"Americans are untrustworthy and illogical. They are not honest in their dealings."
So said Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a ceremony in July following the presidential election of the moderate reformist candidate Hassan Rouhani.
Western analysts from across the spectrum took note of Rouhani's sweeping victory this past June, almost universally describing it as a promising opening for detente, unprecedented in the sordid history between the US and Iran.
“This is a moment of tremendous opportunity for Washington,” writes Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute. The National Iranian American Council dubbed it “a major potential opportunity to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff over Iran's nuclear program.”
There are a multitude of outstanding issues and grievances beyond the nuclear matter that have great potential to spoil this window for peaceful reconciliation. But the greatest spoiler of all lies in the fact that Ayatollah Khamenei, who holds ultimate control no matter who is president, is convinced Washington is out to overthrow his government.
Worse still, he has good reason to believe it.
Khamenei “believes that the US government is bent on regime change in Iran”, explains Iranian journalist and political dissident Akbar Ganji in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “whether through internal collapse, democratic revolution, economic pressure, or military invasion".
The US “say[s] that they are not after a regime change,” Khamenei said in a speech to Iranian judiciary officials in late June. “However, they clearly show the opposite in their statements and actions.”
To many, this may seem like extreme paranoia, if not dishonest regime propaganda meant to sow hatred against the West. But the Supreme Leader's hunch is not so divorced from reality.
The heart of Iran's national identity is born out of American-led regime change. Iran's current government, after all, came about in a popular revolution that overthrew the ruthless tyranny of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, restored to power in 1953 following a coup secretly fomented by the US and Britain that toppled Iran's democratically-elected government.
Ever since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the cutting off of diplomatic ties following the hostage crisis at the besieged US embassy, hostility and isolation have been the rule between Washington and Tehran.
And lest Americans think regime change is a retired foreign policy tool of a bygone Cold War era - when Washington overthrew governments in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Congo, Dominican Republic, South Vietnam, Brazil, Chile, and Panama, among others - the last time the US seriously considered regime change in Iran was during the very recent administration of George W Bush.
David Crist, a former U.S. Marine and currently a senior historian for the Defense Department, writes in his 2012 book Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran, that high level Bush administration officials strongly advocated another covert effort to overthrow the Iranian regime.
Bush's failed covert plans
“In a January 2002 NSC briefing led by Donald Rumsfeld entitled ‘Global War on Terrorism: The Way Ahead,' the secretary stridently recommended supporting internal democratic opposition movements [in Iran],” Crist recounts. Rumsfeld expressed confidence that “Iranian opposition groups inside and outside would bring the government down.”
“Over the next few months,” Crist adds, “[Bush's National Security Advisor Condoleezza] Rice tried to shepherd the national security planning document through the government and get it in front of the president.” A Pentagon memo, backed by Vice President Dick Cheney, stated "OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] takes a strong position on regime change and sees very little value in continuing any engagement with Iran.”
Luckily, cooler heads prevailed as the administration prepared instead for regime change and military quagmire in Iraq, a moral, legal, and strategic fiasco that would ironically strengthen Iran's position in the broader Middle East.
In seeming contrast to the Bush administration's belligerent axis-of-evil diplomacy, Barack Obama came into office in 2009 declaring his willingness to negotiate with Iran without preconditions in order to peacefully settle the issue of its nuclear enrichment program.
Contrary to virtually all of the rhetoric coming out of Washington, the current consensus in the US intelligence community is that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program and has made no decision as to whether to pursue the bomb.
“Recent assessments by American spy agencies,” the New York Times reported last year, “are broadly consistent with a 2007 intelligence finding that concluded that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program years earlier” and this “remains the consensus view of America's 16 intelligence agencies.”
More of the same
Instead of an honest give and take, Obama's so-called diplomacy with Iran has been “predicated on intimidation, illegal threats of military action, unilateral ‘crippling' sanctions, sabotage, and extrajudicial killings of Iran's brightest minds,” writes Reza Nasri at PBS Frontline's Tehran Bureau. The latter policy refers to Israeli covert actions to assassinate civilian Iranian nuclear scientists, a policy Obama may not have helped carry out but did nothing to stop.
The talks initiated by Obama in 2009 quickly failed when Obama pulled back diplomacy in the face of Iranian vacillation. But when Turkey and Brazil persuaded Iran to accept the deal Washington proposed, Obama inexplicably rejected the very deal he initially demanded the Iranians accept.
Harvard professor Stephen Walt wrote in June 2012 that the Iranian leadership “has good grounds for viewing Obama as inherently untrustworthy”. Paul Pillar, a 28-year CIA veteran and a visiting professor at Georgetown University has concurred, arguing that Iran has “ample reason” to believe, “ultimately the main Western interest is in regime change.”
