by Kayhan Barzegar
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has defined the current status of relations between Iran and the United States as “no war, no negotiation.” His position, in addition to showing Iran’s indomitability or resistance against President Trump’s and his favorite regional allies’ so-called “maximum pressure” policy, is aimed at unifying Iran’s foreign policy approach, as well as convincing the country’s political factions that it is futile to negotiate with the U.S. in a time of political inequality.
Over the past year, the issue of possible negotiation with the U.S. has been heavily debated by Iranian politicians. Proponents of negotiation depict the status of Iran-U.S. relations as the “dilemma of either war or negotiation,” meaning that Iran should negotiate with the Trump administration on matters of regional significance—in return for a reduction in U.S. economic pressure—lest the tensions between the two countries ultimately lead to a war, which would be detrimental to Iran’s national security and its interests.
The main argument made by opponents of this view has been that the imminence of a possible war between Iran and the U.S. in essence relies upon a mistaken assumption. Donald Trump, they argue, is unlikely to act against his presidential campaign promises to reduce the U.S. military footprint overseas. Trump, according to this view, understands the potential cost of a risky and unpredictable war with Iran, and realizes that it could be detrimental to his chances of being reelected.
In that framework, adopting the Supreme Leader’s position of “no war, no negotiation” achieves several aims. First, uniting Iran’s foreign policy approach can shift Iran’s domestic politics to resist Trump and those European countries that believed, at least initially, they could benefit from Trump’s hardline “maximum pressure” policy to gain further concessions from Iran on regional issues and on limiting its missile program.
Second, the “no war, no negotiation” policy shows that Iran is prepared to face a possible conflict with the U.S. under any circumstances. Iran believes that it has the capability to defend itself against the U.S. through both symmetric and asymmetric means, via its conventional military means and through its friendly forces in the Middle East that can, if necessary, endanger U.S. interests.
Third and most significantly, this approach minimizes political polarization within Iran when confronting U.S. sanctions. By connecting the issue of U.S. economic sanctions to the more significant issue of national security and the broader threat of instability and even the possible collapse of the “state,” the Supreme Leader has been able to enhance the logic of “maximum resistance” in Iranian politics. This is made easier because, from the Iranian perspective, blame for the new wave of hostility between Iran and the U.S. lies with the Trump administration and its withdrawal from the internationally-recognized 2015 nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) in order to act against Iran’s interests.
Cohesion in Iranian foreign policy sends two main messages to the remaining parties to the JCPOA—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom. First, it says that Iran will not reverse its strategic decision to resist Trump’s excessive demands and that it has the necessary capabilities to counter them. In this respect, Iran has incrementally reduced its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA—most recently restarting in full nuclear research & development activities that had been restricted until the agreement. These actions have been meant to send a message to European countries that have yet to fulfill their JCPOA commitments. In the end, it is Europe that has the most to lose from the possible collapse of the nuclear deal. Second and concurrently, Iran is making it clear that it will not compromise on its regional policies or missile activities, which have their own logic of deterrence and preemption in the context of national security threats.
In other words, “security” and “economy” are the two interconnected priorities in the realm of Iran’s foreign policy conduct, aimed at strengthening the “state” of Iran and its legitimacy. Contrary to some Western views, the three above-mentioned aims are fully consistent with the viewpoints of the moderate government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, which is frustrated and disappointed with the current Western approach, mainly for not ensuring that the Iranian people receive tangible economic benefits from the JCPOA. Now, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif regards the implementation of the Supreme Leader’s strategy to be in the benefit of the country’s national interests.
For instance, and in the realm of preserving security, the entire Iranian political spectrum unanimously supported the June 20 shooting down of a U.S. RQ-4A Global Hawk drone, based on the logic of preempting a broader ongoing security threat. In fact, Iran wanted to send the message that it would not tolerate any breach of its territorial borders and would react similarly if such actions are to be continued—and that it could trigger insecurity for any U.S. regional allies who facilitate the Trump administration’s escalatory policies.
Also in the realm of economic security, the seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker by the naval forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the Persian Gulf is indicative of Iran’s resolve to take reciprocal action, as well as preempting similar hostile moves by those countries involved in the current “zero-export-oil” economic war against it. In seizing the vessel, Iranial officials made it plain that economic insecurity for Iran is equivalent to economic insecurity for those countries that participate in the “maximum pressure” policy, which from Iran’s perspective and in Zarif’s words is a type of “economic terrorism.”
Adopting the strategy of “no war, no negotiation” is a testament to Tehran’s existing sense of strategic distrust towards the U.S. Iran believes that the U.S. aims to diminish the sources of power of the “state” of Iran. For decades, indeed, the focus of U.S. Middle East policy has been to contain Iran’s emerging regional influence. But both geography and historical-religious commonalities with its neighbors will define Iran’s regional status, not U.S. policy. These factors necessitate that Iran actively integrate with the region’s political-security and economic trends, mainly for the sake of preserving its national security and economic prosperity. From a realistic perspective, many emerging powers such as India and Turkey are pursuing a more active regional role, commensurate with their territorial and demographic size, vast economic potentials, and most importantly based on the emerging security conditions in their spheres of influence.
In this respect, it would be rather simplistic to think that the firing of John Bolton, the most anti-Iran figure in the Trump administration, will pave the way for a substantive meeting between President Rouhani and President Trump in the near future. Undoubtedly there is always the possibility of a meeting. But given the current mutual sense of strategic distrust that exists between the two sides, such an encounter would not achieve any meaningful results.
Iran’s aims are clear: strengthening its deterrent power, in order to preempt security threats from within the region and beyond, and diversifying and strategizing its economic structure, relying on the sources of its national power. One significant way to achieve these aims is to value the dynamic of regional integration and good neighborhood relations. The Trump administration is trying to block Iran’s path to achieving these aims by creating an anti-Iran political-security coalition in the region, as well as ratcheting up sanctions at the expense of Iran’s economic growth and development.
Indisputably, the Supreme Leader’s main goal is to diminish the possibility of a conflict with the U.S. through strengthening the scale of Iran’s national power and depolarizing the nation in this time of crisis. Accordingly, Iran’s assertive reactions to perceived security and economic threats are aimed at preempting broader threats for the survival of the “state” of Iran. In abrogating U.S. obligations under the JCPOA, President Trump has lost Iran’s public, who sincerely at one time wanted their government to interact with the U.S. and resolve the existing strategic discrepancies in the U.S.-Iran relationship. This development is the main reason behind the failure of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy.
At present, the causes of Iranian distrust toward the U.S., which was previously institutionalized among Iranian officials, have extended to the Iranian public as well, diminishing the possible political benefits to any negotiations with the Trump administration. As a result, Iran is gradually learning to consider the West as only one part of the current multilateral world. This sense of understanding is new and is likely to completely change the Iran-West equation in the coming decade.
In the light of these considerations, meaningful negotiations between Iran and the U.S. will only occur when the two sides manage to withdraw from the current mutual sense of strategic distrust and when concurrently the idea of such negotiations is supported amid the two countries’ domestic politics—especially on Iran’s side. In my experience, only by strengthening its position and security situation will Iran be able to return eventually to the idea of talking with the U.S. The JCPOA was negotiated under similar conditions. Therefore, President Trump’s efforts to weaken Iran first and then initiate negotiation with the country are doomed and will only perpetuate previous, failed U.S. policy toward Iran.
Dr. Kayhan Barzegar is the director of the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran. He is also an associate professor of international relations at the Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University. He tweets at @kbarzeg.