Iran Is More Than A Regime

by Ali Reza Eshraghi

In the current debate over the November 24 interim deal with Iran on its nuclear program, an important lesson from Politics 101 is neglected: state and regime are two conceptually different terms. But when it comes to Iran, US foreign policy has systematically been incompetent in grasping this distinction.

State refers to a sovereign political entity, which (at least in theory) is supposed to pursue the common good of its population. Regime, on the other hand, signifies an authoritarian form of governance and its ruling elites.

However, the rhetorical use of this word can be biased and highly politically motivated. In Western media one recurrently hears phrases such as “Iranian regime” and “Islamic regime” and not so much “Saudi regime,” despite Iran having significantly greater democratic features than the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Louis XIV of France once said: “L’Etat c’est moi,” I am the state. In the discourse over Iran’s nuclear program, it is often mistakenly assumed that the regime (along with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) is the state. Subsequently, the nuclear conundrum is framed as only the problem of a regime that is greedily obsessed with its own survival, and not that of a state bound to consider long-term national interests.

If one sees a problem as a nail, the solution would be to look for a hammer. In this regard, it is not surprising that many members of the U.S. congress, assuming that more pressure will ultimately force capitulation by the regime, are pushing (though apparently defeated for the time being) for evermore sanctions against Iran.

And when it comes to negotiating with Iran, we see that the old Kremlinology of the Soviet era is ludicrously imitated, with moderate President Hassan Rouhani being compared to Mikhail Gorbachev. All the speculations are focused on how far the Iranian President could go in selling an accord to other players in the regime, and ultimately how much the whole regime, including Rouhani, can be trusted.

But what about the Iranian People? Some argue they would be happy for any deal as long as it alleviates the suffering caused by economic sanctions. It is even claimed that the democratic Iranian opposition is worried a nuclear agreement would empower the regime.

These assertions are inaccurate.

Two days after the historic phone conversation between Presidents Barack Hussein Obama and Hassan Rouhani, a rap song titled “Hassan & Hussein” went viral. The lyrics encouraged Iran-US reconciliation, but cautioned Rouhani: “Just remember when you are dancing [with Obama] / Not to give away the country two-handedly to [him] the foreigner.”

A recent poll by the Zogby Research Service shows 96% of Iranians (also the majority of Rouhani supporters) believe “maintaining the right to advance a nuclear program is worth the price being paid in economic sanctions and international isolation.”

Some Iranian opposition groups — though hateful of the regime — also believe that the nuclear dispute with the West should not be resolved at the price of damaging the pride and interests of the country.

For example Ardeshir Zahedi, the Shah’s last Ambassador to the US, in an interview with BBC Persian in July 2012 defended the nuclear program of a regime that has forced him into exile: “Iranians must maintain their patriotism. No matter who is in power, Iran is our country.”

Akbar Etemad, the founder of the Atomic Energy Organization during the Shah’s regime, even recommends that Iran withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in order to keep its uranium enrichment program. This is the same position that some of the regime’s hardliners have insisted on.

Moreover, the Green Movement leaders (the largest democratic movement in Iran since the 1979 revolution, which the U.S. was sympathetic toward) are also against the Iranian regime signing a nuclear deal at the cost of disregarding national interests.

In October 2009, Iran’s top negotiator Saeed Jalili welcomed a deal in which Iran would send enriched uranium abroad. But Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the Green Movement leader who has been under house arrest for more than a thousand days, accused the regime of “making a deal over the Iranian nation’s long-term interests.” The Supreme Leader later rejected the deal.

Another severe comment was made in May 2010 when Iran signed a nuclear deal with the mediation of Brazil and Turkey (initially encouraged by President Obama but later rejected). This time Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi’s wife who has also been under house arrest, admonished the agreement as “worse than the disgraceful” Gulistan Treaty.

Coincidentally, this October the Iranian media commemorated the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Gulistan between the Iranian and Russian empires following the peace negotiations that were mediated by Great Britain.

Gulistan (1813) and its following Treaty of Turkmenchay (1828) in which Iran had to give up a great deal of territories and rights have deeply haunted the Iranian psyche.

