Conflict and Leadership
Are Washington and Tehran Able to Overcome Hostility Inertia?

To avoid further radicalisation of the situation in the Middle East, Washington and Tehran must find a modus vivendi in their relations that would prevent the development of events according to a catastrophic scenario. To do this, the United States needs to free itself from the burden of historical grievances, illusions and anti-Iranian phobias, often fictitious, to recognise existing realities, Valdai Club expert Alexander Maryasov writes.

The United States still cannot get rid of the humiliation and powerlessness complex it developed after the overthrow of the Shah’s regime and the capture of the American embassy staff in Tehran during the Iranian revolution in 1979.

These events continue to define the hostile attitude of any American administration toward the Iranian government, which fully reciprocates.

Such a situation is fraught with the permanent danger of a military conflict emerging and the destabilisation of the entire Middle East region. Washington and Tehran must find a modus vivendi in their relations that would rule out the development of events according to a catastrophic scenario.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 dealt a strong blow to the pride and prestige of the United States; it seriously weakened its position in the Middle East. In the face of the Shah’s Iran, Washington lost a reliable regional ally, which served as a counterweight to the ambitious regime of Saddam Hussein and a springboard for conducting intelligence activities against the USSR. In spite of the presence of tens of thousands of military and civilian advisers who controlled the activities of almost all ministries and departments of Iran, the Americans could not prevent the development of the revolutionary process in that country or foresee its shocking consequences.

In contrast to the recent “colour revolutions” that have occurred in a number of countries in the region, which instigated a process of chaos and disintegration, the result of the Iranian revolution was the creation of a fairly stable state that combined theocratic and democratic elements and was able to successfully counter both external and internal threats. Iran withstood a fierce military battle with Saddam’s Iraq, it did not bend under the growing weight of US sanctions, and it managed to survive in the face of a tough economic blockade and international isolation.

Despite the fact that anti-Americanism was and remains one of the main components of the official political ideology of the Iranian regime, the Iranian establishment has always had supporters of a normalisation of relations with the United States, who are ready to compromise in agreements with Washington, which would ensure that the US doesn’t threaten Iran’s security or infringe upon its national interests.

The most influential of these was the fourth president of Iran, Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the close associates of the Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian revolution. Being a sober pragmatist, free from excessive ideological blinders, he sought to reduce the intensity of mutual hostility between Washington and Tehran, and looked for ways to renew ties with the United States both politically and economically.

After becoming president in 1989, Rafsanjani, through the mediation of the Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations Giandomenico Picco, offered assistance in freeing the American hostages taken by Hezbollah in Lebanon in exchange for the unfreezing and return of Iranian assets. He hoped that this would be the first step towards defusing mutual tensions and the establishment of constructive relations between the two countries. The Iranians kept their part of the deal, but the Americans refused to fulfil their promises.

Nevertheless, Rafsanjani did not abandon his attempts to find a common language with the Americans. In 1995, with his active assistance, a billion-dollar contract was signed with the American oil company Conoco for the development of the large Iranian oil field Sirri. At the same time, Rafsanjani said that Iran was extending to the United States “the olive branch of peace”. However, the Clinton administration not only blocked this deal, but also imposed an embargo on American investments in Iran’s energy sector and imposed a ban on the development of economic relations with Tehran.

Rafsanjani’s line was continued by the next Iranian reformer president Khatami, who put forward the idea of a Dialogue of Civilisations in an attempt to find mutual understanding with the United States on this basis.

After the terrorist attack in New York on September 11, 2001, the Khatami government began to actively cooperate with the Bush administration in the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. The commander of the elite Quds unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qasem Soleimani, who later died in Iraq as a result of a missile strike launched by the US Air Force, played a key role in establishing contacts between the American military and the Northern Alliance, which, through Tehran, transmitted important intelligence information on Al-Qaeda to Washington and whose troops were supported by the Western air forces. The anti-terrorist coalition liberated Kabul and provided conditions for the deployment of coalition forces in Afghanistan. The Americans did not only fail to appreciate the assistance provided by the Iranians, but also included Iran, along with Iraq and the DPRK, into the “axis of evil.”

Iran after the Death of Soleimani
Farhad Ibrahimov
The Iranians will have nothing left to do but to deal closely with the issues of strengthening their own security. Tehran is sure that it cannot trust anyone, and it won’t have to, no one will stand up for Tehran: neither Moscow, nor Beijing, nor anyone else. We can say, that it is precisely this principle that helped Iran live and survive for millennia.

President Barack Obama tried to break the vicious circle of mutual mistrust and hostility by sanctioning negotiations with Tehran to work out a compromise document on the parameters of Iran’s nuclear activities, which caused serious concern in Washington and among America’s allies in the Middle East. At the same time, in order to achieve the desired result, the Obama administration excluded from the negotiation process, at Tehran’s insistence, other issues of concern to the United States — Iran’s missile programme and its activities in the region.

The result of the difficult diplomatic work with the active participation of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany was the development of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue, which limited but did not shut down the Iranian nuclear programme, confirmed Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power production activities, and lifted the international sanctions associated with this activity. The world community, in turn, in addition to temporarily limiting the amount of nuclear activity in Iran, was able to regularly monitor all of the nuclear facilities of this country, which precluded the possibility of them switching their work to military purposes and actually closed the way to the development of nuclear weapons.

