This paper highlights views on Iran-US rapprochement held by actors in Iran’s political arena and outlines reasons some parties reject it while others not only accept but also defend it. At the forefront of these is the institution of the Iranian Supreme Leader that plays a role overshadowing all others in the country. The Supreme Leader does not prevent negotiations with the United States within the framework of the nuclear issue but remains cautious in the face of any practical rapprochement. This paper examines the Iranian government’s point of view as well as that of reformists who do not reject the principle of convergence, addresses the position of fundamentalist and hard-line Revolutionary Guards who reject any restoration of such relations and ends with an examination of Iranian public opinion that puts lifting the economic embargo imposed on Iran at the top of its priority list, regardless of the means used by politicians and policymakers to achieve this objective.
The Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States have a long history of conflict. Diplomatic relations between them were severed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution’s victory in Iran. However, over the years, Tehran and Washington have held several meetings to discuss regional issues of mutual interest, such as events in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as met in the same room on several occasions parallel to nuclear talks.
Iran today is different. The first signs of change loomed on the horizon after moderate President Hassan Rouhani took office and adopted open communication with the West. This is in addition to positive signals to the US by Rouhani and other Iranian parties after eight years of radical conservative rule and after tough sanctions were imposed on the country because of its nuclear programme. These included a ban on oil imports from Iran and a boycott of Iranian banks. The sanctions which had been imposed over the past eight years have had negative consequences on the Iranian people and on the overall economic situation, causing Iranians to look for politicians who would adopt new policies to revitalize the economy and reopen the country.
Many Iranian politicians have adopted moderate language in support of dialogue with the West lifting economic sanctions became a popular demand holding priority over other issues. However, the question of negotiating with an old enemy which follows a policy of isolating Iran and was the main cause of sanctions has sparked controversy among political currents in Iran whose political discourse and perception of the West in general, and the US in particular, are different.
This paper will shed light on differing positions of key political actors in Iran regarding rapprochement with the US, reasons of those who oppose and motives of those who support convergence. It will also address the view of the Iranian people whose priority is resolving Iran’s economic woes. In terms of policymakers, some are supporters, while others are cautious and suspicious of the United States. Policymakers in Iran include various powers and political tides, so it is natural that domestic views on Iran-US rapprochement will differ. The first five sections of the paper discuss the domestic voices amenable to some type of rapprochement, the next two sections discuss the domestic voices of those absolutely opposed to rapprochement with the US and the final section preceding the conclusion discusses Iranian public opinion on rapprochement.
Supreme Leader as an institution
The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei, has the final word on the country’s strategic issues, of which the Iranian nuclear issue and relations with the United States constitute the most important. The leader has chosen to work under the banner of “heroic flexibility.” Iran’s conditions today are different, particularly in view of the fact that there are so many issues in the region which are being reshuffled. Tehran now needs more flexible attitudes without making fateful concessions. (1)
Regional and domestic circumstances have made it necessary for the Supreme Leader to give the government more room to reach a nuclear deal with the West, allowing Iran to breathe an economic sigh of relief and implying revival of its institutions, a fact that will benefit everyone. But when it comes to normalisation directly with Washington, the personal stance of the Leader and his small circle of his advisors, such as his military affairs adviser, Rahim Safavi, and his representative in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Ali Saeedi, will be different.
The Supreme Leader already expressed that he was not optimistic about positive results from nuclear negotiations. (2) Earlier, he defined the meaning of dialogue with the US as, “engagement, and this means to get something for a price. What can we give America and what will it give us in return? The problem for them lies in the fact that Iran sticks to the line of true Islam, and they want you to abandon this line. Are you ready to offer this price?” (3)
In another speech, Khamenei insisted, “Iran does not trust the United States. The US government has no logic, behaves in a superior fashion towards others and does not fulfil its promises. Iran cannot agree with a government that serves the Zionist network across the world. But we support the diplomatic moves of our government despite the lack of optimism on our part as to what the American side will offer.” (4)
He reiterated that position during the thirty-fifth anniversary of the victory of the Islamic Revolution of Iran when he confirmed his support of Rouhani’s government. He directed his speech to those who had criticised the policies of openness and the manner of dialogue with major countries, asking them to give the government more time. “The politicians who criticise negotiations with major powers on Iran’s nuclear programme are invited to show some leniency towards the government, which took office only a few months ago and should be given more time to advance in its plans,” he said. He then blasted the US, saying it would have toppled the Iranian government if it had had the opportunity and adding that Washington had adopted an approach characterised by domination and interference in his country’s internal affairs. (5)
It is notable in this analysis as well that the Leader did not object to the phone call between Rouhani and Obama after the last UN General Assembly meeting in New York nor did he object to bilateral meetings between the foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, and US secretary of state, John Kerry,parallel to talks between Iran and the P5+1. He also announced his support for the negotiating team formed by Rouhani, calling on all parties inside Iran to give them space; however, it is clear the Leader maintains a cautious stance. He stands against any rush towards normalisation of bilateral relations with Washington but does not completely close the door on the possibility of better ties with the West in general in hopes this will improve Iran’s domestic situation, image abroad and at the very least reassure the world of Iran’s good intentions after his country’s isolation.
