Is the interim nuclear deal signed at the end of 2013 a signal of Tehran’s surrender, or is it the opening of a new chapter in American-Iranian relations that could see the normalization of ties?
If history is to be learned from, normalization with Washington will also come with risks for Iran.
Rouhani won the 2013 Iranian presidential elections by gaining the support of the overwhelming majority of Iranians with approximately 51 percent of the popular vote. His main opponent and the candidate with the second highest number of votes was the mayor of Tehran. Mayor Qalibaf only received about 16.5 percent of the popular vote. The other four candidates (Jalili, Rezai, Velayati, and Gharazi) respectively earned 11.31 percent, 10.55 percent, 6.16 percent, and 1.22 percent of the vote. Many Iranian voters saw these candidates as virtual clones of one another and distinguished Rouhani as the one that offered an alternative program.
The consensus president
In Washington there has been a tug-o’-war between the neo-con and realist camps about how to deal with Iran. The realists have now come out on top.
In Tehran there has also been a parallel tug-o’-war over Iranian foreign policy. The political tug-o’-war in Tehran has seen the reformists and pragmatists contesting the principalist and conservative camp about how to deal with the United States. With the election of Hassan Rouhani the balance in Tehran has changed and loosened the dominant hold of the principalists and conservatives in the Iranian political arena.
Despite the fact that he received the endorsement of the reformist camp and all its supporters, Hassan Rouhani is not the Iranian reformist that some have portrayed him as being. His supporters said that Rouhani would undo the damage that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government had caused. Skeptics, however, phrase it like this: “Rouhani was the least bad candidate.”
The fact that he was the only presidential candidate that had ties to all the different political groupings in Iran was what set Rouhani apart from the other candidates. His career as a security guru in Tehran, with deep connections to the national security and military structures of Iran, and his history of working with pragmatists and reformers made him acceptable or, at a very minimum, bearable for all the different political cliques in Tehran. In the sense that he has not excessively embraced reformist or conservative tendencies, he has been a genuine moderate so far.
Rouhani made it clear that his administration would work for consensus among all of Iran’s political factions through a centrist political program. Since the 2009 protests over the re-election of Ahmadinejad the political divisions and polarization in Iran were sharpened. This is why Rouhani’s messages to the Iranian political establishment, as well as all of Iranian society, were ones calling for political unity and consensus politics.
In his first speech as the president of Iran, Rouhani would highlight his platform of reconciliation and diplomatic recalibration: “Let our hearts be cleansed of resentment. Let conciliation replace estrangement and let friendship take the place of animosity. Let this take place. Let Islam’s compassionate face, Iran with its reasonable face, the Revolution with its human face, and the political system with its kind face continue to create epics.” Making sure not to aggravate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters, he would also thank them during his speech: “At this point I must thank and express my appreciation to the previous administrations, especially the Tenth Administration and its honorable former president, and for all of them I have the desire of success day by day.”
Iran’s “Yes, We Can” man and grand negotiator
President Rouhani presented himself as a negotiator par excellence during the election campaign in 2013. His promise to negotiate with the US and to lift the economic sanctions by changing the dynamics of Iranian diplomacy proved to be very popular with the business class and most of the middle class. “Moderation in foreign policy is neither surrender nor conflict, neither passivity nor confrontation. Moderation is effective and constructive interaction with the world,” he announced as president-elect. Rouhani’s inauguration ceremony on August 3, 2013 even marked the first time that foreign dignatories were formally invited to an Iranian presidential inauguration ceremony, which signaled Rouhani’s intentions to launch his diplomatic charm offensive.
Using a spiritual tone, Rouhani let it be known during his first speech as president that he intended to get results, would not let partisan politics get the better of him, and would not silence his political critics: “I feel the heavy weight of these votes and this endorsement. And I seek refuge in God and God alone. I sincerely and humbly ask the compassionate Lord: O Lord, save Thy weak servant from the ills of arrogance and conceit, greed, avarice and envy. O Lord I take refuge in Thee from autocracy in opinion, haste in decision making, putting personal or group interests ahead of those of the public, and from the silencing of the mouths of rivals and critics. O Lord, help me so that I can be Your sincere server and a competent servant of the people and not to forget what happened to those who came before me. There is much to say, but time is short. It is best to cut the talk short and to walk the path. For the path to our goal is long and I am a new traveler.”
In many ways, the fanfare and popularity that Rouhani has received and enjoyed in Iran can be compared to that which Barak Obama received in the US when he was elected. Rouhani carried a message of hope for many Iranians. The closing words in his inauguration speech were even turned into a song with a black and white video by Iranian artists just as how Obama’s speech at the 2008 New Hampshire primary was turned into a hit song by artists in the US. The video dedicated to President Rouhani was a copycat version of the Obama video that was produced by Hussein Dehbashi, who produced Rouhani’s election video ads. The Office of the Iranian President would later post the Iranian “Yes, We Can” video on Rouhani’s YouTube page.
Tehran does business with Washington
As soon as Rouhani became president, he selected Mohammad Javad Zarif to become Iran’s foreign minister. Jalili was replaced as the secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran and the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 were taken over from the Supreme National Security Council by the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
Zarif was selected as foreign minister not only because he was an excellent diplomat; Rouhani shrewdly selected Zarif for his experience as Iran’s interlocutor with the United States. Before his appointment as Tehran’s foreign minister, Zarif had served as the permanent representative of Iran to the UN in New York City, from where he served as Tehran’s contact man with the US government and US officials. Foreign Minister Zarif himself has stated that he and US Vice-President Joe Biden share a friendship.
