Shireen T. Hunter is a Research Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
Recently, President Donald Trump gave Iran’s leaders a telephone number, saying that he is waiting to talk to them. Observers and analysts in both in Tehran and Washington dismissed this gesture as meaningless.
Given the background of U.S.-Iran relations under Trump, especially American withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the imposition of harsher sanctions on Iran, Tehran’s reactions and observers’ skepticism are not surprising. Even before this latest offer of talks, Iranian authorities, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, had said that Tehran will not negotiate under pressure and with bullies. Clearly, the Trump administration’s actions are responsible for the increased tensions between Washington and Tehran.
However, Tehran’s reluctance to engage in direct talks with America at a normal state-to-state level within a bilateral framework long predates the Trump administration. Let’s not forget that even in 1986, when Iran was desperate for weapons for its war with Iraq and its moderates wanted to explore ways of reconciling with the United States, contacts with Washington were conducted in secrecy. Iran’s hardliners revealed these contacts, which culminated with Reagan’s National Security Advisor Robert McFarland’s ill-fated trip to Tehran and what came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair. The hardliners supposedly had gotten the information through Syria; the information was first published in the Syrian daily /Al Shar’a/. Syria, in turn, had received it from the Soviet Union. These revelations undermined then speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who wanted some form of normalization of relations with America.
For many years, this episode prevented further efforts at reconciliation. It was arguably the second worst event after the hostage crisis, whose legacy has adversely affected the course of Iranian-American relations. It alerted those opposed to U.S.-Iran reconciliation in Washington, including in the Department of State, as well as in the Middle East, and led them to double their efforts to prevent any more clandestine contacts with Tehran. In view of the embarrassing episode of the Mac Farland visit to Tehran, the United States decided that it would only talk openly and with responsible officials of Iran.
In the following decades under both the Rafsanjani and Khatami presidencies, hardliners sabotaged every effort at U.S.-Iran reconciliation and vetoed high-level official meetings between officials of the two countries. During the last three decades, the identity of hardliners in Iran has changed. During the 1980s and the 1990s, leftists prevented such contacts. After Khatami assumed power in 1997 and the leftists suddenly became born- again liberals, a new breed of right-wing elements sabotaged and resisted Khatami’s outreach to the world.
Part of this dynamic can be explained even today in terms of factional fighting over power and privilege. However, the real problem lies elsewhere: the inextricable link between the legitimacy of both the Islamic revolution and the regime and its anti-imperialist struggle, or to be exact, anti-Americanism. The traditional moderates or conservatives, best represented by Rafsanjani, were never as anti-American as the Left. Once the Left became liberal, it shed its excessive anti-Americanism, and thus the mantle of safeguarding the revolution passed on to the new conservatives. This group now consists of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), a number of key hardline clerics, including Ibrahim Raeisi, the head of the judiciary, and his father-in-law, the fire-breathing Friday prayer leader of the holy city of Mashhad, plus the economic groups connected to them.
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