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Signs of further cooperation between the U.S. and Iran

Washington will continue to indirectly ratchet up Iran’s global legitimacy and projection of power due to U.S. unwillingness to act decisively

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Published: Updated:

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani contradicted Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s remarks about their country’s potential rapprochement with the United States. Although Khamenei continues to reject any additional detente, Iran’s latest tactical shift in its foreign policies and priorities, as well as Rouhani’s message at the U.N. General Assembly, suggest a different landscape.

Although Iranian leaders’ speeches are just a collection of words rather than actions, if we analyze Rouhani’s speech meticulously, the broader tone of his remarks suggest two major and intriguing issues. Firstly, the general tone was of Tehran’s willingness to further engage with the West and the United States.

The engagement appears to be on two levels: economic and geopolitical. Rouhani said Iran is prepared to be a regional business hub by increasing economic deals with the West and other nations. This shows that Rouhani, under Khamenei’s supervision, is putting economic and national interests ahead of ideological interests.

Washington will continue to indirectly ratchet up Iran’s global legitimacy and projection of power due to U.S. unwillingness to act decisively.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Secondly, Rouhani depicted Iran as a country fighting terrorism and willing to cooperate with the international community to resolve conflicts in the region. In other words, he is attempting to ratchet up Iran’s global and regional legitimacy without mentioning its role in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, and without attracting attention to the role of Al-Quds force - a branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that operates in foreign countries - in fueling conflicts in the region.

Economy and ideology

Tehran’s increased geopolitical legitimacy on the global stage - which is orchestrated by Iranian leaders and indirectly facilitated by U.S. foreign policy toward Tehran - can have significant impacts on Iran’s embattled economy, causing it to revive more quickly.

Western countries are more willing to do business with Iran when its legitimacy is viewed as being restored. This legitimacy is validated by Washington’s view of Iran as a significant player with a constructive role in resolving conflicts and fighting terrorism.

However, since Washington does not have clear and detailed policies toward Middle East conflicts, it is more willing to delegate the task of fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and resolving the crises in Syria and Yemen, to Tehran and Moscow or other nations. This suggests that Washington will continue to indirectly ratchet up Iran’s global legitimacy and projection of power due to U.S. unwillingness to act decisively.

Continued hostility?

Some might argue that Rouhani is not sending signals of further bilateral cooperation, since he slammed Washington over the conflicts in the region. The argument goes that the supreme leader made clear that there would be no further rapprochement. However, Khamenei previously drew several red lines regarding the nuclear deal, only for most of them to be crossed.

Khamenei’s public statements do not genuinely reflect the way he instructs his president and senior cadre of the IRGC in private. In public, he has to reiterate Iran’s anti-American policies due to his need to satisfy his social base’s revolutionary principles. In addition, Rouhani needs to satisfy his critics at home by criticizing the United States and certain countries in the region.

Tactical cooperation between Tehran and Washington, and between Tehran and the West, is likely to increase. However, this will not resolve regional crises because Tehran will not alter its foreign policy fundamentally.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Khamenei is instructing the president’s team to prioritize national and economic interests over revolutionary ones. This is due to the fact that the nuclear deal and Iran’s change of tone on the global stage would not have been possible without a green light from the supreme leader. Every crucial foreign policy issue enacted by the president has to be approved by the supreme leader.

Although Iran is prioritizing its economic and national interests, this does not necessarily mean that Tehran is abandoning its revolutionary norms. It cannot afford to do so because they are the deep-rooted character of the government and how it gains its legitimacy. This revolutionary establishment is even out of Khamenei’s control. Prioritizing economic and national interests is a short-term tactical shift.

Such prioritization, the indirect American facilitation of Iran’s global legitimacy, and the U.S. wait-and-see foreign policy in the Middle East, suggest that tactical cooperation between Tehran and Washington, and between Tehran and the West, is likely to increase. However, this will not resolve regional crises because Tehran will not alter its foreign policy or revolutionary norms fundamentally.

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Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC. He can be contacted at: Dr.Rafizadeh@post.harvard.edu, or on Twitter: @MajidRafizadeh

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