Will Iran's charm offensive to the US be blocked - by Iran?

Iran's Revolutionary Guard warned that President Rouhani and his diplomatic team should not 'retreat from fundamental rights' as they try to reengage with the US.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, gives a speech during an annual military parade in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Sept, 22, 2013.

Can Iran’s current charm offensive be stalled or blocked by the Revolutionary Guard and other elements of the regime? 

Hardliners in Iran increasingly fear that the new centrist President Hassan Rouhani’s promise to engage with the US and the West – especially to bring new “transparency” to resolve Iran’s nuclear case – will compromise revolutionary ideology. 

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly declared it a duty of every power center in Iran to back Mr. Rouhani’s government, this week invoking a 7th-century peace deal to say Iran was ready to show a “heroic flexibility.” 

Yet the Revolutionary Guard has carefully pushed back, saying “heroic flexibility” should not be interpreted as “retreat from fundamental rights.” 

“Our fundamental framework is permanent and it is inflexible and our ideal goals will never be reduced,” the deputy Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) chief Hossein Salami said in recent days on Iranian state TV. He included “the right to have peaceful nuclear energy” which “cannot be modified.”

“Heroic flexibility does not include passivity or surrender,” said Brig. Gen. Salami, according to a translation the Al-Monitor website.

Hardline elements have a history of stopping past Iranian attempts by Iran to reach out, but this time may be different, analysts say. 

Khamenei and Mr. Rouhani have both addressed the powerful Revolutionary Guard in recent days, clearly reminding them that the revered father of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution prohibited a political role for any military or security force – a role that the Guard has increasingly assumed for itself over the last decade. Despite signs of grumbling from some commanders, the IRGC issued a statement saying it "will support any measure within the framework of the Supreme Leader's strategies." 

A history of spoilers

The history of spoilers to past outreach attempts is well known. Former President Mohammad Khatami praised Americans and their history, but his bid for détente abroad (and looser social restrictions at home) was stymied by hardliners at every turn. 

Iran helped the US defeat the Taliban and form a new Afghanistan government in late 2001, for example. But the discovery by Israel in January 2002 of a ship carrying Iranian weapons destined for Palestinians in Gaza prompted President George W. Bush to include Iran in his “Axis of Evil” speech.

Could a spoiling action happen again? Not too effectively, some say, because Khamenei himself has backed Rouhani’s outreach strategy in ways that he never stood behind Khatami. That view is also a turnaround for Khamenei, who earlier this year berated the US and ruled out any direct talks.

“The extremists over here have lost their teeth,” says a source in Tehran who has observed Iranian politics for three decades. “Any [spoiler] action anyone tries like that would be cut off at the knees right away. Whoever would do that would be pretty much ending their own career.” 

The new approach is already bearing initial fruit: In New York today, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. That prompted an invitation to meet in coming days with foreign ministers of world powers negotiating with Iran – including US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Ms. Ashton said today: “I was struck by the energy and determination on the part of the minister.”

'Reject' optimism

But for those in Tehran wary of compromise, the feel-good factor beamed to world capitals by Iran’s new government is a dangerous risk.

Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeri said Iran "must view America with a pessimistic look and any optimism in confronting America's suggestions and propaganda…will be rejected." Former IRGC chief Mohsen Rezaei warned that "we must be careful that the enemies do not take advantage of our heroic flexibilities."

Some media echoed those sentiments. The hardline Javan Online website said – in a story titled: “The wall of mistrust will not collapse with a diplomatic smile” – it was premature for some to be “overwhelmed with joy” at the prospect of new talks. 

Even beyond the chances of a nuclear deal and speculation that President Barack Obama might bump into Rouhani in the halls of the UN – where both will address the General Assembly tomorrow – the Javan writer Ali Rezaei said it was wise to remember the US-orchestrated coup in Iran in 1953 and other US historical actions against Iran. 

The “differences and conflict with America is not about the nuclear issue or human rights [but] our main issue with America is the accumulation of several decades of American interference and Iranian resistance,” wrote Mr. Rezaei, as translated by Al-Monitor

US naysayers

There is no shortage of naysayers on the US side of the equation. Some in Congress are pushing for more sanctions against Iran, on top of the crippling array already in place. 

The result is that the “behavior of the Americans” is contradictory to easy friendship, Rezaei writes, listing events that “today has built a dark image of the American government in the minds of the Iranian people, a dark image that with a diplomatic smile will not be erased.”

Still, could that translate into spoiler action from Iran, or indeed from the US side? 

“All it would take is a really negative, big story” – such as the Karine A – “and we’ve had these in the past and they come out of nowhere to stop everything in their tracks,” says Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University and principal White House aide during the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis. 

“Things like that happen…something coming out of left field, something that is inexplicable, or embarrassing to one side of or the other, so it looks like somebody is not dealing in good faith, and I fully expect a lot of disinformation,” says Mr. Sick.

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