Could detente with the US change Iran?

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The preliminary agreement over Iran’s nuclear program is nearing implementation. But for all that has been said about how a rapprochement will affect bilateral ties, it is worth noting how it will affect each country individually. Since September, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has often said he wants to repair ties with the United States. This is partly because the stakes are higher for the Islamic republic, which could change fundamentally if Tehran normalized relations with Washington.

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On Thursday, news agencies quoted Rouhani as saying it was possible to turn 35 years of hostility with the United States into friendship if both sides make an effort. The president was responding to a question on whether there would ever be a US Embassy in Tehran. (Currently, the United States conducts diplomacy with Iran through the Swiss.) Rouhani also said, “no animosity lasts forever.”

These statements have been misinterpreted in the media. Rouhani did not exactly say that Tehran would reconcile with the United States immediately. In fact, what he said was not even unprecedented. On the contrary, his statements are consistent with the position Iran has taken since it began cooperating with the US government a decade ago, when the administration of George W. Bush removed Saddam Hussein from power. In January 2008, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressed this matter rather candidly. Speaking to a group of students in the city of Yazd, Khamenei said that Iran did not want relations to be frozen in perpetuity. Rather, he noted that conditions in the United States at the time were such that it was not in Tehran’s interests to be friendly with Washington, adding that he would be the first one to approve a rapprochement as soon as it benefited Iran.

Six years later, Tehran is still not ready to resume bilateral ties with Washington. But it sees public negotiations with the United States as beneficial. Meanwhile, the Iranians are cautiously signaling that improved relations are possible. Rouhani’s position is not incongruous with Khamenei’s, but the subject is nonetheless hotly debated within the Iranian political establishment.

At issue is the nature of Iran’s relationship with the United States, one that is intimately tied to the prospect of reopening the embassy. Many of the Iranians that held US diplomats hostage from 1979 to 1980 now hold key government positions, so an embassy would be a huge departure for the United States. But the issue possibly has even greater implications for Iran, which under former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sought to eliminate US influence in Tehran and considered the United States a “den of spies.”

From Tehran’s perspective, reestablishing formal diplomatic ties leaves Iran vulnerable to US influence. Many Iranians officials believe that a detente with the Americans would eventually damage the country’s revolutionary pedigree. Already, there are powerful elements in the conservative establishment that think the current ruling clique of pragmatic conservatives, led by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Rouhani, are playing into US interests and in doing so are undermining the integrity of the republic.

For their part, the pragmatic conservatives believe that opening up to the West would not conflict with their revolutionary ideals. Their actions are informed by the need to salvage their country’s economy, which has been hit hard by the latest wave of sanctions. At the same time, they also believe the republic needs domestic reform and thus needs to open up the political system.

The hard-liners’ main concern is that domestic reforms and a newfound closeness with the United States could strengthen Iran’s democratic institutions at the expense of its unelected ones, thereby weakening the theocratic side of its hybrid political system. In short, the clerics would lose power, as would their allies in the security establishment.

For the pragmatic conservative clerics and their reformist partners, altering Iranian policy would not bring an end to the republic. Not only do they feel that the Iranian state is internally strong, but the Rouhani camp also enjoys large support from the public, given the mandate he received in the recent elections, as well as from Khamenei and much of the traditional clergy.

However, the Rouhani administration is aware that it has embarked on a very complex and difficult path. And the government faces considerable resistance from within the state, especially from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-dominated military establishment. For this reason, there are serious limits on how much ties can be normalized. The process will be excruciatingly difficult and at times circuital, as evidenced by the latest statements by Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif.

They said the Obama administration is mischaracterizing the concessions made by Tehran in the interim nuclear agreement and that Iran did not agree to dismantle its nuclear program.

Ultimately, the Islamic republic has to reconcile its domestic contradictions before it can reconcile with the United States. The model for the Iranians is China, which established normal diplomatic relations with Washington in the 1970s but continues to assert itself as a regional and even global power with interests that conflict with those of the United States. The problem that in addition to being fiercely nationalistic, the Iranians have pan-Muslim/Islamist ambitions intertwined with geopolitical sectarianism that will prevent them from truly emulating the Chinese.

Iran wants to normalize ties with the West, but it does not want to be a pro-Western state. Thus it could form a tentative alliance with the United States when their interests converge without actually becoming an American ally.

Republishing by The Manila Times of this article is with the express permission of STRATFOR.

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