Until a week ago, the global punditry was abuzz with rumors about a grand bargain between Washington and Tehran. The buzz started last month with President Barack Obama renewing his demand for talks with the leadership in Tehran. Next, Vice President Joseph Biden went further by insisting that Washington wanted talks without preconditions. That meant ignoring five resolutions passed by the United Nations’ Security Council demanding that Iran stop aspects of its nuclear project. An expert in putting his foot in his mouth, Biden encouraged Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi to provide positive accompanying music. Then, Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Islamic Majlis and a virtual candidate for the Islamic presidency, joined the chorus by welcoming talks with the US.
A number of American pundits claimed that Obama’s personal charm and creative diplomacy was about to succeed where five previous US presidents had failed.
Last Monday, however, that optimism was shattered when Ali Khamenei, the Khomeinist regime’s Supreme Guide, rejected any negotiations with the United States.
Some commentators inside and outside Iran have interpreted Khamenei’s stance as further proof that he has lost touch with reality.
A closer look at the context, however, might show that Khamenei’s stance is very much based on reality: his reality. Khamenei does not see Iran as a nation-state but as a vehicle for a revolution with global ambitions.
I am not a diplomat, he said amid cheers from a crowd of supporters. I am a revolutionary. The regime that Khamenei heads is not meant to act in the interests of Iran as a nation-state, but in the interests of the Khomeinist cause. Where the interests of Iran as a country clashes with those of Iran as a vehicle for revolution the latter ought to prevail. Thus any harm done to Iran as a country, and any sufferings inflicted on the Iranian people, should be tolerated as the price to pay for protecting the revolution.
Like other regimes with messianic pretensions, the Khomeinist regime is based on an ideology. On the surface, that ideology is built around one of the many Shiite versions of Islam. In reality, however, the hard core of the Khomeinist ideology is a rather primitive form of anti-Americanism. The United States is The Great Satan and, as Khamenei claims in his latest speech, the core of evil in the world. Not surprisingly, Khamenei’s speech was more often interrupted by cries of Death to America than shouts of There is no God but Allah! For the past two decades at least, destruction of the United States has been an openly acknowledged aim of the Khomeinist regime. Every February Tehran hosts a conference on The End of America drawing a crowd of professional anti-Americans from all over the world including the United States. Since 1984 Khamenei’s office has financed a group of African-Americans studying the creation of a secessionist state for blacks.
Khamenei fears that normalization with the US could deprive his regime of the hard core of its ideology. If the slogan Death to America is set aside, what might take its place? Like other totalitarian ideologies, Khomeinism needs an external enemy that can be blamed for all that goes wrong. Thus, the US is blamed for Iran’s economic meltdown, mass unemployment and inflation.
Also like other totalitarian ideologies, Khomeinism has a low opinion of the capacity of ordinary people to know what is good for them. If relations are normalized with the US, the ordinary people would not be able to resist the seductive charm of America’s satanic culture. After all, before mullahs seized power in Tehran, the US was the number one destination for Iranians studying abroad. Today, the US is the biggest magnate for the Iranian brain drain.
Even former Khomeinist officials do not resist America’s charm. Former Khomeinist ministers, ambassadors, Majlis members, mullahs and Revolutionary Guard officers are scattered all over the United States. Some have joined think-tanks but many more have set up businesses ranging from restaurants to import-export companies. Officials who do not defect to the Great Satan send their children there to study and, in time, obtain the coveted Green Card which is the key step to US citizenship.
Now imagine the re-opened US embassy in Tehran.
Who would prevent long queues formed by Iranians anxious to travel to the land of the Great Satan? Khamenei has always feared an American cultural invasion.
In 1994 he led a nationwide campaign against American pop-music, T-shirts, baseball caps and videos and, in a vitriolic sermon, lambasted Michael Jackson as the symbol of corruption. Trying to jam satellite television broadcasting US-made programs has remained a top priority of the Supreme Guide. In his latest speech, Khamenei warned that those who want to restore America’s domination in this country would be taken by the throat and presumably strangled.
Khamenei deserves credit for his constant position vis-a-vis the United States. Talks might be acceptable only if they result in total victory for Iran as a vehicle for revolution. That would require an unambiguous surrender by the United States on a cluster of issues, starting with the acceptance of Iran’s nuclear project without any ifs or buts. Next, the US would have to abandon its regional allies, especially Israel, and terminate its military presence in the Middle East.
The more Washington talks of talks the less likely they become. Khamenei interprets Washington’s position as a sign of weakness that, in turn, justifies an even tougher Iranian stance in the hope of securing more concessions.
The problem is that, as a nation-state, Iran needs and craves normal relations with the US. As a revolution, however, normalization with the US would mean ideological suicide.
As long as Iran suffers from its historic schizophrenia, no one, not even Obama with his mystique and charm, could cut this Gordian knot through negotiations. To normalize relations with the US, and the rest of the world for that matter, Iran must first normalize itself, that is to say start behaving like a normal country rather than a vehicle for a mad ideology.