Los Angeles Times

Iran’s dilemma: a country or a cause

- DOYLE McMANUS doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com Twitter: @DoyleMcMan­us

To Americans, Iran’s actions over the last two weeks may have seemed not merely surprising, but also contradict­ory.

Iran rushed to meet its obligation­s under last year’s landmark nuclear agreement, dismantlin­g the machinery it could have used to make atomic bombs. At the same time, officials insisted that they would continue to test ballistic missiles in apparent violation of another United Nations resolution.

Iran quickly released 10 American sailors whose boats had drifted into Iranian waters and said they had been treated with “Islamic hospitalit­y.” Then the Revolution­ary Guard released a video showing the sailors on their knees, and a general boasted: “The Americans humbly admitted our might and power.”

Iran’s intelligen­ce agencies quietly negotiated a deal to swap five American prisoners for seven Iranians — then haggled over allowing the wife and mother of one of the Americans to leave the country. And a hardline official claimed that Washington’s $1.7billion settlement of an Iranian legal claim was actually paid as ransom for the prisoners. (Not so, the White House said.)

The message from Iran-watchers is: Get used to it.

“Iran is a complicate­d country,” Abbas Milani of Stanford’s Hoover Institutio­n told me last week. “On one level, they are simply using an old-fashioned good cop-bad cop strategy. On a deeper level, there’s a struggle under way over the future of the country, and we don’t know how that’s going to turn out.”

The underlying problem is that Iran still hasn’t made the choice Henry Kissinger described several years ago: whether it is a country or a cause — a normal state, or a revolution­ary one.

In practical diplomacy, Iran has been behaving more like a normal state: complying with agreements, releasing sailors, resolving old disputes. But — strangely to us, perhaps — the Iranians find symbolic steps more difficult.

The hardline Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, grudgingly approved deals with the United States as the price of freeing the country from economic sanctions. (U.S. officials say Khamenei personally approved the release of the sailors and the prisoners as well as the nuclear deal.)

And Iran’s opening to the West has expanded well beyond the nuclear deal. U.S. officials say Tehran is supporting internatio­nal efforts to arrange ceasefire talks in Yemen’s civil war (where Iran is backing Shia Muslim rebels against a government supported by its rival, Saudi Arabia). Iran has also endorsed a U.S.-led drive for peace talks in Syria’s civil war.

“There already has been a broad turn in Iranian foreign policy, at least in terms of dealing with the United States,” noted John Limbert, a former U.S. diplomat (and former hostage) in Iran. “Three years ago,” he added, “it was inconceiva­ble that Iran and the United States would be talking directly with each other so often, and about so many issues.”

On the other hand, the Iranians have repeatedly rejected proposals for normal diplomatic relations with the U.S. (an offer floated by George W. Bush before Barack Obama). They even rejected a U.S. proposal for a hotline between the two countries’ armed forces, even though that could avert unnecessar­y clashes.

This resistance to formal normalizat­ion is partly about preserving Iran’s revolution­ary selfimage.

“Khamenei’s whole political platform has been based on antiAmeric­anism. He can’t admit that his basic idea has collapsed,” Milani said.

So even as he has authorized a de facto rapprochem­ent with the United States, Khamenei has released an uninterrup­ted flow of statements denouncing the Great Satan and warning against Western subversion.

The resulting policy, said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for Internatio­nal Peace, could best be described as “contained antagonism.”

The two-sided nature of Iranian foreign policy also reflects the political struggle between the hardliners and reformist president Hassan Rouhani, with Khamenei usually (but not always) backing the hardliners.

The nuclear deal, a victory for Rouhani, has sharpened that rivalry. Rouhani hoped the deal would give his reformist coalition a boost heading into parliament­ary elections scheduled for Feb. 26. But last week, the country’s Guardian Council disqualifi­ed thousands of reformists from running — prompting an unusually sharp and public debate between Rouhani (who protested the order) and Khamenei.

Note to Americans: A lot of this isn’t about us. It’s about them. Just as in any other country — even ours — foreign policy is often a continuati­on of politics by other means.

Indeed, U.S. officials and Iran watchers warn almost unanimousl­y that they expect new U.S. Iranian conflicts ahead — not only because the two countries still disagree on many issues, but also because Tehran’s hardliners want to reassert their influence.

It would be nice if Iran’s mullahs stopped leading chants of “Death to America.” But that’s not going to happen for a long time, and that’s OK.

There’s a historical precedent in U.S. foreign policy for how to deal peacefully with a hostile or threatenin­g power.

American presidents managed their way through a half-century of global rivalry with the Soviet Union and almost a half-century of disagreeme­nts with China without going to war. We can manage conflict with Iran too.

The two-sided nature of Iranian foreign policy ensures new conflicts ahead.

 ?? AFP/Getty Images ?? U.S. SAILORS were apprehende­d by Iran’s Revolution­ary Guards after their patrol boats entered Iranian waters.
AFP/Getty Images U.S. SAILORS were apprehende­d by Iran’s Revolution­ary Guards after their patrol boats entered Iranian waters.

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