PARIS -- Since the hostage crisis 34 years ago, the Iranian regime has made the U.S. a linchpin of its domestic and international politics. To normalize relations with the U.S. would mean that the regime would have to deprive itself of this linchpin. For a still-powerful faction within the leadership, normalization would spell the end of the regime. They will thus try to oppose it in any way they can.
But there is a real possibility of a negotiated deal on Iran's nuclear program.
The key to understanding President Rouhani's turnaround at the U.N. -- and its contradictions -- can be found in Iran's past behavior. As a whole, Rouhani's talks and interviews while visiting New York recently demonstrated once again that, in Iran, foreign policy dictates domestic politics and not vice versa. The regime has always used international crisis to consolidate its domestic control -- until the costs outweigh the benefits.
Since the early days of the Revolution, the Iranian regime has always pushed crisis forward to a point beyond which it can no longer continue, The regime then ends up "drinking the poison chalice of defeat" (a term Ayatollah Khomeini used when agreeing to end the war with Iraq).
We saw this in the hostage crisis, in which the ruling clergy refused to make a deal with Jimmy Carter that would have been highly beneficial to the country, and only belatedly made a deal with Ronald Reagan that, apart from providing the international conditions for Iraq's attack on Iran, cost the country billions. The ruling clergy and their Revolutionary Guard allies also refused to end the war with Iraq when the armed forces had the upper hand. Instead, they pushed ahead until they ended up in defeat, destroying a generation in the minefields and costing the country even more billions. According to a European Union estimate, the current nuclear weapons standoff, with its ever tighter sanctions, has cost the country around $700 billion. My estimate -- which among other factors includes the "theft" of Iran's oil and gas from shared fields in the Persian Gulf by despotic regimes in the region -- is in the mind-blowing trillions.
Rouhani's speech at the U.N. showed strong signs that the regime has found itself in the same situation again. The country will now have to pay a price for its disastrous policies. Rouhani is seeking to stem the damage and change course so the country can move on.
We saw this in the speech, cleared by Iran's supreme leader, which revealed the deeply embedded fears within the regime.
One of the fears expressed in the speech was the open admission that sanctions have been effective in deeply damaging the economy. Another was the admission that the factor of "time" is working against Iran. This is why Rouhani said that he wants to reach a deal within three to six months.
The third fear was expressed when he described the regime as the "regional power." This was one of those bold assertions that are necessary to cover up the reality. The Iranian regime is not a "regional power" but actually quite weak. It is not lost on Rouhani and his faction that, in order to maintain its current geo-political position, Iran has had to take large amount of money from its impoverished economy -- let's not forget that the main cause of Iran's current disastrous economic situation is not the result of sanctions, but of sheer ineptitude in management as well as massive financial corruption by the Revolutionary Guards and other actors within the military-financial mafia -- and spend it on countries like Syria and on Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The current attempt to shift Iran's nuclear policy is the latest desperate move by a regime seeking to ensure that any path toward normalization will be accompanied by a U.S. guarantee not to follow a policy of regime change.
There is reason to believe Rouhani is sincere on the nuclear issue. The regime's attempt to build a nuclear bomb, which according to a CIA report ended in 2003, was also aimed at deterring a possible U.S. attack on Iran. It ended then because it the dangers of pursuing it had superseded its possible benefits: It ended up inviting a military intervention instead of warding it off.
Rouhani already saw this clearly a decade ago. According to the memoir of a former French Ambassador in Iran, François Nicoulaud, a colleague of Rouhani told him that the Revolutionary Guards were in the process of building a bomb but that Rouhani had stopped them.
The danger to any breakthrough now comes not only from those within the regime who see a path to normalization instead of crisis as a recipe for losing their grip on power. It also comes from their international counterparts, primarily the right-wing factions in Israel and neoconservatives in the U.S. who are functioning like "communicating vessels" that keep the cycle of crisis going. They feed each other.
By phoning Obama on his way out of town, Rouhani tried to hedge the domestic contradictions that come with a change of policy. When Obama wanted to shake his hand as an offer of peace, he refused to do so. Back in Iran, he said that the suggestion of having a phone conversation was initiated by Obama's office, but Obama's office made the opposite claim. This has put Rouhani on the hot seat back home.
This conflicting presentation of facts -- as well as Rouhani's conflicting tone of compromise and peace on the one hand, and then anger and aggression on the other -- suggests a high-wire act of trying to improve relations with the U.S. while avoiding inflaming the Revolutionary Guard. He is trying to follow Ayatollah Khamenei's policy of "heroic flexibility" aimed at maintaining stability by keeping different factions in the regime under control.
The outcome of this struggle will be determined in the end by the strengths and weaknesses of Khamenei as he seeks balance within the governing class. The nature and history of post-Revolutionary Iran tells me that the chances of normalizing relations between Iran and the U.S. are not very high. At the same time, the chances of reaching the deal over the nuclear issue are well within reach.
Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He now lives in exile outside Paris.
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