In the Persian vocabulary “Turkmenchay” has become a metaphor for any humiliating compromise that jeopardizes national interests. In fact, after the recent Geneva agreement Iranians active on social media were wondering if it is another Turkmenchay or not. Luckily, the majority of Iranians don’t believe so although Abolhassan Banisadr, a prominent opposition figure who served as the first President of post-revolutionary Iran, has called the interim deal “worst than the Turkmenchay Treaty.”

To further understand the situation, let’s compare this metaphor to another one, which is often used in explaining the behavior of the regime:

In July 1988 after the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the Supreme Leader of the time Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini reluctantly accepted UN Security Council Resolution 598 and the immediate ceasefire. He equated his decision (like Socrates) to drinking the poisonous chalice. Since then, pundits have participated in an incongruous scholastic dispute over what conditions would lead the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to drink the proverbial poison and accept a nuclear deal like his predecessor.

Khomeini has been lambasted by many Iranians for prolonging the war with Iraq but no one has condemned his decision to accept the UN Security Council resolution as an act of giving away a piece of land or undermining national interests and rights.

The real problem for the current Iranian regime headed by Ayatollah Khamenei is not about drinking the poisonous chalice. It has to do with the signing of a nuclear Turkmenchay. Realpolitik suggests that the regime should not be trapped between the Scylla of ever-growing sanctions and the Charybdis of a humiliating unilateral concession.

The US President has apparently grasped this notion. Speaking at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum last Saturday, Obama rejected that Iran would surrender under more sanctions and military threats: “I think [this notion] does not reflect an honest understanding of the Iranian people or the Iranian regime.”

When debating the recent Geneva deal and the prospect of a comprehensive agreement, US foreign policy makers, especially Congress, need to distinguish between Iran as a regime and Iran as a state. “What’s the difference?” they might ask.

Yet, as the literary critic Paul De Man once brilliantly explained, “What’s the difference” in some situations could be an answer rather than a question that indicates the responder does not “give a damn what the difference is.” This would be an imprudent answer from the US Congress.

Photo Credit: ISNA/Mehdi Ghasemi

Ali Reza Eshraghi

Ali Reza Eshraghi is the Iran Projects Director at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and a teaching fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was a senior editor at several of Iran's reformist dailies. During his more than 15-year career in journalism, he has published hundreds of articles and op-ed pieces in various Persian, Arabic and English media including the New York Times, CNN and Al Jazeera. Eshraghi is an alumnus of the Duke-UNC Rotary Center for International Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution. Formerly, he was a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism and The Institute of International Studies (IIS). He was also a research fellow at the Religion, Politics and Globalization Program at UC Berkeley. Eshraghi studied Political Science and Islamic Studies at Imam Sadiq University in Tehran.



  1. What differentiates the Iranian public/culture from the west in particular the American is the political/historical amnesia that is so prevalent in the west especially among the American politicians. The west has forgotten how the British Empire failed to compel Mossadeq to yield to the British economic sanctions and even military threat, despite the presence of the British warships blocking any export of oil, threatening Iran as well as freezing Iran’s assets in the British banks, in spite of all these and the poverty of exploited people and the boycott of the Iranian oil by the then international community, Mossadeq stood firm, so did the public who suffered the sanctions. The West has also forgotten the sacrifice the people had to make during the imposed American and Arab backed genocidal war by Saddam, they coped with the economic pressure and sanctions and gave their best youths and suffered but did not violate their own principles when it came to responding to the chemical attacks on Iran.

    The western public is condition to understand everything through labels; once a label is engraved in their mind then comparisons are automatically made without justifications and easily communicated by their media to the vast majority who then pass/share the labels in their daily discussion about the world affair: Hitler, Fascism, Antisemitism, Stalin, the Holocaust, Democracy, the Free World,… are the best labels/examples – mainly due to the fact that all that the majority can remember is about WWII, not their Colonial or Imperial history or the postwar years in Africa, Latin America, Middle East and Asia. Hence, once a story/label is repetitively mentioned, in public perception it becomes an undeniable fact, thus the undeniable existence of the Iranian nuclear bomb and this is exactly what the politicians and pro-Zionist lobbyists aim at in the west.

