by Shireen T. Hunter
Recently, President Donald Trump gave Iran’s leaders a telephone number, saying that he is waiting to talk to them. Observers and analysts in both Tehran and Washington dismissed this gesture as meaningless.
Given the background of U.S.-Iran relations under Trump, especially American withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the imposition of harsher sanctions on Iran, Tehran’s reactions and observers’ skepticism are not surprising. Even before this latest offer of talks, Iranian authorities, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, had said that Tehran will not negotiate under pressure and with bullies. Clearly, the Trump administration’s actions are responsible for the increased tensions between Washington and Tehran.
However, Tehran’s reluctance to engage in direct talks with America at a normal state-to-state level within a bilateral framework long predates the Trump administration. Let’s not forget that even in 1986, when Iran was desperate for weapons for its war with Iraq and its moderates wanted to explore ways of reconciling with the United States, contacts with Washington were conducted in secrecy. Iran’s hardliners revealed these contacts, which culminated with Reagan’s National Security Advisor Robert McFarland’s ill-fated trip to Tehran and what came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair. The hardliners supposedly had gotten the information through Syria; the information was first published in the Syrian daily Al Shar’a. Syria, in turn, had received it from the Soviet Union. These revelations undermined then speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who wanted some form of normalization of relations with America.
For many years, this episode prevented further efforts at reconciliation. It was arguably the second worst event after the hostage crisis, whose legacy has adversely affected the course of Iranian-American relations. It alerted those opposed to U.S.-Iran reconciliation in Washington, including in the Department of State, as well as in the Middle East, and led them to double their efforts to prevent any more clandestine contacts with Tehran. In view of the embarrassing episode of the Mac Farland visit to Tehran, the United States decided that it would only talk openly and with responsible officials of Iran.
In the following decades under both the Rafsanjani and Khatami presidencies, hardliners sabotaged every effort at U.S.-Iran reconciliation and vetoed high-level official meetings between officials of the two countries. During the last three decades, the identity of hardliners in Iran has changed. During the 1980s and the 1990s, leftists prevented such contacts. After Khatami assumed power in 1997 and the leftists suddenly became born- again liberals, a new breed of right-wing elements sabotaged and resisted Khatami’s outreach to the world.
Part of this dynamic can be explained even today in terms of factional fighting over power and privilege. However, the real problem lies elsewhere: the inextricable link between the legitimacy of both the Islamic revolution and the regime and its anti-imperialist struggle, or to be exact, anti-Americanism. The traditional moderates or conservatives, best represented by Rafsanjani, were never as anti-American as the Left. Once the Left became liberal, it shed its excessive anti-Americanism, and thus the mantle of safeguarding the revolution passed on to the new conservatives. This group now consists of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), a number of key hardline clerics, including Ibrahim Raeisi, the head of the judiciary, and his father-in-law, the fire-breathing Friday prayer leader of the holy city of Mashhad, plus the economic groups connected to them.
These groups, in effect, form a state within the state, sometimes referred to as the “deep state.” The revolutionary guards best reflect this duality of power in Iran. In fact, the main function of the IRGC is not to defend the country but, as they openly say, to safeguard the revolution, even against the people’s will. This group holds the real power in Iran. Even President Hassan Rouhani has hinted at this by saying that he has no authority in certain matters. For this statement, opponents criticized Rouhani in the Iranian media.
The foundation of the legitimacy, and hence the source of the political and economic power of this group, is permanent revolution, and the ultimate goal of the revolution is to retain strict Islamic rule and to struggle against imperialism. The normalization of Iran’s domestic and foreign policies would deprive these groups of their source of legitimacy and hence power and privilege. In this context, the West, especially America, occupies a special place. It has been the entity against which the revolution has defined itself. Resisting and rejecting America’s economic, political, and, most important, cultural influence has been the main goal of the revolution.
Thus, talking to America directly, openly, officially, and in a bilateral framework would be retreating from these goals. A few months ago, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the former commander in chief of the IRGC said that “if we [Iran] talk to America, then nothing would remain of the revolution.” The clerical hardliners, meanwhile, see America as the embodiment of materialistic modernity and the source of all moral corruption. They fear that Iran’s opening to the West, especially America, would mean the end of Islam in Iran. As Iranian youth in particular turn away from religion or are attracted to other religions, including Christianity, the hardline clerics’ fears grow further. They don’t realize that their behavior and performance over the last 40 years have caused this shift in popular attitudes.
Both groups of hardliners also do not realize that overall cultural changes inside Iran, not the West’s cultural offensive, are eroding their basis of support. To enhance its legitimacy and popular acceptance, even the Islamic government has had to follow some developmentalist policies, especially in education. But as the level of people’s education has risen, they no longer easily accept ideological dogma, be it of a religious or a secular variety. Educated women, for example, demand their rights. Educated men are less likely to believe that Ayatollah Khamenei’s word is the word of God, as his acolytes claim.
The issue of talking with America is therefore not solely about Trump and his policies. It is inextricably linked with the overall crisis of the Islamist state, its inability to resolve its inner contradictions, and most importantly its failure to reconcile modernity and tradition. This dilemma is not limited to Iran. It applies to all non-European countries and even a few European states and certainly to Russia.
As Timothy MacDaniel put it in his book The Agony of the Russian Idea, modernity is a package and you cannot pick and choose from it. You cannot build tall buildings and nuclear plants but deny people their rights. The more hardliners delay the inevitable day of reckoning, the more damage they will do to Iran and to themselves. There is still time for Iran’s leadership to ease the passage to modernity through reform. A key component of this transition would be normalizing Iran’s relations with the outside world, especially America.