Iran/USA relations: tough transition from boxing to chess

Lindsey Hilsum
2 March 2009

The speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, has said he thinks the relationship between the Islamic Republic and the United States should be less like boxing and more like chess.

Lindsey Hilsum is International Editor for Channel 4 News.

That’s maybe because the Iranians are rather good at chess, having supposedly invented the game in the 10th century. For a few miserable years after the 1979 Revolution, it was banned - Ayatollah Khomeini believed it was associated with gambling - but in 1988, the restriction was lifted and now every summer men gather to play under the trees in Tehran’s parks.


Other Iran coverage on openDemocracy:

Ardashir Tehrani, "Iran's presidential coup" (26 June 2005)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 June 2005)

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war" (28 October 2005)

Nayereh Tohidi, "Iran: regionalism, ethnicity and democracy" (28 June 2006)

Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United States: back from the brink" (16 March 2007)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007)

Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's political shadow war" (16 July 2008)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: after the dawn" (2 February 2009)

Abbas Milani, "Iran's Islamic revolution: three paradoxes" (9 February 2009)

Homa Katouzian, "The Iranian revolution: beyond enigma" (February 2009) 

Whether the American and the Iranian governments will be playing chess this summer is quite another matter.

So far Iranian politicians, both reformist and conservative, have reacted cautiously, even dismissively, to President Barack Obama’s offer of talks.

“It’s not a window of opportunity, unfortunately, it's just a change of body language. We don’t yet have any change of policy from the American side,”  said Sadegh Kharazi, a senior Iranian diplomat, in an interview with Channel 4 News at his home in Tehran.

Kharazi’s caution is born of the bitter experience of spearheading Iran’s attempt to open negotiations with the United States in 2003. He acted with authority, being not only a leading member of the reformist camp, close to then President Mohamed Khatami, but also related by family to Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, without whose blessing no such overture could have been made. The faxed document his officials sent to the State Department suggested that everything was up for discussion, including the nuclear programme and Iranian policy towards Israel. The Bush administration dismissed the offer out of hand. They wanted regime change.

The mood in Washington may be more emollient today, but the intervening six years have seen a hardening of attitude in Tehran. After the 2005 election of the conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran stepped up its nuclear programme and became less cooperative with the International Atomic Energy Agency. President Ahmadinejad returned the country to a more rigid form of Islam, and anti-Israel rhetoric has grown more shrill.

Whatever the style of the government of the day, the complexity of dealing with Iran cannot be over-emphasised. It’s not just that there are many centres of power espousing different policies, but that several policies may be running concurrently even at the top. The same month that Sadegh Kharazi sent the document to Washington suggesting talks, the Supreme Leader said to government officials:

“It is natural that our Islamic system should be viewed as an enemy and an intolerable rival by such an oppressive power as the United States, which is trying to establish a global dictatorship and further its own interests by dominating other nations and trampling on their rights. It is also clear that the conflict and confrontation between the two is something natural and unavoidable.”

In Tehran, conservatives and reformists concur that before any progress can be made, the USA has somehow to show more respect. In Iran the concepts of dignity and justice are paramount. The Iranians are particularly incensed by the image of  “carrot and stick”, as if they were a recalcitrant donkey to be shoved up a steep hill. Holding out economic cooperation as some sort of reward for good behaviour – as Vice President Joseph Biden did at the Munich Security Conference in February – will not go down well. Apart from pride in Persia’s 2500 year old history, they believe America needs to acknowledge that in the Middle East, Iran is the essential nation.

“America needs Iran to help stabilise Iraq and Afghanistan, for security arrangements in Persian Gulf and other crises in the Middle East,” said Kharazi. “We need a grand bargain between our two countries.”

President Ahmadinejad has a less subtle approach. At a rally to mark the 30th Anniversary of the Revolution, he celebrated Iran’s first satellite launch with the claim: “We are a superpower now!”

President Obama has talked of offering an “open hand” if Iran “unclenches its fist,” but Iranian politicans of all persuasions see America as the party with the clenched fist.

