How far can any US-Iran rapprochement go?
The message of perpetual conflict between the US and Iran is weakening amid nuclear talks and an interim deal.
Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
The mutual obsession between Iran and the United States could not be more obvious at the former US Embassy in Tehran, where the tour guide ‚Äď¬†the ‚Äúofficial narrator of the Den of Spies‚ÄĚ ‚Äď¬†greets an American visitor.¬†
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs¬†your¬†home, you can come anytime,‚ÄĚ says Mohammad Reza Shoghi, tongue-in-cheek, as we step inside to view the array of Spy vs. Spy surveillance equipment and aged shredding machines, and to hear the anti-US narratives that have accumulated in Iran since 52 US diplomats were taken hostage in 1979 and held for 444 days.¬†
But this museum, with its message of perpetual conflict with an enemy of unmitigated evil,¬†contradicts the other¬†story line unfolding¬†as Iran‚Äôs Islamic revolution matures: a tentative easing of that perpetual US-Iran conflict.¬†The past few months have seen unprecedented face-to-face dialogue over Iran‚Äôs nuclear program and a promise by centrist President Hassan Rouhani to seek ‚Äúconstructive reengagement‚ÄĚ with the West.¬†
But previous overtures always suffered from insurmountable setbacks. This is why the US and Iran are now limiting talks to the nuclear file, and moving carefully.¬†
For many, the recent outreach ‚Äď including a historic phone call between the US and Iranian presidents in September ‚Äď¬†already amounts to a thaw. How¬†much further¬†can any US-Iran rapprochement go, given a generation of mutual hostility, and the Iranian regime‚Äôs¬†long-encouraged entrenchment of anti-Americanism?
Analysts say any broader US-Iran understanding will depend on progress in nuclear talks with world powers to prevent Iran from ever being¬†able to produce a bomb.
A six-month interim agreement signed in Geneva in November freezes Iran‚Äôs program in exchange for a modest easing of¬†sanctions,¬†in a first step toward a comprehensive final deal. Reaching a final accord would help ease chronic mistrust, and could lead to a new US-Iran accommodation ‚Äď¬†a cold peace, of sorts.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs an opportunity for both for both Obama and Rouhani, and it may be the last,‚ÄĚ says Amir Mohebian, a well-connected conservative analyst and editor in Tehran. Integrating Iran, he says, can help ‚Äúsolve very important strategic problems in the world.‚ÄĚ
Yet many hurdles remain, including US Senate legislation introduced¬†Thursday¬†that would violate the Geneva agreement by imposing more sanctions on Iran. A Dec. 10¬†US intelligence community¬†assessment concluded that more sanctions now would ‚Äúundermine the prospects‚ÄĚ for a final deal, and Iran has stated that any new sanctions will kill the accord.¬†The White House says it will veto such a bill.
Accommodation, not friendship
Remarkably, Mr. Mohebian says tentative US-Iran steps have been approved at the highest levels in Iran,¬†meaning¬†Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
‚ÄúThis is the last opportunity of shifting from the first generation to the second generation of leaders ¬†‚Ä¶ and the Leader wants to solve the issue of the US under his leadership,‚ÄĚ says Mohebian. He adds that¬†Mr. Khamenei, who is in his mid-70s,¬†sees Iran as negotiating from ‚Äúpeak‚ÄĚ strength because of the nuclear advances it has made despite sanctions, as well a belief in the growing appeal of Iran‚Äôs revolutionary message. ¬†¬†
‚ÄúThe goals of [Iran‚Äôs Islamic] system have changed. Being strong is not just about military strength‚Ä¶. We know that [having] power makes goals changeable,‚ÄĚ says Mohebian. ‚ÄúWhy were we against the US? Because of its behavior. But if that behavior changes, then why [still oppose the US]? We are against our enemies. But if you are not our enemy, then why?‚ÄĚ¬†
Khamenei‚Äôs readiness to ‚Äúsolve this issue‚ÄĚ does not likely mean a sudden alliance or friendship ‚Äď¬†at least under his watch ‚Äď but instead finding a mutually agreed level of accommodation. Khamenei often speaks of Iran‚Äôs deep mistrust of the US government, listing past grievances that indicate to him that ‚Äúnot one day‚ÄĚ has passed since Iran‚Äôs 1979 Islamic revolution without American attempts to undermine it.
