Iran and the US: Time for Historic Reconciliation

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US President Barack Obama talks on a phone with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai from his vehicle in Maryland, in this handout photograph taken and released on 11 March 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Pete Souza - Handout)

By: Elie Chalhoub

Published Friday, April 6, 2012

It may seem far-fetched, but both the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have good reason to seek the kind of accommodation they know they must eventually reach.

Merely raising the possibility of a settlement between Iran and the United States may upset some of the Islamic republic’s more zealous supporters. They could deem the very thought of an accommodation an insult to three decades of struggle against the “Great Satan.”

Even more moderate individuals in Iran can point to a host of reasons why Iran would not embark on such a course. These range from ideological aversion to a lack of practical necessity, given the victories scored by the resistance axis. They could cite in their support that Tehran has, on several occasions over the past few months, refused to hold bilateral negotiations with the US, despite overtures from Washington.

But a sound understanding of the philosophy of the Islamic Revolution could well lead to a different conclusion: that Iran has never been closer than it is now to an anticipated historic compromise with America. This is in line with the thinking of the revolution’s two imams – the founder Ayatollah Khomeini, and his successor and Iran’s current leader Ali Khamenei – with the current outcome of its decades-long struggle with the US, and also with the global geostrategic realignment that is currently taking place.

First, a distinction must be made between the Iranian revolution’s view of America – as the “Great Satan” which leads global arrogance and supports oppressors around the world – and of Israel, as a cancerous growth that must be removed. This conceptual difference implies that it is possible to establish a relationship with America, even if it is adversarial (indeed, a current emerged in Iran in the 1990s calling for ties to be established with the US along the same lines as those existing with the Soviet Union).

By contrast, relations with the Israeli state are not possible, because its very existence – as an alien entity colonizing the land and uprooting its people – goes against the ideological underpinning on which the revolution in Iran was based: to support the oppressed against the oppressor, as at Karbala in the Shia theological tradition.

As a result, Iran has different rules of engagement with the US and Israel. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the US and Iran have clearly arrived at a tacit understanding on two things: to keep their engagement below the level of war and that the conflict between them must eventually be resolved by a compromise that satisfies both parties. However, with Israel in its present form – as a racist, Zionist state – the rules of engagement assume that no accommodation is possible and that a military confrontation is a major option.

This attitude to the US was most clearly expressed by Khomeini himself when he first appointed Ali Akbar Velayati as foreign minister in the 1980s. He said at the time: “The breach with America cannot last forever. The day must come when we resolve this issue in a way that is in keeping with higher Iranian interests and with Iran’s honor.”

These three principles – honor, wisdom, and national interests – were adopted in turn by his successor Khamenei for his foreign policy. The corollary is that while honor must not be upheld recklessly, there is no wisdom without honor. National interests cannot be based on purely pragmatic considerations that disregard all principles.

Khomeini’s words were echoed, coincidentally, on Monday by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of the Expediency Council, when he said, “The manner in which we deal with America – we do not talk to it and do not have any relations with it – cannot continue in this way. America is the pre-eminent power in the world. In what way is Europe different to America? In what way are Russia and China different? From our point of view, if we negotiate with these powers, why do we not negotiate with America?”

Whatever the case, the point is that for Iran, the conflict with America has never been existential, nor a conflict for its own sake. It has always been aimed, from the Iranian Islamist/nationalist perspective, at opposing the US’ exploitation of the world’s poor and oppressed, its support for Israel, and at securing US recognition of Iran as a regional superpower.

Iran used to have a history, specifically since the end of the 19th century, of turning to one great power to protect it from another. It thus sought the aid of the Russians to counter the British, then that of the French against both the British and the Russians, and then turned to the Americans to offset the British.

Only under Khomeini was the theory of negative balance, espoused by the religious current he founded that later came to be known as the Combatant Clergymen, translated into policy. This entailed relying on domestic resources to stand fast on the international stage and avoid making concessions to any of the competing powers, or to seek their protection.