As one of the pillars of the Iranian national security establishment, Rouhani himself also has had a long history of dealing with US officials. In the past it was Rouhani that held secret talks with US President Ronald Reagan’s government on behalf of Iran. In this regard, he was one of the Iranian officials who negotiated the arms transfer agreement with Washington during the Iran-Iraq War that led to the Iran-Contra scandal. More recently, Rouhani dealt with the US as the secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran during the presidency of Mohammed Khatami.
It is no coincidence that US backtracking on attacking Syria led to talks with Iran and a warming of relations. In actuality the talks with Iran had started before the US backed down from bombing Syria. Rouhani’s government had begun dialogue with the US from the moment its mandate commenced. There are enough grounds to suspect that the threats to attack Syria also had the aim of working to gain traction in the secret talks that President Obama was having with Iran via the Sultanate of Oman.
The political taboo of dealing with the US publicly has been broken by President Rouhani. Since the start of his term, Rouhani authorized Zarif to meet with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Rouhani himself held a brief, but historic, phone conversation with President Obama. Finally, an interim nuclear deal was reached between Iran and the P5+1, more specifically the United States.
In 1993, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the realist par excellence who served as US President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, announced that “Iran is clearly an aspirant to regional hegemony and it is prepared to outwait the United States.” Brzezinski explained that the Iranians had an imperial tradition as a great power and possessed both the religious and nationalist motivation to contest the US and Russia, and that Iran could count on the sympathies of its neighbors in such a rivalry. Because of Iran, in his own words, “the current American supremacy in the Middle East is built, quite literally, on sand.”
Yet, that is not all Brzezinski has said about Iran. He stated that “it is not in America’s interest to perpetuate American-Iranian hostility.” He even went out of his way to warn US policy makers that Iran should not be antagonized by the US government to the point where Tehran would ally itself with Russia and China. Instead Brzezinski pushed for reconciliation as an aim of realist-driven US foreign policy. “Any eventual reconciliation [between the US and Iranian governments] should be based on the recognition of a mutual strategic interest in stabilizing what currently is a very volatile regional environment for Iran,” he explained.
The “volatile regional environment” that Brzezinski mentions is formed by the three regions that are linked to Iran: the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East. What he really meant was that Tehran and Washington should work together to influence these regions. Although it is unstated, what Brzezinski has in mind is a plan to get Iran to realign with the US in these regions against Russia and China.
The possible negative ramifications of US-Iran rapprochement
Critics of Rouhani see him and Zarif as surrendering to US demands as part of some type of internal regime change in Tehran. Such critics have argued that Iran has surrendered to Washington, whereas others have seen the interim nuclear agreement as a victory for Iran. Since Rouhani started negotiating with the US, Supreme Leader Khamenei has been forced to defend Rouhani and Zarif. Khamenei has warned the principalists and conservatives in Iran not to interfere in Rouhani’s negotiation efforts or to portray Rouhani and Zarif as traitors. “They are our own children and children of the Revolution,” Khamenei publicly declared on November 3, 2011.
Among the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the political hardliners in Tehran, there are fears that the interim nuclear deal will lead to an even broader agreement and a normalization of relations with the United States that could potentially open the door for alterations in the political structure of Iran and give the reformists the upper hand. There were reserved statements released in November 2013 by Revolutionary Guard leaders, days before the interim nuclear agreement was reached, which assured the public that Iran’s ideology would not change, and that Iran would not bow down to any foreign powers.
As mentioned earlier, Rouhani’s government has pro-business characteristics. In this regard, there are legitimate concerns that go beyond politics which fear that restored relations with the US could see an opening up of the Iranian economy based on the neoliberal economic policies that many of the reformists—and pro-business conservatives—had embraced and favor that will see the state infrastructure and the public sector in Iran privatized further. If business ties are restored between the US and Iran, and there is a lot of talk about it, the Iranian government could entrench the Iranian economy on a path of neoliberal reforms and privatization. These would be similar to those that marked the Yeltsin years in Russia, which made an elite few rich and let foreign corporations plunder the Russian economy.
Then there is the worst case scenario of Iran being used against its Eurasian partners. The insulation of Eurasia is incomplete without Iran. The Russian and Chinese need for a strategic Iranian partner is a component of any defensive strategy or viable alternative against US and EU encroachment into their geopolitical spheres of interest. The US may attempt to use its rapprochement with Iran to manipulate Tehran into hurting Russia and China. Iran’s ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and historic links with the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia could be used to launch an offensive against Moscow in the post-Soviet space, whereas Chinese energy security would be jeopardized if Iran agreed to collaborate with the US in any strategy against the Chinese.
Eurasia or nothing!
Although the Iranian political establishment is immensely more sophisticated than Libya, Tehran should not ignore how American-Libyan rapprochement ended and at what expense. Colonel Qaddafi even predicted it when he told the Arab League many years ago that the US had no loyalty to any of its Arab clients or friends, and that one day it could execute him.
The mere fact that the US government and its allies have a different interpretation of the interim nuclear deal from Iran, China, and Russia is reason to pause with caution too. Of course this could be posturing to appease certain segments of public opinion, lobby groups, and US allies (e.g., Israel and Saudi Arabia) that are threatened by any rapprochement between Tehran and Washington. Yet, the fact that the EU has also refused to lift certain unilateral sanctions is reason enough for Tehran to be cynical.
Iran’s place is in Eurasia. It would be a disaster if any rapprochement between the US and Iran came at the expense of Iranian-Russian ties or Chinese-Iranian ties.
To his credit, Rouhani’s first foreign trip as president of Iran was to Kyrgyzstan in September 2013 for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is spearheaded by Russia and China.
While being realistic, one should always hold onto hope. Iran’s “Yes, We Can” Man and his endeavors will hopefully not end up being the epic disappointment that his American counterpart, President Obama, has been for the people of the United States.
Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya
Russia Today, December 30, 2013
Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya is a sociologist, award-winning author and geopolitical analyst.