The falling out in 2010 wasn't the first time the Iranians felt snubbed in nuclear negotiations with the US. A recent report from the International Crisis Group (ICG) finds that even Rouhani, the new moderate Iranian president, is bound to be sceptical of American overtures.
Rouhani “is the architect of the sole nuclear agreement between the Islamic Republic and the West,” the report explains, citing the 2004 deal in which Iran agreed, under pressure from the US, to suspend uranium enrichment.
“[I]n hindsight, the agreement was seen as deeply flawed and one in which Iran's suspension resulted neither in recognition of its right to enrichment nor in promised nuclear, technological, economic and security inducements,” ICG reports. A former Rouhani colleague told the ICG, “[Rouhani] made all the concessions the Europeans asked for in 2003 and 2004. But the West left him empty-handed and under fire from Iranian hardliners.”
Writing in Foreign Affairs last year, two experts agree the so-called diplomatic opening Obama ushered in was anything but: “For the past three years, the United States and Europe have stubbornly refused to seek a negotiated solution with Iran.”
“Just as they did with Saddam Hussein,” write Rolf Ekeus, Executive Chairman of the UN Special Commission on Iraq from 1991 to 1997, and Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, a Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, “concerned governments have implemented economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and low-level violence to weaken the Iranian regime and prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, with the long-term objective of regime change”.
“In the spring of 1997,” Ekeus and Braut-Hegghammer continue, “former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave a speech at Georgetown University in which she stated that even if the weapons provisions under the cease-fire resolution [with Iraq] were completed, the United States would not agree to lifting sanctions unless Saddam had been removed from power”.
In the abbreviated history of US policy towards Iraq, the harsh sanctions of the 1990s are indeed understood as a prelude to the Bush administration's invasion and removal of Saddam's regime. Iranians are not unreasonable to feel the same is being done to them.
As Pillar has pointed out, the sanctions seem “designed to fail” since Congress's legislation links the sanctions to a long list of Iranian policies not at all related to their nuclear program. This makes lifting them really difficult in the context of on-going nuclear negotiations.
US policy towards other countries in the Middle East strongly influences Tehran's perception of how the US operates.
“To Khamenei, when it comes to nuclear weapons, the Iraqi and Libyan cases teach the same lesson,” writes Ganji. “Saddam and Qaddafi opened their facilities up to inspections by the West, ended up having no nuclear weapons, and were eventually attacked, deposed, and killed,” he adds, and Khamenei is wary of “similar consequences for the Iranian regime”.
In an interview in early September, former Iranian official Seyed Hossein Mousavian was asked about what at the time seemed like an imminent US cruise missile attack on Syria, a longtime Iranian ally. Mousavian said the Iranian regime doesn't believe America's real motivation in Syria was the alleged use of chemical weapons, “because Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons with the support of the U.S. against Iran during the war, 1980 to 1988. One hundred thousand Iranians, they were killed or injured by chemical weapons where and when material and technology was provided by the US.”
When asked what the Iranians see instead as the real issue, Mousavian stated bluntly, “They believe the US is just after a regime change.”
In the bird's eye view, it is hard to see the US approach to Iran as cordial. In the last decade, the US has waged two aggressive wars along Iran's east and west coast, in Afghanistan and Iraq; it constantly floods the Persian Gulf, directly to Iran's south, with fleets of navy warships; it supplies money and weapons to Iran's most threatening regional adversaries, Israel and Saudi Arabia; it has perpetrated the most significant offensive cyber-attack in the 21st century against Iran; and it is imposing aggressive economic warfare that has crippled the economy, all as punishment for a nuclear weapons program that America's most informed intelligence agencies say doesn't exist.
From this perspective, foreseeing anything but regime change requires serious effort.
For the first time in years, respected experts in both Washington and Tehran are expressing sincere hopes for some kind of rapprochement between the US and Iran, or at least an equitable resolution to the nuclear issue. But any real negotiations are doomed if one party to the talks is certain the other is intent on its destruction.
Indeed, if Washington continues its hostile approach, Iran is heavily incentivised to double down on uranium enrichment and begin a nuclear weapons program in earnest. Lessons from Iraq, Libya, and North Korea demonstrate nuclear weapons are the only dependable deterrent against invasion or regime change. And before Tehran gets there, the trigger-happy Israelis are sure to strike preemptively, drawing in the US to what would surely become a regional conflagration.
If two purportedly moderate presidents are to have any chance of ushering in an enduring settlement, then military posturing, sanctions, and regime change have to be off the table for both sides. Only then could we capitalise on this historic opportunity.
John Glaser is Editor of Antiwar.com. His articles have been published at The American Conservative Magazine, The Daily Caller, and Truthout, among other outlets.