Iran‚Äôs US-educated Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in his writings, says US-Iran ties are important, but that they also can be ‚Äúnever friendly.‚ÄĚ
After the interim Geneva deal was signed, both US Secretary of State John Kerry and Mr. Zarif played down the prospect that the accord ‚Äď¬†and their own unprecedented direct contact ‚Äď¬†could be the first step toward improved ties.¬†Yet hardliners on both sides have already attacked the deal as a compromise with the enemy.¬†
‚ÄúCertain people feel that we have to be more cautious when we are dealing with the West in general, and the United States in particular,‚ÄĚ says a senior Iranian official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
‚ÄúThey are very much skeptical of the way America has handled this case and will handle it in the future,‚ÄĚ says the Iranian official. Smooth implementation of the Geneva deal ‚Äď which is a ‚Äúbig ‚Äėif,‚Äô‚ÄĚ he adds ‚Äď¬†could ‚Äúcreate an atmosphere of trust that you can build on.‚ÄĚ
For the Iranians, that means focusing for now on a nuclear deal that sticks.
‚ÄúThe No. 1 priority for Iran is to contain the US threat, to lower tension and build up sufficient deterrence to prevent a US attack,‚ÄĚ says an Iranian journalist who asked not to be named, explaining Iran‚Äôs contradictory policies of still accusing the US, while also seeking a thaw.
'Great Satan' remains
Hard-line critics of the deal have been fierce in Iran, despite Khamenei's support for his nuclear team.
‚ÄúWhen will [the Americans] agree?‚ÄĚ asks Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the hard-line Kayhan newspaper, who is an official representative of Khamenei. ‚ÄúThey have seen everything [nuclear] of ours in the last 10 years and not been satisfied. So it is clear that they will never be satisfied.‚ÄĚ¬†
Though Khamenei has praised Iran‚Äôs negotiating team as ‚Äúsons of the revolution,‚ÄĚ Mr. Shariatmadari says, ‚Äúgood children of a family can make mistakes, too. We should point out their mistakes ‚Ä¶ hey got ripped off.‚ÄĚ¬†
Such an assessment fits the narrative of perpetual US perfidy at the former American embassy, where Mr. Shoghi, the guide, asserts numerous conspiracy theories, from US agents destroying the twin towers to create a ‚Äúpretext‚ÄĚ to invade Afghanistan and Iraq and ‚Äútorture‚ÄĚ their people, to a supposed¬†Pentagon strategy of¬†globally¬†spreading poisonous pornography.
Upstairs, in a hall behind a heavy vault door with a combination lock, is a room-size box with two layers of plexiglass walls ‚Äúfor top secret negotiations,‚ÄĚ the sign says, to prevent any eavesdropping. Three mannequins dressed in suits sit at a table inside with a 1970s-style phone.¬†
Stepping out of a different secure communication room with a bank of telex machines, Shoghi curses under his breath, in Persian: ‚ÄúGreat Satan!‚ÄĚ
Softening of rhetoric
Though such views are the official line, in a country where ‚ÄúDeath to America!‚ÄĚ is still chanted weekly at¬†Friday prayers, it is shared by only a fraction of Iranians, who paradoxically constitute one of the most pro-American populations in the Middle East.
The outside wall of the US Embassy wall is repainted from time to time, for example. Yet the recent retouch¬†of one¬†of the most striking images ‚Äď¬†a Statue of Liberty with a skull face ‚Äď was inexpertly done, and looks less fierce than before.
Pedestrians pass the iconic images without batting an eye. The US Embassy in Tehran long ago settled into Iran‚Äôs revolutionary landscape.¬†
‚ÄúWhen I compare my classes to a couple of years ago, I see how the students are enthusiastic for dialogue with the US‚ÄĚ because¬†Iranian society "is more¬†independent, more self-confident, and they think now is the time they can talk with the US [on] equal terms,‚ÄĚ says Kayhan Barzegar, director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran.
‚ÄúI think society is prepared to accept such a deal, but of course there is this classic perspective that mistrusts America,‚ÄĚ says Mr. Barzegar. ‚ÄúIt is there, and ‚Ä¶ the conservative part of Iran‚Äôs politics is very powerful when it comes to the US.‚ÄĚ
That means nuclear negotiators and their political leaders must move carefully if the process is to yield a real, long-awaited US-Iran thaw.
Iran‚Äôs neighbors and hardliners on both sides should ‚Äúget used to it,‚ÄĚ says Barzegar: ‚ÄúIran and the US cannot stay in conflict endlessly.‚ÄĚ