Diplomatic Strategies for Dealing with Iran: How Tehran Might Respond
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Notably, both sides have worked diligently to preserve some modicum of cooperation and prevent the deterioration of the relationship even as regional tensions have escalated significantly. Tehran has repeatedly dispatched envoys to Riyadh over the past several years to assuage concerns, including former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, the supreme leader's personal advisor on foreign affairs, who first embarked on a damage control mission after Ahmadinejad's outrageous performance at the December 2005 Organization of the Islamic Conference summit. As Ali Larijani acknowledged, "We do have our disagreements in certain areas, but overall the relations between Iran and Saudi are very dignified with excellent underpinning." Despite their profound trepidations about Iran, the Saudis have signaled that they are not prepared to lead an anti-Iranian coalition. Riyadh has hosted Ahmadinejad several times, including for the December 2007 hajj pilgrimage – a first for a sitting Iranian president and remarkable given the Saudis' traditional consternation over Iranian troublemaking at the pilgrimage. Riyadh also undoubtedly sanctioned another unprecedented act of regional comity, Ahmadinejad's participation in the annual summit of the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council in December 2007, where he proposed a regional security pact and new economic cooperation between Iran and its Gulf rivals. At the same time, however, the Saudis have agreed to massive new arms sales from Washington and have greatly intensified their diplomatic efforts in Lebanon and elsewhere to combat Iran's sway.
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There are several telling lessons from these two separate episodes in Iranian foreign policy. First, and perhaps most importantly, these two examples should serve as an important reminder that Iranian foreign policy is not static and that Iranian leaders are capable of making important reversals on issues of considerable internal political sensitivity. Given the depth of Khomeini's antipathy toward Riyadh and the prevailing conspiratorial sentiments toward Britain, that full diplomatic relations were reestablished in both cases is a testament to the flexibility that exists beneath Iran's ideologically rigid surface, as well as to the utility of engagement itself.
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Khatami's January 1998 interview with CNN represented a remarkable gambit, given that Iranian officials had granted only rare interviews to the U.S. press. His stunning rhetoric – he began by paying respect to the "great American people" and expressed "an intellectual affinity for American civilization" – stood in sharp contrast to a speech only days before by Khamenei, who accused the West of using "guileful propaganda tricks…to bring about instability and insecurity in the nation." However, while the bold move was intended to open new channels with the West, it closed doors at home. The interview ignited a storm of controversy within Iran, exacerbating conservative mistrust of Khatami. Conservative opposition reflected self-interest, as rapprochement with the United States would have boosted Khatami's approval ratings to stratospheric levels, as well as an ideology that equated regime orthodoxy with regime survival. Two weeks after the CNN interview, after a muted response from Washington, Khatami spoke about the United States in much more strident terms in an address before the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, and on a subsequent visit to the United Nations suggested that the interview had been "misinterpreted" and asked Americans "not to confuse a dialogue among people and cultures with political dialogue." For much of the rest of his presidency, Khatami and the reformists focused their attentions on mending other breaches in Iran's international relations, and took relatively few concrete actions to reach out to Washington or respond to the belated overtures mounted by the Clinton administration two years later.
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Beyond Khamenei, any overtures toward Iran will have to contend with the outsized personality and ambitions of President Ahmadinejad. Despite his manifest difficulties with both Iran's political elites as well as its population, it would be a mistake to presume that the era of Ahmadinejad is inherently on the wane. Ahmadinejad will not go quietly from the center stage of Iranian political life. There is no precedent for an Iranian president declining to run for reelection or being defeated at the polls, and given Khamenei's generous support to date, he will likely support his radical protégé unless he sees a grave risk to the Islamic Republic. As Iran approaches presidential elections in mid-2009, the president benefits from the authority to stack the deck in his own favor, as well as from his patrons in the hard-line clergy, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Supreme Leader's office. His proclivity for intervening wantonly in the country's management and distributing oil largesse as widely as possible has done tremendous damage to Iran's economy; however, he has also cultivated a potentially crucial base of support in the Iranian provinces, where voting rates tend to be much higher than in urban areas. New American diplomacy toward Iran must find a way to co-opt Ahmadinejad, unlikely to prove an easy task for a president who has surrounded himself with devoted, like-minded advisors who have little international experience, or circumvent him. Moreover, even if Ahmadinejad somehow passes from the scene, there is every reason to believe that the legacy of his ideological fervor and the constituency whose worldview he has represented – "neoconservatives" or second and third generation ideologues – will continue to shape the options available to any future Iranian leader.
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Today, Iranian leaders see their state as besieged from all directions by Washington, a product of both its deeply engrained paranoia as well as actual facts on the ground. At the same time, the leadership – in particular President Ahmadinejad – is buoyed by a sense of confidence, even arrogance, about the country's domestic and regional status. What this bifurcated view of the world translates to in practice is a tendency to equate assertiveness as equivalent to, or an effective substitute for, power – both in internal politics and in foreign policy. This Hobbesian worldview encourages adventurism and discourages compromise. Molded by their perception of an inherently hostile world and the conviction that that the exigencies of regime survival justify its actions, Iranian leaders seek to exploit every opening, pursue multiple or contradictory agendas, play various capitals against one another, and engage in pressure tactics – including the limited use of force – to advance their interests. As Khamenei has argued, "rights cannot be achieved by entreating. If you supplicate, withdraw and show flexibility, arrogant powers will make their threat more serious."This context is not especially conducive to launching a new diplomatic initiative between Tehran and Washington. Proponents of engagement should have no illusions about who we are seeking to bring to the table; Iran's current array of leaders is uniformly committed to an orthodox and unyielding vision of Islamic government, and does not share the affinity for America that some reformers expressed. Even as its economy crumbles from internal mismanagement, Tehran boasts that U.S. sanctions will strengthen its indigenous capabilities. Moreover, Iran's current decision makers are more interested in looking eastward to China and India, and less gripped by the demons of Washington. "The domestic mindset that negotiations with America will solve all our problems is a mirage," commented former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati. "Those people who have gotten over excited about the fact that negotiations with America will be the cure to all problems have miscalculated."