Past and present give us some lessons,” said Kharazi. “The US made a coup d'etat [in 1953]; it supported Saddam [in the Iran/Iraq war]; it demanded a change in our political system. Also America made sanctions, an embargo and a freeze of Iranian assets. We need objective guarantees and an objective goal. Negotiation for the sake of negotiation doesn't make sense.”

While America's goals centre around stopping Iran from building a nuclear bomb and ending support for Hizbollah and Hamas, the Iranians have many grievances they want resolved first. They want the unfreezing of US$20 million of Iranian assets the Americans seized after the Revolution. They want the US trade embargo lifted, as it – amongst other things – prevents Iran Air from getting spare parts for the ancient Boeing aircraft that all too frequently crash as they ply between Iranian cities. They want the return of Iranian operatives arrested by the Americans in Iraqi Kurdistan. And that's all before apologies for perceived past crimes and any serious negotiation over nuclear power and policy towards what the Iranians still refer to as "the Zionist entity".

Israel’s recent assault on Gaza may make this more difficult. While the Palestinian cause means less to the average Iranian than it does to most Arabs, the Supreme Leader has proclaimed it “one of our main Islamic duties.” Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, was feted when he visited Tehran in February. While rarely confirming publically that they arm Hamas and Hizbollah, Iranian officials regard both groups as resistence fighters not terrorists, and therefore legitimate recipients of military aid.

“All countries in the world export military equipment,” said Sadegh Kharazi. “Israel is a hundred per cent supported by Americans.”

The possibility of talks with America is likely to feature in the campaign for presidential elections in June, a contest expected to pit Khatami against Ahmadinejad, a straight fight between reformist and conservative. The current president is likely to portray Khatami as the American candidate, a man who will sell the Revolution to the enemy. Khatami will blame Ahmadinejad for the current poor state of relations, as well as the faltering economy. High oil prices have protected Iranians from the impact of economic mismanagement, but inflation is at 25% and revenue is now falling.

It’s already turned nasty. The day after he declared his candidacy, Mr Khatami had to be rescued from a mob of youths who were insulting him at the 30th Anniversary rally. An editorial in the conservative newspaper Keyhan has made a veiled assassination threat, comparing Khatami to Benazir Bhutto, suggesting that both were American stooges. Keyhan’s editor, Hossein Shariatmadari, is known to be close to the Supreme Leader.

The conservative judiciary and the thuggish element associated with the Revolutionary Guard and the basij militia - President Ahmadinejad’s support base - are in the ascendant. Several women’s rights activists have been arrested, and seven leading members of the Baha’i community are to be charged with spying for Israel. Graffitti sprayed on the office wall of Shirin Ebadi, the human rights lawyer and winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, is instructive: “American whore,” reads one. “Shirin=America,” is another.

The Americans know that they cannot wait for the outcome of the elections, so they’ve started to move their pieces on the board. On March 6th, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is to meet the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva. Iran is likely to be high on the agenda, as the Americans have suggested that they will link negotiations on ballistic missile defence (BMD) in Central Europe - a matter of high importance to the Russians – to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Americans have always maintained that they need the missile sheild as a defence not against Moscow but against Tehran, but Russia has been sceptical, seeing itself as the real target. The Russians have helped Iran with the civilian side of their nuclear programme, and been broadly supportive in the UN Security Council, but they might well be interested in pressuring Iran in return for a suspension of America’s BMD programme.

Still formulating policy, riven by division or simply watching and waiting, the Iranians are making no overt moves. A senior western diplomat said that this was the traditional approach.

"When an offer is made, the Iranians pocket it and say nothing, or they dismiss it as if they always knew that was on the table. Then they decide what to do next," he said.

Sadegh Kharazi suggested that the Supreme Leader is weighing the options.

“He is very pragmatic. Finally, the foreign policy is designed and controlled by him. If the Supreme Leader makes a decision, all different schools of thought will listen to his order. Everything depends on his decision.”

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