With the prospect of confrontation, headlines in Iran are once again focusing on relations with the United States. Ali Khorram, a former Iranian ambassador to China, recently argued that more could have been done to reduce Tehran’s vulnerability by improving ties during US President Barack Obama’s presidency. This is a compelling point, but not everyone in Iran agrees. Indeed, there are multiple schools of thought on this matter. When fleshed out, three predominant positions among Iranian stakeholders demonstrate why problems in Washington caused division in Tehran on whether to solidify ties under Obama.
At face value, it is hard to refute Khorram’s logic, which, most likely, many Iranians are thinking privately. A successful nuclear deal created unprecedented diplomatic momentum, so why didn’t they strike while the iron was hot and use that success as a foundation from which negotiations on other points of contention could commence?
Khorram correctly highlights that Obama’s policies toward Iran could have been more confrontational, but instead the former US president pushed for a nuclear deal, blocked any increase in sanctions and refrained from invading Syria. “It is certainly not fair to say that Mr. Obama’s policies were similar to the policies of George [W.] Bush and Donald Trump, which are full of hostility against Iran,” the former ambassador wrote. And he is right: Iranian officials would be hard pressed to find a US president over the past four decades who worked harder than Obama to diffuse tensions and improve relations.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved the nuclear deal, but he is not pleased with its results so far. Thus, his current position portrays Washington as a brutal, immoral government out to “get” Iran and that its core interest is to keep Iran underdeveloped and dependent. In an April 2016 speech, he explained his skepticism post-nuclear deal, “I have said a hundred times … that America cannot be trusted. Now, this is becoming completely clear. They write on paper that banks can go and do business with Iran … but in practice, they instill such a fear in the hearts of banks that they do not dare get close to us. This is Iranophobia.”
As explained in previous articles, every foreign government and blue-chip multinational corporation I have spoken to since 2015 acknowledges Iran’s economic policies as an obstacle, but at the same time they say US sanctions are the primary obstacle to Iran deriving the full benefit of sanctions relief as outlined in the nuclear deal. Khamenei emphasized this in a speech in August 2016. He said, “Last year … I said in a public speech that the [deal] and nuclear negotiations will serve as an example for us to see what the Americans do. … Now, it has become clear. … On the face of it, they give promises … but in practice, they hatch plots, damage us and prevent the progress of our affairs.”
Khamenei utilizes this point as proof that Iran did not miss an opportunity to expand diplomatic progress under Obama, but it was rather the American side that lost out by stalling on sanctions relief. In the same speech, he said, “The Americans are asking us to go and speak to them about regional matters. Well, [the issues to do with sanctions relief] tell us that this is a deadly poison for us. … The reason why I have been repeating for many years that we will not negotiate with America is this. This shows that our problems with America … on regional matters and on various other matters are not solved through negotiations.”
While Khamenei’s position is important, so is the difference between rhetoric and reality. The Iranian leader used to say that the nuclear dispute could not be solved through negotiations with the United States, but his rhetoric changed when Obama presented a viable opportunity to do precisely that. The same premise holds true today: Individuals and power structures in Iran could challenge Khamenei’s narrative about further negotiations with Washington, but they need some degree of justification to do so. This highlights the third school of thought in Tehran: stakeholders who agree with Khorram’s logic, but are unwilling or unable to argue in favor of it since they cannot disprove Khamenei’s point on sanctions relief.
The nuclear deal demonstrates an important dynamic in Iranian politics: To provide some degree of flexibility, Khamenei allows experiments but does not commit to them until he gets a sense of security about such initiatives. To that end, stakeholders such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently reiterated their preference for resolving points of tension through negotiations and viewed the nuclear talks as such. Thus, no one person is the “responsible” and “accountable” decision-maker in Iran — even Khamenei can hide behind an array of institutions when he needs to justify a decision. The supreme leader’s attempts to wield power without accountability therefore impact how key stakeholders position themselves on policy issues.
For Rouhani, Zarif and many of their top associates, they clearly wanted to advance diplomacy with the Obama administration — but not at any cost. Despite numerous bilateral and multilateral consultations prior to Obama’s departure, the sanctions relief problems caused by remaining US sanctions were not resolved, thereby making it difficult to disprove Khamenei’s position. Pushing to improve US-Iran ties when Washington was widely perceived in Tehran to be stalling on sanctions relief would have been too politically costly.
Knowing that political opponents will blame them for sanctions relief failures — despite receiving Khamenei’s blessing for each step in the negotiations — these stakeholders are likely hesitant to risk their political cache after having been burned by America in the past. In my conversations with Iranian officials since Rouhani took office in 2013, they have consistently reiterated one point regarding US-Iran diplomacy: Tehran will not cooperate with Washington without naming its price up front. “We cooperated with America after the 9/11 attacks, and our goodwill was rewarded with being labeled part of an 'Axis of Evil,'” a senior Iranian official told me in 2015. “We made a mistake not linking our support to reciprocal American measures. We will not make that mistake again.”
Khorram’s argument is logically sound: Obama was likely the best American interlocutor that Iran is going to get, and it should have proceeded accordingly. However, as is often the case in US-Iran relations, sanctions-related complications trumped logic. Looking ahead, an important step toward changing Khamenei’s calculus will be providing the necessary sanctions relief as outlined in the nuclear deal. This, in turn, will create space for the emergence of a competing narrative in Iran that paves the way for a policy shift. Stakeholders such as Rouhani, Zarif and Khorram have influence, but Iran is unlikely to continue engaging in the kind of serious, sustained diplomacy that produced the nuclear deal until the United States demonstrates it is willing and able to do the same.