Seated on a dais above thousands of cheering loyalists and the country’s elite, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei restated a key tenet of his late predecessor and the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution: relentless, uncompromising opposition to “America and its political and intelligence system.”
“The ideological and practical implications of the term ‘The Great Satan’ are very vast in scope,” Khamenei continued, using the slur for the United States coined by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. “Until the last day, (Khomeini) had the same feeling toward America. He used the term ‘The Great Satan” and he believed it with all his heart and soul.”
Khamenei’s June 4 speech in the mausoleum where Khomeini was interred 23 years ago goes to the heart of a question on the minds of policymakers and experts the world over: will the deal on Iran’s nuclear program – announced early Tuesday in Vienna – ease the hostility between Tehran and Washington that has fueled violence and shaped political alignments in the Middle East for the past 35 years?
Potentially it will have enormous impact because the United States and Iran are among the most important players for war and peace in the Middle East.”
Rami Khouri, American University of Beirut
“Potentially it will have enormous impact because the United States and Iran are among the most important players for war and peace in the Middle East,” said Rami Khouri, the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “The United States and Iran are critical, pivotal, core actors around which many others revolve.”
Despite the recent antagonistic rhetoric of Khamenei and other top Iranian officials, many experts think that Iran and the United States could begin exploring cooperation in other areas if each side believes that the other is upholding its end of the nuclear pact.
The interests of the United States and Iran converge on a number of issues, including the Islamic State. Yet huge differences would persist.
In his statement on the deal, President Barack Obama held out the possibility of further “engagement” with Iran, saying that the agreement “offers an opportunity to move in a new direction. We should seize it.”
At the same time, however, Obama made clear that he believed that further cooperation depended on Iran’s willingness to change its behavior.
“The path of violence and rigid ideology, a foreign policy based on threats to attack your neighbors or eradicate Israel - that's a dead end,” said Obama “A different path, one of tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflict, leads to more integration into the global economy, more engagement with the international community, and the ability of the Iranian people to prosper and thrive.”
“If you get a deal and start the lifting of sanctions and you start getting economic growth (in Iran) and business delegations from France and Canada are going to Iran, things will change in the region and the world,” said Khouri.
The interests of the United States and Iran, Khouri and other experts point out, converge on a number of critical issues, from battling the common foe of the Islamic State and preventing the collapse of Iraq to bolstering Afghanistan’s government against a resurgent Taliban.
“Part of the relationship dynamic depends on how smoothly the implementation of the agreement takes place. But generally speaking, I think it will have a powerful effect on the relationship, though not in a direct manner, like suddenly you’ll see the opening of embassies,” said Maysam Behravesh, a Denmark-based analyst of the Tehran Bureau, an independent online magazine run by Iranian expatriates.
Yet huge differences would persist.
Washington and Tehran are backing opposing sides in the bloody civil wars convulsing Syria and Yemen, and the United States will maintain financial sanctions on Iran imposed for Tehran’s support for terrorism and development of ballistic missiles.
The CIA backed the 1953 that toppled a democratically elected Iranian government.
The sides also are divided by decades of bad blood, from the 1953 CIA-backed coup that put the late Shah Reza Pahlavi on the throne and the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran to attacks on U.S. troops by Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militias during the 2003-11 U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Moreover, powerful political forces in Iran and the United States oppose improvements in ties. Iranian hardliners, who call for Israel’s destruction, denounce the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf and improbably claim that Washington supports the Islamic State, long have relied on enmity with the United States to maintain their grip on power.
“Khamenei doesn’t want this to be the thin edge of a wedge toward normalization” of relations with the United States, said Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, a British policy institute. A nuclear deal, he said, “will have limited impact” on other issues.
Meanwhile, Republicans and many Democrats in Washington decry Tehran as a deceitful state sponsor of terrorist groups, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia movement, that is secretly bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and annihilating Israel.
“The Iranians cheat and they lie. They are a radical regime,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Republican candidate for president, told the Southern Republican Leadership Conference on May 22. “They want a master religion for the world; the Nazis wanted a master race.”
