Before the negotiations on the nuclear deal began, mutual enmity had been the status quo between the US and Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Washington viewed the regime in Tehran as a dangerous, destabilizing Islamic fundamentalist element in the region while the Islamic Revolution was based in part as an opposing alternative to the American dream and the global influence of the US. The levels of hate grew as the US and the UN slapped on Iran a series of economic sanctions related to Tehran’s suspect nuclear program, its support of terrorist organizations and its flagrant abuses of human rights. Iran’s reaction only fueled the mutual hatred: It proudly increased its nuclear program, its support for terrorism, its abuses of human rights and its anti-US rhetoric. Meanwhile, whatever the US did in the Middle East only increased Tehran’s hate: supporting Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, invading Iraq, supporting Israel and Saudi Arabia, unknowingly incubating ISIS, supporting Syrian rebels…all seen by Iran as a direct attack on the regime and its ideals.
This situation could have continued indefinitely were it not for the elections of Barak Obama and Hassan Rouhani into office. Both Obama and Rouhani share a mutual predicament and a mutual trait: both were ready to put hate behind them at the risk of political suicide and both were stubborn enough to do something about it. If the relationship between the US and Iran could be boiled down to these two alone, the gulf between both countries would have been bridged by now although no one knows if such a bridge would benefit the Iranian and the American people.
Unfortunately for them, they both face opposition from elements in their countries which are not ready to bury the hatchet and are still paranoid, justly or unjustly, of the motives of the other side. In Iran, the opposition centers around Khamenei and the hardline elements of the regime which have legally and politically crippled any efforts to foster peace with the US. In the US, the opposition is not as solid since, unlike Rouhani who will always be subordinate to the Supreme Leader, Obama holds the highest office in the US, but he has to face the criticism of his political enemies and the fickle nature of the American public opinion.
The signing of the JCPoA was meant to defuse the enmity between the two countries but instead, it has created confusion and a strange form of need-hate relationship. Obama and Rouhani may need each other but the overall narrative between the two is definitely filled with hate and paranoia:
Anti-US rhetoric: unlike the US where American leaders are split between rooting for or against Iran, Iranian leaders are all critical of the US. The US is the “Great Satan” who is constantly trying to shatter the Islamic Revolution by any means that it can. It’s not only “hardliners” like Khamenei who are bad-mouthing the US…seasoned diplomats such as Rouhani and Zarif are doing the same. The US is being blamed for everything from terror to sanctions, from a “soft war” against Iran to being a “has-been”. Iranian politicians, ministers, generals, MP’s and mullahs have only bad things to say about the US and are proud of calls by Iranians of “Death to America“. This doesn’t mean that all Iranians are anti-US, far from it, but the narrative in the media is definitely that the US was, remains and will continue to be, Iran’s arch-enemy.
The bans on American brands: The ink on the JCPoA was still damp when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei banned 227 American brands from the Iranian economy and banned any further negotiations with the US on any subject. That move, in itself, was a slap in the face for the Obama administration: the US had paved a road to Tehran’s doors which would be used by all the world except for itself – thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars had resulted in a deal which Americans could not benefit from while other countries, Russia and China, the EU and Iran’s neighbors were given the royal welcome in Tehran. It’s as if the US had signed the check for a massive party only to find that a) Iran had taken over the role of the host, b) the US was not invited to the event and c) Iran was using the party to fuel hatred towards the US. It seems strange, but perhaps fitting, that the Iranians who simultaneously criticized the economic sanctions as being “inhumane” and belittled their effects on the leadership of Iran would choose an economic sanction of its own against the Americans. In any case, America, once of the main instigators of the deal, was shut out and remained an enemy.
The Iranian missile test: Iran carried out missile tests which might, or might not, have breached the “spirit” of the JCPoA. Accusations, denials and counter-accusations were traded between Tehran and Washington and once again, the Obama administration made it clear that the missile tests were not enough to break the nuclear deal. At the same time, fears that the funds released from the sanctions would be used for war and terror by the regime increased the tension. The narrative from Washington was all mixed up: the White House stood by the deal and wanted to let the missile tests slide but this feeling was not shared by the rest of the Americans. The narrative from Tehran, on the other hand, was simple: the deal that was signed may have given the world an opportunity to monitor closely Iran’s nuclear program but as to the rest, it was “business as usual”, which meant that America remained an enemy.
The Syrian quagmire: Tehran has supported Bashar al-Assad from day one in any way it could: Hezbollah and Iranian troops fought for Assad, weapons flew in from Tehran to Damascus, Assad was given huge lines of credit and loans by Tehran and Iran’s FM Javad Zarif incessantly pressed for an end to the war which would be beneficial to Assad (and to Iran). Zarif’s rhetoric on Syria is hypocritical to say the least: he keeps on hammering the point that the situation in Syria should be determined by Syrians but has no qualms about Iran’s involvement in Syria nor about pushing his presence into negotiations between Assad and the Syrian rebels. He continues to maintain that there is no military solution to the Syrian civil war while Iran continues to maintain the largest foreign military power in Syria. He warned the West, and specially the US, of not getting involved militarily in Syria while he applauded Moscow’s military involvement there. As far as Tehran was concerned, Iran was simply helping a friend by official request, and the US continued to be the meddling enemy.
The war on terror: The war on terror, or more specifically, the war on ISIS, is probably the most confusing issue of all. Since Rouhani launched his WAVE (War Against Violence and Extremism) initiative, the narrative on terrorism has been splintered: Tehran, once acknowledged by the West as being a state-sponsor of terrorism through its own troops and its terrorist proxies, suddenly took the lead in fighting ISIS. This was a game changer for two distinct reasons: a) ISIS is designated as the single worst terrorist organization by the whole world, including the West and b) ISIS was incubated and perhaps even supported at an early stage, by Saudi Arabia and the US. Suddenly, the US had lost its title of champion against terror to…Iran, a state-sponsor of terror. Furthermore, the supreme court ruling that Iran would recompense victims of Iranian-related terror only caused more pressure and led to a counter sue by the Iranians requesting that the US pay for damages done by the Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq war since the US was supporting Iraq. The question of “who is a terrorist?” brought back negating answers as Hezbollah was presented by Tehran as a “shining sun” instead of a dark organization responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of victims in Syria and in the world while the US was presented as the world’s largest supporter of terrorism, and therefore, the enemy of the world.
The bottom line is that the JCPoA did formally bridge the huge divide between the US and Iran but it is a bridge which is out of bounds for Americans and Iranians alike. Obama is stuck in a CATCH 22 position in which he can either continue to play ball with Rouhani, thus helping him present a huge win to the Iranian public, while trying to defend, ignore and justify the negative narrative from Iran or he could pull out its support for Rouhani, forcing him to present a “could-have-been-a-great-deal” to the public which would probably make him lose the elections in 2017.
Rouhani, on the other hand, could try to soften the anti-US sentiment in Iran at the risk of being sidelined by his supreme Leader and his numerous hardline enemies or he can join the anti-US narrative in the hope of remaining president in 2017. For Obama, it’s only a question of legacy but for Rouhani, it is a question of his political career, and some believe, his personal freedom.