But what, from Iran’s viewpoint, would constitute recognition as a regional superpower? Presumably, this would at least mean acknowledging that the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan are areas of Iranian influence, and that Iran also has its stake in the wider region – from Central Asia through to Lebanon, Egypt, and the Horn of Africa. All this would have to be acknowledged in addition to unambiguously recognizing Iran’s right to possess the know-how and technology to produce nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Would the US be prepared to pay such a price? So far, the answer has been “no.” But Washington does not object to an accommodation as such, particularly since George Bush Junior’s second term. The dispute was always over the price. What Washington offers is less than what Tehran can accept, and what Tehran wants is more than Washington can afford to give.

The two sides have been on opposing sides in a range of conflicts: in Iran itself, and in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, and even in Egypt and elsewhere. But these are all temporary wars aimed at strengthening hands at the negotiating table.

On America’s part, preparatory steps for the eventual deal have gone some way, and the only problem remaining is its Israeli ally.

For one thing, the US administration has, according to its own public statements, moved on from treating Iran as a group of deranged clerics who could blow the world up at any moment, to treating it as a rational state whose behavior is based on considerations of gain and loss.

The notion that the US could live with a nuclear Iran has gained some traction in US elite circles, including Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger. Military and civilian decision-makers alike concur that the military option against Iran is not feasible, as the cost would be exorbitant for both sides and any direct clash would trigger a region-wide war.

That leaves a policy of dialogue – which US President Barrack Obama came to power advocating – as the only alternative, entailing the use of both carrot and stick. While the military option has not yet been taken off the table, at least not in theory, the signs are that this policy of dialogue will deepen if Obama wins a second term.

Things look conducive from the Iranian perspective too. Khamenei is now steering the ship alone, without rivals. Moreover, he has succeeded in sending all the passengers (the various national and revolutionary leaders who have lined up in his support) back to their respective cabins, leaving alongside him on the bridge his trusted and much talked-about aide Qassem Suleimani, commander of the al-Quds Force.

Iran feels that its power, prestige, and resilience are at a high, having managed to win all the battles it waged since the turn of the millennium. Khamenei, according to those who know him, wants to fulfil the wishes of his predecessor, Khomeini, and end the breach with Washington in his lifetime.

There are several reasons for this. First, only Khamenei himself would have the legitimacy needed to take such a step. Moreover, he does not want it left to those who take esoteric religious concepts too far, like some adherents of the Hojjatieh current such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Also, the Iranian leader believes that by ending the breach with the US, he will have secured the revolution, as it will have overcome one of the biggest challenges facing it. In doing so, he will have set an example to other Third World countries that they are capable of building themselves up independently and gaining recognition as a force to be reckoned with. He would also be able to present Iran’s style of Islamic government as a success in taking a nation out of a state of near-total dependency and turning it into a big power.

The global geostrategic map which is being put in place at present seems consistent with this thinking. It is one which seriously threatens the status of the US. Washington is currently going into a coma for the presidential elections. But when it awakes, it could find the world looking different: with an alliance emerging which represents over half the world’s population, comprising the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), with a solid core in the Middle East (including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip), and supported by many countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Washington would presumably not want to allow such an alliance to take shape fully, threatening a repeat of the Cold War bloc rivalry. It would likely prefer to deal separately with its various components, on a divide-and-rule basis.

Therefore, Iran can be expected to be a priority for the next US administration. Along with its regional allies, it is a spearhead of, and the most heated arena of confrontation with, this emerging rival alliance. That will compel Washington to make up its mind.

If it opts to settle, it will have no difficulty establishing direct contacts. The two sides have maintained bilateral lines of engagement for the past decade in three places: Afghanistan, Iraq, and the American Iranian Council in the US, which Ahmadinejad’s advisor and in-law Esfandiar Rahim Mashai has worked to strengthen, with a blind eye turned by the regime.

There are also, of course, a number of open bilateral channels, most importantly the Omani and Swiss channels.

Talk of an accommodation between Iran and the US may sound somewhat premature. It may disregard some obstacles that may indeed prove impossible to overcome. Or it might be misinformed. But ultimately it is a more realistic scenario than many imagine, and signs of it could start becoming apparent in the next two years.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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