Tehran won’t tolerate a reset with Washington — but will take a deal
In a recent public address, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, railed against the West and domestic “traitors” for blocking the Islamic Republic from blossoming into a global beacon of scientific progress and establishing an advanced “modern Islamic civilization.”
Kafkaesque is the apt word here because Khamenei, despite his lofty rhetoric, has engaged in rampant mismanagement resulting in a plethora of national crises, from brain drain to social discontent to environmental degradation. Yet, instead of honoring the work of intellectuals and other pioneers, the regime, which suffers from a paranoid streak, has persecuted, jailed and sometimes even killed them, including those who were not open dissenters. Tehran’s behavior can be likened to an arsonist who sets fire to a house, kneecaps the firefighters, and then blames the residents.
As nuclear talks with Iran continue this month, U.S. negotiators should not assume the ayatollahs will bend in their perception that Washington wants regime change. No amount of deal-cutting or modulation in rhetoric will change this view, which has prevailed in Iranian halls of power since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, regardless of who occupies the White House.
For decades, American policymakers have wrestled with the question of how to approach a government that propounds anti-Americanism as a core feature of its identity. Even the notion of basic diplomatic relations with the United States is taboo in Iran. According to a common view in U.S. policy circles, Iran’s hostility toward America, and the accompanying “Death to America” refrain, can be traced to the U.S.-backed 1953 coup d’etat that felled Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, along with subsequent American support for the autocratic Reza Pahlavi monarchy.
This view also holds that U.S. backing of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), President George W. Bush’s inclusion of Iran in the “axis of evil,” and the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions in the 2000s hardened anti-Americanism in Iran. Furthermore, in this conception, former President Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), U.S. reimposition of sanctions, and the targeted killing of Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani have poisoned the well, making future deals exceedingly difficult. The conclusion is that the United States should address the roots of Iranian anti-Americanism by explicitly acknowledging its “wrongs,” laying the groundwork for fruitful diplomacy.
But the acknowledgment of past actions could well go unreciprocated. Moreover, the United States can certainly refrain from military and diplomatic moves perceived as steps toward regime change, but it has little control over a more amorphous area — America’s cultural influence in Iran.
Iranian hardliners, who dominate the country’s political and security centers, believe that the United States long has been conducting a “soft war” against the regime, aimed at overthrowing it from within through cultural products such as movies, television, music and social media. Examples include Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day displays in Iran in recent years, raising the alarm of pro-regime figures and publications; one so-called “cultural analyst” this year called Halloween a “celebration of worshipping Satan.” Although the U.S. government has certainly worked with Hollywood at certain periods in history, Iranian hardliners consider all American civil society to be a pillar of the U.S. government. I make this case comprehensively in a Washington Institute study released in November.
A sort of U.S. parallel to the Iranian worldview is the QAnon conspiracy — which, as observers have noted, is frighteningly difficult to dislodge from adherents. Further, the soft war threat helps fortify hardliners in the face of perceived threats, such as the anti-government protests that have swept Iran in recent years. Hardliners likewise rely on anti-Americanism to remain in power. Looking at the historical record, they cast a wary eye at China’s loosening of Maoist principles in 1979 — note the year — to reestablish ties with the United States and open up to the world. All the same, Iranian hardliners today look to Beijing’s authoritarian prosperity with envy.
When it comes to negotiations, U.S. officials should not strive to change Iranian minds about the “soft war” charge. Instead, they should stick to the brass tacks of negotiation. Indeed, Washington doesn’t need to convince the regime that it has abandoned pursuit of an overthrow to cut a deal with it. During the Obama administration, the hardliners truly believed that the president wanted to overthrow them and that the U.S. was behind the 2009 post-election Green Movement protests, but that didn’t stop the Supreme Leader from demonstrating “heroic flexibility” to agree to the deal.
Afterward, the threat perception regarding a U.S.-inspired overthrow grew when Obama touted the deal as potentially strengthening regime moderates over time. As far as hardliners were concerned, this was the same playbook as that used by the Reagan administration to seduce Mikhail Gorbachev to dissolve the Soviet Union in 1991 when confronted with mass protests. That is the lesson Khamenei and his cohorts learned from the Soviet collapse, an event they have studied closely. Yet they remained in the nuclear accord.
Even before President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, Iran’s hardliners were convinced that the U.S. was behind the nationwide protests that erupted in December 2017 and lasted into 2018. The “maximum pressure” policy subsequently enacted by the Trump administration, along with the January 2020 killing of Soleimani, darkened the threat perception further. Talks with the Biden administration would seem to be less hostile and offer more promise at a baseline, but the Iranian regime also would have negotiated with Trump had he won a second term. Simply put, Tehran will be pragmatic if conditions dictate such a course. Past deals with mortal enemies such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein serve as examples.
Tehran has stated repeatedly that it wants the lifting of sanctions, particularly on oil and banking, as an outcome of ongoing JCPOA talks. Whether that would come in the shape of a JCPOA revival is unclear. Iran’s diplomats have put forth maximalist demands so far in Vienna, in an apparent attempt to play hardball, but they may well overplay their hand.
Given the hardline composition of Iran’s ruling class, America should not expect a fresh start with the Islamic Republic, at least any time soon. Keeping that in mind, however, it should still pursue opportunities to advance U.S. national security interests by striking deals and, when necessary, pushing back against regime aggression and duplicity.
Amir Toumaj is a senior Iran analyst with Sayari Analytics in Washington and co-founder of Resistance Axis Monitor, a resource for news and analysis on Iran and its proxies. He previously was a policy analyst with United Against Nuclear Iran and a research analyst for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The views expressed here are his alone. Follow him on Twitter @AmirToumaj.