    The November 2013 deal has so far been an INSULT to the INTEGRITY and INDEPENDENCE of the people in Iran whose best talented scientists have mercilessly been assassinated by the west and the perpetrators have been even congratulated by the very western politicians who speak of human rights and international laws and having failed in their divide and rule policy and psychological warfare came forward like Mafia bosses to shake hands in the name of peace because the west. America, like the British Empire of the 1950s, cannot risk lose face any further and in case of another defeat in the Middle East, see the beginning of their waning western power- as the British did following the impact Mossadeq made on Egypt/Abdul Nasser, following Iran’s refusal to accept the colonial exploitation of its resources in the name of international/British law.

  2. State/Regime, what’s the difference? Perhaps if the so-called knowledgeable people in the Congress & the Neocons/Lobbyists, understood the difference, they might not believe that sanctions work. Of course, that’s just M.H.O. I don’t see any positive coming from them, especially when we know the source of such, Netanyahoo, who sure is a shinning example, re: the Palestinian situation. The civilian population are the ones who suffer, the innocent ones, who have no control over the leadership actions. So, perhaps it would be more prudent for the American Congress to tell the Lobbyists/Neocon/Netanyahoo, that they don’t give a damn what they think, though I don’t believe the Congress has the balls to do so.

  3. The Mullahs’ regime is not a rational, pragmatic regime like any other in the world. The theocratic regime’s officials and decision makers have deeply rooted apocalyptic beliefs. Underestimating this radical ideology even as the Iranian regime is on its way to building a nuclear bomb can lead to dangerously wrong conclusions. The suggestion taking hold of late that a nuclear armed Iran is not the end of the world may unfortunately be dead wrong.

    The Mullahs’ regime in Iran prepare for the return of Islamic Messiah as they slay infidels. They are asserting that Armageddon is at hand and that the Islamic regime’s followers, indeed all of Islam, must prepare for a monumental change in the world, their claim awaits until they get the nuke bomb. Don’t be fooled by the Mullahs’ charm offensive campaign.

  4. To Change: I’m convinced you’re just projecting, by using Iran instead of the real name of your rant[s], that being Zionists/Netanyahoo. He’s the one always crying like “Chicken Little”, “The Sky is Falling”, as well as the way the Zionists treat the Palestinians and other ethnic groups that come into Israels borders. I venture that I’m not the only one who thinks this, but of course, with you, your eyes are blind, your ears only hear what you’re told to hear, so really, this is a waste of time on my part.

  5. @Change Iran Now
    Your argument is wrong and to be frank quite irrational.
    For a starter, what you think the “mad mullahs” can do if they get the bomb? Which kind of “armageddon” you think they can bring with 2, 3 or even 5 bombs other than self-destruction? US has the means to obliterate Iran 100 times over, even before the decision to launch any presumed bombs towards the targets is made. And you can rest assured that Russia will provide support to the US in such a hypothetical scenario. Besides, the fact that this simple truth has been publicly reiterated by Iranian political and military leaders several times in the past shows that they are as well aware of it and have thought out through the strategic ramification of having a nuclear deterrence and/or using it.
    You see, what is clearer than your “arguments” is that you are assuming that the readers of this blog are simple-minded people that can easily be manipulated by a bogus fear factor.

    @ the author:
    You are surely correct in assesing that regime and state are 2 different concepts not to be mixed-up with each other. But you yourself tend to fail part of your own litmus test in this regard, several times in your writting, by qualifying the holder of the legitiamcy in Iran a “regime”. Don’t forget, according to the current international order, the only legal and legitimate entity responsibile for the nation-state on top of the Iranian plateau is the Islamic Republic of Iran as defined by its internal order. 40 years ago this would have been the Pahlavi monarchy but today it is the IRI which is represented, as its constitution articulate, by the Supreme Leader. The problem with Moussavi in particular and the radical “reformist” of his ilk in general was exactly the same kind as you here: like the US they were pushing on a political button which had for goal deligitimization of the whole structure by targeting its head (and in the case of the US its muscle strenght as well). We have seen the consequences of such a strategy in places like Syria, Egypt, Libya, Irak, Pakistan etc…

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