The dust had barely settled on the Iranian revolution when on 4 November 1979, less than a year after the Shah departed the country, a radical group of students fiercely loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the American embassy in Tehran. Thus began the stormy relationship between the newly-formed Islamic Republic and the United States.
In the final years of Ayatollah Khomeini’s life, Hashemi Rafsanjani—at the time the second most powerful man in Iran after Khomeini himself—wrote the Supreme Leader a letter. In an interview in 2012, Rafsanjani said: “I didn’t even type it. As I preferred no one read my letter, I gave it to the Imam [Khomeini] personally.”
He added: “I discussed seven issues in the letter and I told him it was better to resolve these issues while he was still alive, otherwise they might become a barrier against the country’s development in the future . . . [I said]: ‘If you don’t help us remove these issues, it will be difficult to remove them after you . . . [die].’ One of those issues was our relations with America. I wrote [that] the style that we had adopted—not to talk or have any relations with America—was not sustainable.”
Rafsanjani’s prophetic words rang true. Following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran and America became trapped in a vicious and unending circle of enmity. Even during Barack Obama’s first term as president, and despite advocating for engagement with Iran during his presidential campaign, the unprecedented sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic elevated tensions between the two governments until they reached a peak.
One year ago, few analysts would have predicted the Geneva Accord (officially titled, the Joint Plan of Action) between Iran and the P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. Nor would they have envisioned the developments leading up to it, including the telephone conversation between the two presidents and the face-to-face meetings between the foreign ministers of the two countries. Many politicians and observers in the US maintain that it was the imposition of sanctions that drove Iran to the negotiating table, forcing its government to accept the Geneva Accord.
The economic pressures resulting from the sanctions undoubtedly played an important role in shaping Tehran’s flexibility. However, it should also be noted that the inclusion of the issue of uranium enrichment was fundamental. As stated in the agreement’s preamble, the parties have committed to “[reaching] a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution” that “would involve a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.” Would such a monumental agreement have been possible without the inclusion of the issue of enrichment? President Obama’s recent statements on the issue may help shed some light.
At the annual Saban Forum on December 7, 2013, Obama remarked, “You’ll hear arguments . . . that say we can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil. Period. Full stop. End of conversation . . . One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said: ‘We’ll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it’s all gone.’” Then the US president sarcastically quipped, “I can envision a world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward. I mean, there are a lot of things that I can envision that would be wonderful.” These statements show that the US administration has concluded that a ‘no enrichment in Iran’ policy precludes any agreement with the Iranians.
So the Geneva Accord is not only the product of sanctions on Iran; the re-positioning of American policies has also played a prominent role.
Despite some disagreement between the administration and a faction in Congress, this new US approach to relations with Iran may well have an impact beyond the nuclear issue, on a much wider strategic level.
Amir Mohebbian, considered a prominent strategist and theorist of the Principlists, or conservatives, in Iran, wrote a paper two years ago entitled: ‘Scenarios of possible threats against Iran.’ The article garnered little attention. However, it was significant enough to be published on the website of Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Such placement indicated endorsement of the research by Iran’s leadership. Mohebbian wrote: “The Iranian leadership . . . has demonstrated that it is not seeking to pursue the ‘hostility for hostility’ thesis. If there is a change in the behavior of the United States, Iran will consider it.”
Now following the perceived drastic change in the US position toward Iran’s nuclear program, there are indications that Tehran may be prepared to take the next step in crossing its decades-old ‘red line’ of no relations with the US.
In an article in December, The Christian Science Monitor’s Middle East correspondent Scott Peterson quoted Mohebbian’s unprecedented view: “This is the last opportunity of shifting from the first generation to the second generation of leaders . . . and the [Supreme] Leader wants to solve the issue of the US under his leadership.”
Notably, a translation of Peterson’s article was published in Iran, even on government websites. Its content was not denied, nor was it subject to the usual attacks by the country’s radical wing. In other words, it seems that Ayatollah Khamenei has placed on his agenda something that his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, had been called on by Rafsanjani to resolve.
The question remains as to whether or not normal relations are possible between the US and Iran. Extreme and long-standing distrust between the two countries, and internal political forces opposing reconciliation within both, are among factors which project a rocky road. But there are indications that Iran is looking at the current process of engagement with America beyond the existing nuclear issue. Perhaps the US departure from its decades-old policy toward Iran’s nuclear program also points to a similar goal.
Only time will tell.