During the past few weeks, a number of prominent Iranians have been calling on various capitals, including some in the region, to seek a way out of the current crisis.
The latest such move came in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, the other day on the sidelines of a media conference hosted by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s daughter. Two Iranians, claiming to speak for former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, told two senior American figures that there was support in Tehran for “an extended dialogue” with Washington.
A couple of weeks earlier a similar message had been unveiled in an Arab capital with a demand that it be relayed to Washington.
Should one take these moves seriously?
Provided one does not lose sight of the context, the answer is yes.
There is no doubt that some factions within the Khomeinist establishment are concerned that President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad’s defiant style might be leading the regime into dangerous waters.
The problem, however, is that the negotiations that the self-styled emissaries propose come with strings attached.
First, they want direct talks with the US, dismissing the Europeans as “irrelevant” and Arab powers as “midgets.” The idea is to get the regime off the hook of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nation’ Security Council, and transform what is a conflict between the Islamic Republic and the rest of the world into a quarrel between Tehran and Washington.
Such a development could weaken the international front, reopen the split between the European Union and the US, and mobilise anti-American forces in support of the Khomeinist regime.
The second problem is that the emissaries want the talks to take place in secret so that the Islamic Republic does not lose face by admitting that it is forced to talk to the “Great Satan”. The model is the one that led to ”Irangate” scandal in the 1980s when two rival factions, one led by Rafsanjani and the other by the then Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mussavi, were talking with the Americans without telling one another.
The third problem is that the proposed talks are intended to “drown the fish”, as the French say, that is to say shift the focus from the crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions to other issues, including Iran’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, Iraq, and oil. This would mean that Iran’s nuclear ambitions should be swallowed as a fait accompli.
Finally, and possibly the most important point to take into account, is the fact that one can never be sure when and where the Khomeinist interlocutors would have recourse to “Taqiyyah” (Obfuscation) and “Kitman” (dissimulation).
Taqqiyyah, a Shiite theological term, advises the individual and the community not only to hide their true beliefs but even to profess the opposite where this is to their advantage. Kitman, a politico-theological terms, means never revealing one’s true intentions, especially when dealing with non-Shiites and “the Infidel”.
Muhammad-Baqir Majlesi, the most prolific of ayatollahs, has a famous saying: “Not to be exposed, adopt the prevailing colour!”
Marked by both taqqiyah and kitman from the beginning, Khomeinist diplomacy has prevented Iran from developing a strategy based on its national interests.
As if all that was not baffling enough one must add another complication.
Today there are two Irans.
The first is the Iranian nation-state that has existed in its present shape since the start of the 16th century. This Iran, which had painful experiences with Tsarist and British empires, has no reason to be anti-American. Throughout the Cold War the US helped this Iran protect its independence against an aggressive Soviet Union that had tried to annex two Iranian provinces at the end of the Second World War. This Iran should also be grateful to the US for having eliminated the two most anti-Iranian regimes of recent times, the Taliban and the Ba’athists, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Then there is the second Iran: as the manifestation of the Khomeinist revolution. This Iran is anti-American in its DNA because it knows that the only power capable of preventing it from exporting “revolution” to the rest of the Middle East and building an empire in the name of the “Hidden Imam” happens to be the US, at least for the time being.
This conflict between state and revolution, of course, is nothing new and has been experienced by other nations that went through revolutionary turmoil.
As long as a nation-state has not managed to absorb the revolution and thus reassert its own interests it would not be able to develop normal relations with other nation-states. For example China, a manifestation of the Maoist revolution, had to be anti-American. But once China, under Deng Xiapoing, reasserted its existence as a nation-state rather than a revolution, it was not long before it welcomed the US as its number-one trading partner.
Thus it is clear that relations between Iran and the US, or indeed any other country, cannot be normalised until and unless Iran makes a comeback as a nation-state which has digested and dissipated its revolutionary experience. For Iran to be re-born as a nation-state it is necessary for it to die as a manifestation of the Khomeinist revolution.
The Jekyll and Hyde syndrome from which Iranian policy suffers was illustrated in a recent oped by the Islamic Republic’s ambassador to the UN, published in the New York Times.
The ambassador, remembering his Majlesi, started by editing his own name, which is Muhammad-Jawad Zarif, by dropping the Muhammad bit which, so he must have thought, sounds threatening to American readers. Next he described himself as Iran’s Ambassador, not the Ambassador of the Islamic Republic as mentioned in his official diplomatic credentials. He made only one reference to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, describing him as “leader”, and ignoring his titles of “Supreme Guide” and “Regent of the Hidden Imam.”
The ambassador also referred to the “Iranian Parliament”, something that does not exist. What exists is the Islamic Consultative Assembly. But once again, taking his clue from Majlesi, he thought that such a phrase might frighten American readers. Although he represents a regime which uses the words Islam and Islamic more frequently than Iran and Iranian, Zarif did not once use “Islam” or “Islamic”. Nor did he cite “Imam” Khomeini’s name which features in every single official discourse in Tehran as a leitmotiv.
More interestingly, he made no mention of President Ahmadinejad who is, after all, his ultimate boss under the Khomeinist constitution. One again, it was Majlesi who advised Zarif that mention of Ahmadinejad to an American audience might be ill advised.
Last but not least, the Khomeinist ambassador presented Iran’s recent history as a seamless continuum by recalling that Iran had not invaded any country in the past 250 years.
What he did not mention is the fact that the current regime regards all of Iran’s pre-Khomeinist history, including the period mentioned by Zarif, as an era of “zulm” or “darkness”, and thus something evil to castigate rather than applaud.
All this is not a criticism of the ambassador who is, after all a small cog in a giant machine. He is doing the best he can in a bad situation created by the Khomeinist ideology. It may even be that Zarif is one of a growing number of technocrats, civil servants, and diplomats who believe that it is time for Iran as a revolution to be subsumed by Iran as a nation-state.
What matters as far as negotiating is concerned, is to find out which Iran one talks to . You cannot negotiate with two Irans with diametrically opposed interests and world visions- two Iran that are enemies of each other as well. It takes two to tango, not three.