Stand?
The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, received his doctorate at the University of Denver in International Law and Policy in 1988. His children were born in the US and his fluent English carries little trace of an accent.
In a lengthy interview, published as a 370-page Persian book in 2013, title Mr. Ambassador, Zarif discusses a host of international relations issues in addition to Iran’s foreign policy’. It also contains an in-depth and extensive discussion about the Gordian Knot in Iran’s foreign policy, US-Iran relations. It is worthy of note that this interview was conducted when Zarif was retired and had no diplomatic position. Therefore, his views are not presented out of diplomatic expedience.
“Relations with America or any other country is a means to promote national interests,” Zarif contends. He adds, “Relations with the US is neither necessary, nor haram (religiously prohibited) ... The principal goal in foreign relations is to pursue national interests.” According to Zarif, “Engagement does not necessarily mean friendly relations. No two countries have completely friendly relations and I believe that our relations with the US will never be friendly.”
Why can’t the two countries ever have friendly relations? Zarif argues: “We claim that we have a viewpoint that has the potential to be projected globally and change the international order. This claim bears no relation to our capabilities or our power. It originates from the very nature of our worldview. Why doesn’t Malaysia face such problems? It is because Malaysia does not seek to change the international order.”
This, according to Zarif, “does not necessarily put [Iran] at risk. Rather it can be a source of power”. Zarif stresses on this characteristic by saying: “Without revolutionary goals we do not exist ... Our revolutionary goals are what distinguish us from other countries.” But he cautions that “we should adopt rational policies to avoid creating fear or being viewed as a threat in the region and in the world. We should be viewed as a source of inspiration, not threat”.
When asked if it is “possible to develop a prudent and wise model of dialogue with the US and the West, while sticking to our values and principles”, Zarif replies: “It is definitely possible. We have essential differences with the US and the West, but this is not hostility ... Dialogue does not necessarily mean accepting the views of the other party. It also does not mean establishing friendship ... The art of diplomacy is to maximise your benefits at minimum expense. As such, it is impossible to maximise your benefits through confrontational policies in this interconnected world. We need to have dialogue.”
The significance of Zarif’s approach to US-Iran relations is that while it advocates interaction, dialogue and even cooperation (in glaring examples he refers to successful cooperation between the two states in the Bosnian crisis in the 1990s and in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11), the foundation of his rationale for this conciliatory approach is to preserve the revolution and its values. Therefore, there is a good chance that after the dust around the nuclear deal settles, this foreign policy approach, which is also supported by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, will be put forward for discussion at the highest level of the Iranian nezam (establishment). Will Zarif discuss this with the Supreme Leader? In his book, Zarif quotes Ayatollah Khamenei when Khamenei said to him, “Even if there appears a case in which you are certain that your opinion is 180 degrees different from mine, it is your duty to express your opinion. Don’t self-censor yourself.” Zarif continues, “[Khamenei] even emphasised that was my religious duty. Thank God that I have always done that.”
But even if Zarif can persuade Khamenei that a change of course is prudent, how can Khamenei convince his followers and the religious conservatives that working with the US is an expedient move and in the interests of the system, especially after years of spearheading the fight against global arrogance?
It should not be forgotten that not long ago, Khamenei had said: “If the other side [America] avoids misbehaviour in the [nuclear] talks, it’ll be an experience, showing it’s possible to negotiate with them on other issues.”
While many challenges lie ahead before the nuclear deal is sealed and formalised, will such completion mean that the US has avoided misbehaviour? Indeed, it would be fascinating to see how these complex relations unfold when Obama’s presidency comes to an end.
Shahir ShahidSaless is a political analyst and freelance journalist writing primarily about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs. He is also the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace, published in May 2014. He lives in Canada.