The Great Satan Goes To The Ballot Box In Iran

June 13, 2013

Yesterday Reuters published a mostly terrific rundown on the tortured history of efforts to resolve the antagonism between Washington and Tehran. The piece contained at least one important revelation— that Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, has persuaded the country’s Supreme Leader to authorize a wide-ranging new initiative toward Washington. Tehran quickly disavowed that disclosure, but the report reinforces a surprising sense of possibility that has come through in the course of the just-concluded campaign for Iran’s presidency surrounding the nuclear issue and the long, bitter estrangement between the Islamic Republic and the United States.

A familiarity with the history has made me a disappointed pessimist on this issue, and so I’ll immediately hedge: the opponents of dialogue are not insignificant, and foremost among them is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His persistently hard-line views reflect a deeply engrained mistrust of American intentions that has endured at least three decades and is probably beyond propitiation. Without his buy-in, nothing is possible in Iran’s Islamic Republic. Even if the Reuters report is accurate, it’s entirely conceivable that Khamenei may have assented to Salehi’s entreaty without any intention of altering his innate intransigence.

Still, the Reuters article— and the just-closed presidential election campaign— underscores how much the ground has shifted within Iran on dealing with Washington, even at a time when conservatives control the narrative within Iran. Today, it is almost easy to forget that for most of the Islamic Republic’s history, advocating dialogue with Washington was the political equivalent of the kiss of death. Even a decade ago, the kind of free-wheeling debate on how to negotiate with the ‘Great Satan’ that took place last week on state television and throughout the course of this presidential campaign would have been unthinkable; even then it was still rare, and risky, for Iranian officials to publicly discuss whether Iran should talk with Washington at all.

Of course, Foreign Minister Salehi is not your ordinary Islamic revolutionary. He holds a Ph.D in nuclear engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and served as Iran’s representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. At a time when sanctions, the nuclear stand-off, and the brutal Syrian civil war have pushed Iran toward unabashed pariah status, he has consistently played an effective role in dampening escalatory pressures and even beginning to repair some diplomatic breaches. As a figure who has managed to bridge the polarized extremes of Iranian factional politics, Salehi has also made a forthright push at home to reframe Iran’s approach to the world, as in these April 2013 comments to the hard-line news outlet Mashreq:

The problem is that we have misinterpreted respect. This means that we think if someone is smiling and is minding his manners, in principle, we say how weak that person is. But if someone comes and boasts and, God forbid, uses harsh or unbecoming words, then we say what a powerful person. In foreign policy we do not define strength and dignity this way. We define strength and dignity as national interests and political independence and, to the contrary, in the behavior section, we value dignified behavior and correct and polite expression as definitions of respect.

I think it’s reasonable to interpret the report of Salehi’s enterprising efforts within Iran as one data point among many that point to some unexpected political space for diplomacy as the Ahmadinejad era winds to a close. I would caution against irrational exuberance; it is not unusual for Iranian political figures to use selective leaks to the international media for the purpose of bolstering their own position or shaping the debate on Iran in a more positive fashion. (In this respect, the Reuters report unfortunately overstates the credibility of a previous overture organized by Iranian diplomats in 2003, which was conveyed to Washington as the brain child of mid-ranking officials without any evidence of the Supreme Leader’s go-ahead.) Whatever the derivation and purpose of the Salehi news, it only strengthens the case for confidence that there is readiness for serious diplomacy among much of the Iranian establishment.

This case only complicates the challenge before the Obama Administration in its public approach to the election. At the outset of the campaign, Washington appeared intent on overcompensating for the reticence that administration officials exhibited four years ago, when the administration deliberately refrained from embracing Mousavi and the nascent Green Movement out of concerns that they would be tainted by any American endorsement and that any support for an emergent opposition would preclude the possibility of a nuclear deal. No less than Secretary of State John Kerry, while on a visit to Israel, denounced the regime’s vetting process and dismissed the significance of the election, particularly for the nuclear issue. The denunciation by a senior official, combined with tough Congressional testimony by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and efforts to counter the regime’s political restrictions by removing sanctions on communications technology, signaled that Washington was ready to play hardball this time around.

For whatever it’s worth, I think the regrets over 2009 are misplaced— I happen to be an unrepentant supporter of the administration’s handling of the first weeks of the Iranian uprising four years ago. This is not because I hate freedom, as the in-house Bush Administration joke used to go, and it’s certainly not because I’m heartless toward Iranian suffering, to paraphrase the epithets that have been thrown my way when I defend this position publicly. Rather, I believe that the 2009 unrest created new opportunities for a wholly authentic opposition movement, conditions that had never existed before within Iran.

At its inception, Washington could do more to hurt than to help those conditions, and given our historical baggage with the Iranian people, the U.S. Government was wiser to restrain the inevitable American determination to make an external event all about us. I still have not heard a solid case for how a more vocal U.S. embrace of the Green Movement during its early weeks would have prevented its rapid suppression by the Iranian security forces, or even how Washington might have prevented the differences over strategy and leadership that contributed to the waning of Green activism within Iran (although not, I’m convinced, any real shift in popular attitudes.)

Still, this is not 2009, and the changes in the regional landscape as well as the greatly-intensified frustration among U.S. officials as well as the other partners in the international effort to persuade Tehran to compromise its nuclear ambitions inevitably meant that Washington would adopt a much harsher tone toward the presidential election this time around. This is natural, and appropriate, as are the substantial efforts that have been undertaken throughout the U.S. government, but particularly within the State Department, to identify meaningful avenues for supporting Iranian civil society and easing restrictions for Iranians in accessing U.S. visas and technology.

Of course, the unexpected twist in the initial election narrative, from what was presumed to a tepid cakewalk for a hand-picked protege of the Supreme Leader to a knock-down, drag-out public brawl over Iranian foreign policy and a late-game revival of the street excitement that preceded the 2009 vote, makes Washington’s dilemmas today even more acute. So far, in Sherman’s latest interviews, the tone and the message appear to be just right— steady reminders of the opportunities for resolving the nuclear crisis and Tehran’s domestic repression combined with dispassion on the presidential contest. The test will come tomorrow and in the days beyond, as Washington waits with the rest of the world to learn how Iran’s quixotic politics may turn.