Khamenei seems to want to say that Iran has decided on dialogue with the “devil” only to ward off potential disasters. This cautious and pessimistic attitude also explains how the Leader, at this stage, occupies the middle ground between the government, which does not reject rapprochement with Washington, and those who outright reject this convergence, such as the Revolutionary Guards and hard-line conservatives.
The position and motives of the Supreme Leader can be summarised as follows:
1. Despite his lack of optimism about the results in the long run, Khamenei agrees implicitly to limited convergence with the US, seeking to resolve outstanding issues on the country’s nuclear programme and hoping to ease economic sanctions. At the same time, he is careful about opening the door to dialogue on many aspects of bilateral relations between Tehran and Washington. In the current conjuncture, he is prepared to give the green light for negotiations between the two countries exclusively in relation to the nuclear issue.
2. Iran’s interests, including regional and national security roles, require the adoption of “heroic flexibility” dialogue.
3. There are historical reasons behind Khamenei’s caution about the rush to normalise relations with the United States. This attitude stems from his leadership of the Islamic Revolution, meaning he cannot outright condemn the “Death to America” slogan dating to the beginning of the revolution. Moreover, many in Iran cannot forget this slogan or ignore it after years of hostility.
4. The Leader is trying to entrench all trends in Iran with his cloak. Therefore, he prevents condemnation of the government’s efforts yet adopts the position of those who have been hostile to America historically. He also tries to bridge the gap between the people and political powers created after the high price Iranians paid as a result of the economic embargo.
5. These positions taken by the top authority in Iran means that it wants to keep up with regional and international developments and attempt to end its isolation. This is in addition to having the embargo and consequent pressure lifted while maintaining its national security.
Rafsanjani and the moderates
With the reasons for hostility against the US vanishing, Rafsanjani and the moderates support conditional convergence based on confidence-building. This view seems to be the strongest among all parties for as long as the Leader continues to use the “heroic flexibility” discourse which has gained a majority of the public’s support.
This moderate line, the third stance between the right and the left in Iran, emerged after the beginning of the Islamic Revolution, with its most prominent historical symbol being Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a companion of Imam Khomeini, and second in importance after Khamenei. Rafsanjani is a pillar of the regime, is regarded regionally and internationally as a symbol of Iranian moderation, and is a strong supporter of Rouhani.
For a long while, he has been regarded as a controversial figure. He has argued that the slogan “Death to America” was neither mentioned in the Qur’an nor in Islam, and that Khomeini had not objected to discarding the slogan. (6) This sparked much confusion in various circles in Iran, especially among hard-line clerics. (7)
Rafsanjani believes it is natural for Iran to resume relations with the US, but only if the causes of the crisis are settled. Like the majority of Iran’s political leadership, he believes that there has been historical enmity from Americans against Iran starting after the Islamic revolution and that Washington adopted and nourished hostile policies designed to isolate Iran and demonise it internationally.
On the other hand, Rafsanjani believes that Iran needs to rebuild itself from the inside, and to improve itself regionally and international in order to improve its global image. In his opinion, this means the ability to confront US policy, compelling it to review its previous position and negotiate with Tehran. Rafsanjani emphasises “facing US policy with moderation and openness” because that would mean the US would decrease its campaign to demonise Iran. (8)
During his two presidential terms, Rafsanjani adopted a policy of rebuilding Iran after the end of the eight-year war with Iraq. He improved the country’s relations with other countries in the region and with Europe. He repeatedly said that America was the primary world power, and asked about whether there was any difference between Europe, China and the United States, “If Iran has dialogue with these countries, he asked, why not with America?” (9)
Rafsanjani and his companions do not advocate making concessions to the US because they regard hostility with the US government as political rather than ideological. However, they favour rapprochement with the US because it can provide Iran with a way out of the economic blockade. This view contradicts slightly with the position that mistrusts the US and believes that America wants to inhibit Iran’s movement.
Iranian government under Rouhani’s leadership
President Rouhani is considered close to Rafsanjani, who is also the head of the Expediency Council. However, Rouhani’s government is considered the operational arm for the implementation of Iran’s foreign policy, and this is seen in the fact that the government is trying to implement Rafsanjani’s policy of moderation. However, the government remains within the limits set by the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards, forced to reconcile between the different views in the country.
