There is a crucial Machiavellian (but not a strategic) tactical shift in the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and its pursuit of regional preeminence.
First of all, Iranian leaders have realized that by superficially showing the Obama administration that the Islamic Republic is willing to restore diplomatic ties with his administration, they can in fact further advance their ideological and national interests.
Second, knowing that President Obama is desperate for a “historic” nuclear deal and the establishment of diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic, Iranian leaders have played the role very well by attempting to satisfy President Obama’s empty goals.
Third, the ruling clerics of the Islamic Republic became cognizant of the fact that dealing with the Obama administration does not necessarily mean that they have to give up anything with respect to its domestic suppression, revolutionary Islamist principles, human rights abuses, regional hegemonic ambitions, anti-Americanism, hatred towards Israel, and foreign policy objectives.
The tactical shift, currently, is to satisfy President Obama’s personal and shallow objectives by allowing him to project that he is making historic moves (such speaking on the phone with the Iranian leaders), while simultaneously pursuing their own ideological objectives.
For example, most recently, Rouhani and the Obama administration agreed on opening new diplomatic offices in Tehran and Washington. For President Obama, opening diplomatic offices can be viewed as another “historic move” cited in his records or on his Wikipedia page. From the perspective of Iranian leaders, it is a crucial pillar for the advancement of Iran’s foreign policy and ideological objectives in the region without pressure from the US.
To pursue their objectives more efficiently, Iranian leaders have agreed to meet frequently with the diplomats at the highest level of the Obama administration, “negotiating,” and having some of their interactions publicly televised on American and Western media. In addition, the American and the Iranian flags are repeatedly shown next to each other in the high level meetings.
These moves, in fact, give legitimacy to the theocratic regime to further its ambitions.
The president was also delighted to make another “historic move” by speaking on the phone with his Iranian counterpart, President Hassan Rouhani. (One would wonder what a great accomplishment it is to pick up a phone and call another president.)
Washington and Tehran broke diplomatic ties in 1979. After the hostage crisis, high American officials and diplomats have not set foot on the Iranian soil due to Iran’s continuous violation of international norms and anti-Americanism.
Nevertheless, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have decided to turn a blind eye on Iran’s egregious human rights abuses, aggressiveness and violations of international laws.
In another shallow move, Kerry claimed to be proud to set foot on Iranian “territory.” He met with Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the residence of the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Gholamali Khoshroo, in New York.
Instead of attempting to change the behavior of the Ayatollahs and their revolutionary principles, President Obama and Kerry are satisfied with these superficial “historic moves.”
Since Iran’s political establishments and policies are driven, not solely by national and geopolitical interests, but also by ideological Islamist (Shiite) principles, hardliners and the office of the Supreme Leader will always view a real rapprochement with the US as taboo.
Restoring full diplomatic ties can also be analyzed as betraying the revolutionary principles of the Islamic Republic, which were based on anti-Americanism, as well as their opposition to Western models of socio-political and socio-economic landscapes.
From the perspective of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who has the final say in foreign policy decisions — genuine diplomatic ties with the US will lead to the empowerment of Iranian civil society and secular factions. From the prism of the senior cadre of the IRGC, relationships with the American government might lead to the opening of the Iranian market, endangering the economic monopoly of IRGC institutions.
On the other hand, Rouhani and his technocrat team, who share the same objectives with the hardliners and want to preserve the interests of the Islamic Republic, came to the realizations that satisfying President Obama’s superficial and shallow objectives of “historic moves,” can indeed assist them in advancing their ambitions.
In conclusion, similar to the ongoing nuclear negotiations, Rouhani and the moderate camp have persuaded Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that superficial diplomatic ties with the Obama administration will, in fact, empower the Islamic Republic, further its hegemonic ambitions, and raise Tehran’s economic status without the need for the Iranian leaders to give up on their revolutionary principles, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism.
Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar, is president of the International American Council and serves on the board of the Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh is also a former senior fellow at the Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington, DC and is a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Rafizadeh at @majidrafizadeh