The implementation of the JCPOA could have become an important precedent, paving the way for new compromise agreements between Washington and Tehran to ease mutual concerns and create a favourable atmosphere for the gradual normalisation of bilateral relations. However, anti-Iranian phobias and “hawkish” sentiments, deeply rooted in the American conservative establishment, thwarted its realisation. Republican President Donald Trump broke the nuclear deal with Iran, and sharply increased the volume of anti-Iranian sanctions as part of the policy of “maximum pressure” on Tehran.

However, this “general offensive” with the US State Department openly aiming if not to change the Iranian regime, then to sharply weaken it and force it to accept essentially capitulatory terms, as was formulated by Secretary of State Pompeo in May 2018, predictably failed. Iran responded by refusing to comply with a number of its obligations under the JCPOA, and began to increase the volume of uranium enrichment and the number of centrifuges. The implementation of the missile programme was reactivated, and the Shiite armed formations under its control in the region were mobilised for possible military challenges to Iran.

In January 2020, the United States and Iran found themselves on the brink of an armed conflict when the architect of Iranian defensive doctrine and the most influential Iranian military leader, General Soleimani was killed as a result of an American drone strike near Baghdad airport. Tehran responded by firing missiles at two American bases in Iraq; there were no reported fatalities.

Donald Trump’s destructive policy towards Iran has sharply weakened the positions of President Rouhani and the entire pragmatic segment of the Iranian establishment, which had relied on the success of the nuclear deal. At the same time, the Iranian conservatives and radicals have increased their influence; they won the parliamentary elections in February 2020 and are poised to win the presidential election in June 2021.

Iran’s Nuclear Superposition
Andrey Baklitskiy
The biggest positive factor is that the JCPOA is still alive and can be revived at anytime. Tehran has stated more than once that it will reciprocate as soon as the United States resumes its obligations. It is simpler to stop an undeclared war, pretending that it was never waged. On the negative side, the superposition could “implode,” resulting in one of two possible variants. Both the US and the Israeli authorities would prefer the JCPOA to be “dead,” writes Valdai Club expert Andrey Baklitskiy.

In response to the “scorched earth” tactics of President Donald Trump, Iranian radicals have taken a course of escalating actions, which in fact lead to the withdrawal of Iran itself from the JCPOA. The Iranian parliament adopted a law providing for a further increase in production and an increase in the level of uranium enrichment, an increase of the number of centrifuges, including the latest modifications, the restoration of a heavy water production plant, as well as a restriction on IAEA inspection activities at Iranian nuclear facilities in the event that the United States is in the near future will not return to the JCPOA, and the European participants in the deal will not finally provide the necessary economic bonuses for Iran.

Rouhani’s government desperately resists the pressure of the radicals, hoping that the newly-elected US President will fulfil his promise to return to the JCPOA. The supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Khamenei, has paused related activity in anticipation of Joe Biden’s inauguration and his practical steps regarding Iran.

However, it would be an illusion to believe that the new American president will radically reconsider the US policy towards Iran. Like the Republican “hawks”, as well as the US Middle East allies, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, he is infected with the same stereotypes of Iran “rushing to the atomic bomb”, carrying out “subversive activities” in the region, and that it must be “contained”.

The past 40+ year history of US-Iran relations indicates that the policy of pressure and sanctions against Iran does not achieve its goals, but only plays into the hands of the country’s radical religious and political leadership, helping it to mobilise Iranians on a national patriotic basis to repel external threats, and to mitigate and justify the dissatisfaction of the population with the deteriorating socio-economic situation by attributing it to the influence of external danger. At the same time, Washington only strengthens the Iranian radicals, actually driving into a corner representatives of the reformist circles of Iranian society, who are interested in normalising relations with the United States and are capable, under favourable circumstances, of changing the vector of Iran’s domestic and foreign policy.

If no compromise solutions are found on the Iranian nuclear programme, the key issue of Iranian-American relations today, as it was already under the radical president Ahmadinejad, will be sharply activated. If this does not push the United States towards agreements with Tehran, then Iran can terminate cooperation with the IAEA, withdraw from the JCPOA and, possibly, from the NPT. After this, the acceleration of the missile programme and the intensification of the Iranian doctrine of containing threats to Iran’s security at distant approaches will acquire particular relevance.

To avoid the further radicalisation of the situation in the Middle East, Washington and Tehran must find a modus vivendi in their relations that would prevent the development of events according to a catastrophic scenario.

To do this, the United States needs to free itself from the burden of historical grievances, illusions and anti-Iranian phobias, often fictitious, to recognise existing realities. Iran does not pose a threat to the US national security. Their military potentials are incomparable. While developing its nuclear programme, Tehran aims to use it for peaceful purposes, and not to create nuclear weapons, unless, of course, if force majeure, such as foreign armed aggression, compels it to do so.

It is quite natural that Iran strives to recognise its status as an influential regional power, an equal political, trade and economic partner entitled to protect its national interests, including security, which is very important, given the American military presence along the Iranian borders.

Iran is ready to actively join the creation of a collective security system in the region. This is evidenced by the Hormuz Peace Initiative put forward by Iran, proposing the development of measures to strengthen confidence-building measures and cooperation both in the Persian Gulf zone and throughout the Middle East.

JCPOA Is Neither Alive nor Dead: How Iran and Its Partners Adapt to the Unstable Balance
Andrey Baklitskiy
On the one hand, preservation of the Iranian nuclear deal and resistance to the unjustified US pressure meets the political and economic interests of Europe. On the other hand, many European countries would be glad were Iran to violate its commitments and Europe could again be on “the right side of history” alongside Washington, believes Valdai Club expert Andrey Baklitskiy.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.