Both President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, face other constraints in moving beyond the small steps they’ve taken to pave the way to a nuclear accord since Sept. 27, 2013, when they became their nations’ first heads of state to speak – albeit by phone – in more than three decades.
Obama is under pressure to redouble his commitment to the security of Israel and the Sunni Muslim Arab allies, including through military aid, who fear that the nuclear talks and Obama’s moves to reduce the U.S. role in Middle East and “pivot” U.S. military and economic power toward Asia encouraged Shiite-dominated Iran to flex its regional muscles.
We have already moved far beyond where we were a few years ago, when there was virtually no contact between senior American and Iranian officials.”
Paul Pillar, formerly the top U.S. Middle East analyst
“The U.S. is preoccupied in reassuring the (Arab) Gulf allies and Israel in a way that would constrain its ability to engage more broadly with Iran,” said Joshi.
Moreover, Israeli and Sunni Arab leaders and some U.S. experts worry that Tehran, flush with billions of dollars unfrozen by the lifting of sanctions, will intensify its support for Shiite militias in Iraq, embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Hezbollah, whose fighters have helped keep Assad in power.
“Iran is likely to be more active in the region rather than less active,” said Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a veteran diplomat who served as a top adviser on Iran to Obama. “We see them expanding the efforts they are making in the region to change the balance of power even more.”
It’s also likely, Ross said, that a nuclear deal will compel Khamenei to compensate conservative opponents, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s powerful military and espionage contingent, with greater resources and manpower with which to support Assad, Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in Iraq.
“It would be very difficult to improve relations under those circumstances,” he said.
Other experts disagree. They say that the Obama-Rohani phone call, secret talks in Oman that paved the way to the nuclear negotiations, the near daily meetings between senior U.S. and Iranian officials over the past 18 months, and other interactions have begun defrosting the long-standing U.S.-Iranian chill.
“We have already moved far beyond where we were a few years ago, when there was virtually no contact between senior American and Iranian officials,” said Paul Pillar, the U.S. intelligence community’s former top Middle East analyst. “Now we have foreign ministers meeting all the time.”
These analysts think that a nuclear accord – if properly implemented by all sides and not blocked by Congress – could boost the prospects for at least tacit U.S.-Iranian coordination on the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, where U.S. military advisers and Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen already share a military base in Anbar province.
Another source of pressure for improved relations could come from U.S. corporations anxious to compete against foreign rivals for investments in Iran’s petroleum industry and other sectors.
Trita Parsi, the head of the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group that favors improved U.S.-Iranian relations, noted that Khamenei said in an April 9 speech that “we can negotiate with them (the United States) on other issues” if an accord is concluded.
“You have to make a distinction that he (Khamenei) can adopt an ideological position and retain that ideological position while in practical terms still pursue varying policies,” said Parsi. “None of this could even be registered if you read his speeches literally. All of this would be meaningless. You couldn’t understand it and you couldn’t understand Iran.”
Rouhani would enjoy massive popular acclaim by making good on his election promise to conclude a nuclear agreement that brought financial relief to Iran and restored its international legitimacy. That would make it difficult for Khamenei and other hardliners to stop Rouhani from exploring other avenues for limited cooperation with Washington, some experts said.
Even when it comes to the civil war in Syria, some analysts think that the United States – which is backing moderate rebel forces – and Iran might cooperate on a new peace initiative if they feared that Assad could lose his grip on power, creating a vacuum that the Islamic State or al Qaida’s Nusra Front could try to fill.
U.S. accused Iran of backing militia attacks on U.S. troops during occupation of Iraq.
Such an initiative, however, would mean Iran accepting a demand that Assad step aside in favor of a transitional government, a proposal that Tehran still vehemently rejects.
But Iran’s position could change if Assad, who recently has suffered serious defeats by the Islamic State and other Islamist forces, takes further losses.
“I think the Iranians are very realistic,” said Khouri. “They will realize at some point that the Syrian regime is doomed and they will have to shift to supporting some kind of political transition.”