Rouhani enjoys good relations with the Supreme Leader, and is a prominent member of Hozeh. He also holds the key of diplomacy in his hand, and sees easing hostility with other countries as the solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma. He claims to have full authority to negotiate with the West on Iran’s nuclear programme.
Rouhani appointed Mohammad Javad Zarif, who had extensive contacts with the Americans during Rafsanjani’s and Mohammad Khatami’s presidential terms, as foreign minister. He also transferred the nuclear issue from the National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry and handed it over to moderates. This gave the government’s position a diplomatic form that is premised on the alleviation of negative foreign policy discourse toward the US and the West, with emphasis on non-negotiable issues.
Since the presidential campaign, Rouhani has promoted the idea that solving Iran’s problems lay in two areas: foreign policy first and the economy second. The most notable problem is sanctions imposed on Iran. (10) Rouhani’s programme stresses the need for interaction between Iran and other countries, and even the integration of its revolutionary regime with the international community, under the approach of what he called “constructive engagement.” This is in addition to intensifying efforts to develop Iran’s relations with others, and giving a greater role to diplomacy to take on difficult questions such as the nuclear programme, and relations with the US and neighbouring countries, especially those in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
In an article in the Washington Post titled, “Why is Iran Seeking Constructive Engagement?” Rouhani explained the new Iranian approach toward the world and announced the beginning of a new era in his country’s interaction with the world according to an agenda of dialogue, reconciliation and constructive engagement.
“The world has changed. International politics are no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities,” he wrote. Rouhani stressed he intended to follow a policy of reconciliation and constructive dialogue. He directed his words to the international community and the US, pointing out that diplomatic convergence did not mean making fateful concessions, but rather was a commitment to the principle of equality and mutual respect to dispel fears that hamper relations and achievement of common goals. (11)
The president and his government’s stances do not reject the principle of direct negotiations with the US but rather indicate a desire to resume relations. (12) Rouhani argues if rapprochement with the US meets the requirement of “heroic flexibility” set by the Supreme Leader, it will achieve the following:
1. Lifting of the economic embargo imposed by the US on Iran, the release of frozen Iranian assets in US banks, and even lifting of other western sanctions.
2. Convergence will provide recognition of Iran’s right to possess a nuclear programme with its obligation to fulfil the Geneva Accord and the agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Rouhani addressed the Supreme Leader after the Geneva agreement and confirmed his loyalty, (13) hoping to get a green light to continue with his efforts as long as they met the Leader’s conditions.
3. Recognition of a regional role for Iran because rapprochement with the US will lead to bilateral cooperation on Middle East issues and a resolution of some of the region’s crises, such as the Syrian crisis.
4. The Iranian government is concerned with the implementing the views of citizens who elected it. Rouhani repeatedly mentioned this in his speeches when he talked about his intentions not to betray those who voted for him economically or politically. This matter requires rapprochement with the most influential power in the world. (14)
The reformist trend led by former president Mohammad Khatami and his supporters, who are still under the cloak of the Islamic Republic, experienced a revival after Rouhani won presidential elections. This came after its absence from the political scene since the 2009 election crisis, when reformists supported Mir Hossein Mousavi’s dispute of election results.
This trend’s vision seems clear and explicit, and favours rapprochement with the US and direct dialogue with it (15) based on the following:
1. Rapprochement with the US is consistent with the political discourse of the reformists, who have long questioned continued hostility with the US at a time when rapprochement may gain much benefit for Iran.
2. Any rapprochement with Washington implies a return of the reformists to the political arena and the rise of this trend after years of absence. It has been noted that after the election of Rouhani, the door had been widely opened for the reformists, their newspapers and their books. Rumours also began to circulate on the impending end of the house arrest imposed on 2009 presidential candidates Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
3. During the two presidential terms of Khatami, the reformists suspended uranium enrichment and chose pacification to alleviate pressure on Iran. They fear military action against Iran and therefore encourage diplomacy and direct dialogue with the USA.
