By Jalil Bayat
A nearly 40-year absence of ties between Iran and the United States has culminated in misunderstandings and mistakes between the two governments and an insufficient understanding between the two societies. This is the case even among the scientific community, political experts, and analysts. U.S. experts have little knowledge of Iranian society, culture, domestic politics, institutions, and foreign policy decision-makings, and vice versa. This is also true in the case of Iranian-Americans living in the U.S. who lack accurate information on daily life and events in Iran due to migration and having spent many years away from a country which has been relentlessly changing.
One such example can be seen in a recent Foreign Affairs article titled “Iran, the Unitary State.” While acknowledging the insufficient understanding of U.S. officials and experts about Iran, it provides an incomplete analysis of Iran’s foreign policy decision-making process.
The main point made by the authors is that factionalism has no role in Iran’s security decisions, and that Iran decides as a unified state actor on this issue. They presume Iran’s role in the Aramco strikes and argue that all the pillars of power in Iran were united on this. This claim has several drawbacks.
First, the sophistication of strikes on Aramco is not a forgone conclusion of Iran’s culpability. Iran has repeatedly denied the allegations and the Houthis have explicitly claimed responsibility. No concrete evidence has been submitted on the case to date.
But all this aside, the authors have not taken into account the events of the past two years in terms of Iran’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal and its implications for the moderate faction in Iran led by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
If foreign politics is said to be the extension of domestic politics, factionalism has a significant impact on foreign policy approaches. How else, for instance, can the differences between Barack Obama’s policies, who signed the nuclear deal, and Donald Trump’s policies, who left the same deal, be explained? This is also true of Iran and most other countries. Therefore, it cannot be argued that the foreign policy of former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is the same as the policies of Hassan Rouhani.
Of course, it is correct to say that Iran’s strategic policies are decided by the Supreme National Security Council and endorsed by the Supreme Leader prior to implementation. But this does not mean that Rouhani’s moderate government is satisfied with an acceleration of the hard-line policies of Iran over the past six months. Indeed, U.S. withdrawal from the JCOPA and its “maximum pressure” policy weakened the position of the moderates, including in the Supreme National Security Council. In other words, with escalating tensions in the region and the failure of the government’s diplomacy, the weight of the resistance forces in the council has increased, and opposition by moderates has been ineffective as decisions are taken by a majority vote.
This reality must be accepted that the Iranian political system is neither a liberal Western democracy nor a dictatorship like North Korea. It is something in-between. The political behavior of Iran’s Supreme Leader has also shown that he believes in collective wisdom and, except in rare cases, he endorses the decisions of the Supreme National Security Council. In the same way that he agreed to negotiate the nuclear deal with the U.S. in 2013, Ayatollah Khamenei also endorsed an alternative view to resist the U.S. “maximum pressure” after it pulled out of the JCPOA. There is no doubt that this view is the outcome of the Iranian establishment’s decision, but the Rouhani government’s alignment with current security-strategic policies is not by conviction but by coercion.
The dissatisfaction of his moderate cabinet is evident in Zarif’s resignation a few months ago (he subsequently returned to his post shortly thereafter), or the topic of holding a referendum repeatedly brought up by President Rouhani. Speaking at Tehran University, Rouhani said: “We have not reached a decisive answer in 41 years; some support constructive interaction with the world and some support constant confrontation; some say you waste your time speaking to the West; that we must be strong and threaten them until they are brought to their knees; others say constant confrontation will get us nowhere.”
He added: “If we still fail to come up with solutions for issues that we have been discussing for more than 40 years, we must hold a referendum.”
Some analysts in Iran believe that one of the most important points for Rouhani in holding a referendum is negotiations with the U.S.—an issue strongly opposed by hardliners. As Rouhani is presently unable to move forward with this in the structure of political decision-making (in the Supreme National Security Council), he is bringing up the topic of a referendum.
Journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi has posted on his telegram channel: “Mr Rouhani has deliberately shouted disagreements within the establishment over how to deal with Western nations to show he and his government are seeking a new deal with Europe and the U.S., but the other factions has confrontation on the agenda.”
From this viewpoint, identifying moderates such as Rouhani and Zarif with hardliners in Iran as unitary, as mentioned by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and accepted to a certain extent in the Foreign Affairs piece, is a mistake. The U.S. should see Iran as it is—a country with fundamental differences in facing the West among its leaders and population alike.
Jalil Bayat is a journalist and a PhD candidate in International Relations at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran. He is a permanent member of the Iranian Political Science Association. He was guest researcher at the Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies Center (2015-2018).