4. The reformists have repeatedly pointed out that any relationship with the US does not necessarily mean departure from the Islamic Republic’s system. This is an attempt to distance themselves from the 2009 accusations that some of them had plotted against the regime. (16)
Despite the reformists’ explicit call for remedying what hard-line politicians had ruined with Washington, they have increasing fears that the focus of Rouhani’s government on reforming Iran’s foreign relations and improving relations with the West will be at the expense of internal reforms and support for political and cultural freedoms inside Iran. (17)
Religious establishment or Hozeh (Shia higher learning academies)
Within Iran’s religious establishment, there are clerics affiliated with the fundamentalist current and others who are moderate. According to various statements, the viewpoints of hozeh clerics are close to the Khamenei’s viewpoint. (18)
It is no secret, however, that some of the hozeh clerics have reservations about the actions of the militants and their harsh criticism of government policies in approaching the West and beginning dialogue. These clerics believe Iran is passing through circumstances that require internal unity more than ever before, and they focus on the need to maintain internal unity of the country. They also believe it is necessary to spare Iran any additional problems between political groups which may detract from attempts to solve the economic crisis, the main demand of all Iranians.
The religious establishment argues that if convergence is the key to lifting the burden on citizens, there is no harm in it. Many clerics see nothing negative about negotiating with the West to resolve the nuclear issue, and nothing negative about opening discussion with the US as long as red lines are not crossed and principles of the Islamic Republic are not violated. According to them, negotiations can maintain Iranians’ dignity and save the country from paying the price of the economic embargo imposed on it. (19)
Apart from these five trends, there are also those who are absolutely opposed to reaching out to the “Great Satan,” and their viewpoints will be discussed in these two final sections.
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)
This institution absolutely stands against any rapprochement with the US. A number of its senior officials harshly criticised the Geneva nuclear accord with the West and the foreign policies of Rouhani and Zarif, arguing that such policies tend towards western liberal politics. Last September, the IRGC commander, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, even criticised the Rouhani-Obama phone call, describing it as premature. (20) However, the Supreme Leader’s support of Rouhani and the nuclear deal kept the conservative elements within the IRGC under control. This can be deduced from a recent statement by Jafari in which he said, “The Revolutionary Guards will keep silent about this issue because we do not want to give the opportunity to anyone to meddle inside Iran.” (21)
There are a number of reasons for the Guards’ opposition:
• The IRGC regards the US as a force of global arrogance which antagonises the Islamic Republic of Iran and argues that Iran should not deal with a force established on domination and hegemony in the world. (22)
• The Guards consider any agreement between Iran and the US a threat to the ideological basis of the IRGC’s power. The IRGC sees itself as responsible for maintaining the institution of velayat-e-faqih (rule of the jurist), the protection of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its national security and the gains of the Islamic revolution . Also, any Iran-US rapprochement could mean a serious decline in the role of the IRGC because it regards America as the “Great Satan.”
• The IRGC is an Iranian force that protects the so-called axis of resistance. It supports Hezbollah and Palestinian resistance factions in addition to being the military establishment which secures the interests of the Islamic Republic across the world. It is a force stationed in Gulf waters to confront US military presence there. Thus, any relationship with America will necessarily mean a decline in this role.
• Considering the economic crisis, there are virtually no alternative options for the Guards to the foreign policy pursued by Rouhani. However, they lead very important economic sectors inside and outside Iran. This began during Ahmadinejad’s tenure as president to save the local economy and to circumvent the embargo imposed on Iran. There is no doubt the success of Rouhani’s foreign policy, specifically rapprochement with the West, would reduce this economic role, particularly if a significant portion of the sanctions are lifted. It is clear that Rouhani is aware of this issue as he has called on the guards to reduce the role of the military in the economy. Rouhani was armed with the Supreme Leader’s words regarding the need of this institution to distance itself from the political arena (23) and with the popular momentum which supports a nuclear deal with the West.
This group publicly condemns all negotiations, convergence or relations with the US. Some members of the Iranian parliament from this current criticised government policies, the president and the foreign minister, arguing that the interim agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 which was drafted February and is subject to further modifications is in the interest of the western countries while its advantages to Iran are modest. They add the agreement exposes the Iranian nuclear programme to danger.
This group argues the government has made significant concessions by agreeing to cease part of Iran’s nuclear activities in return for a partial easing of international sanctions, and believes that the interim agreement did not guarantee this right. (24)
Around 100 radical fundamentalists waited for Rouhani’s return from the UN General Assembly meeting at Mehrabad airport in Tehran, expressing their anger at his phone conversation with Obama, and chanting “Death to America.” This trend does not trust the US and refuses to sit with the Americans at the same table, (25) for the following reasons:
• Historically, the US is an enemy that attempted to pre-empt Iran’s Islamic Revolution and sow discord inside Iran to overthrow the Islamic regime.
• Hostility with the US has been the key reason for all of Iran’s achievements over the past three decades.
• Any political or other relations cannot be established without making concessions, and the radicals do not agree to make any concessions.
• Radical fundamentalists believe any rapprochement between Tehran and Washington will imply modifying domestic politics, which means marginalisation of their role within the country.
• Some conservatives repeat certain statements against rapprochement or dialogue with