By Ali Reza Eshraghi (source: LobeLog)
Photo Credit: ISNA/Mehdi Ghasemi
In the current debate over the November 24 interim deal with Iran on its
nuclear program, an important lesson from Politics 101 is neglected: state and
regime are two conceptually different terms. But when it comes to Iran, US
foreign policy has systematically been incompetent in grasping this distinction.
State refers to a sovereign political entity, which (at least in theory) is
supposed to pursue the common good of its population. Regime, on the other hand,
signifies an authoritarian form of governance and its ruling elites.
However, the rhetorical use of this word can be biased and highly politically
motivated. In Western media one recurrently hears phrases such as "Iranian
regime" and "Islamic regime" and not so much "Saudi regime," despite Iran having
significantly greater democratic features than the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Louis XIV of France once said: "L'Etat c'est moi," I am the state. In the
discourse over Iran's nuclear program, it is often mistakenly assumed that the
regime (along with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) is the state.
Subsequently, the nuclear conundrum is framed as only the problem of a regime
that is greedily obsessed with its own survival, and not that of a state bound
to consider long-term national interests.
If one sees a problem as a nail, the solution would be to look for a hammer.
In this regard, it is not surprising that many members of the U.S. congress,
assuming that more pressure will ultimately force capitulation by the regime,
are pushing (though apparently defeated
for the time being) for evermore sanctions against Iran.
And when it comes to negotiating with Iran, we see that the old Kremlinology
of the Soviet era is ludicrously imitated, with moderate President Hassan
Rouhani being compared to Mikhail Gorbachev. All the speculations are focused on
how far the Iranian President could go in selling an accord to other players in
the regime, and ultimately how much the whole regime, including Rouhani, can be
But what about the Iranian People? Some argue they would be happy for any
deal as long as it alleviates the suffering caused by economic sanctions. It is
even claimed that the democratic Iranian opposition is worried a nuclear
agreement would empower the regime.
These assertions are inaccurate.
Two days after the historic phone conversation between Presidents Barack
Hussein Obama and Hassan Rouhani, a rap song titled "Hassan & Hussein" went
viral. The lyrics encouraged Iran-US reconciliation, but cautioned Rouhani:
"Just remember when you are dancing [with Obama] / Not to give away the country
two-handedly to [him] the foreigner."
A recent poll by the Zogby Research Service shows 96% of Iranians (also the
majority of Rouhani supporters) believe "maintaining the right to advance a
nuclear program is worth the price being paid in economic sanctions and
Some Iranian opposition groups - though hateful of the regime - also believe
that the nuclear dispute with the West should not be resolved at the price of
damaging the pride and interests of the country.
For example Ardeshir Zahedi, the Shah's last Ambassador to the US, in an
interview with BBC Persian in July 2012 defended the nuclear program of a regime
that has forced him into exile: "Iranians must maintain their patriotism. No
matter who is in power, Iran is our country."
Akbar Etemad, the founder of the Atomic Energy Organization during the Shah's
regime, even recommends that Iran withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in order to keep
its uranium enrichment program. This is the same position that some of the
regime's hardliners have insisted on.
Moreover, the Green Movement leaders (the largest democratic movement in Iran
since the 1979 revolution, which the U.S. was sympathetic toward) are also
against the Iranian regime signing a nuclear deal at the cost of disregarding
In October 2009, Iran's top negotiator Saeed Jalili welcomed a deal in which
Iran would send enriched uranium abroad. But Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the Green
Movement leader who has been under house arrest for more than a thousand days,
accused the regime of "making a deal over the Iranian nation's long-term
interests." The Supreme Leader later rejected the deal.
Another severe comment was made in May 2010 when Iran signed a nuclear deal
with the mediation of Brazil and Turkey (initially encouraged by President Obama
but later rejected). This time Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi's wife who has also been
under house arrest, admonished the agreement as "worse than the disgraceful"
Coincidentally, this October the Iranian media commemorated the 200th
anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Gulistan between the Iranian and
Russian empires following the peace negotiations that were mediated by Great
Gulistan (1813) and its following Treaty of Turkmenchay (1828) in which Iran
had to give up a great deal of territories and rights have deeply haunted the
In the Persian vocabulary "Turkmenchay" has become a metaphor for any
humiliating compromise that jeopardizes national interests. In fact, after the
recent Geneva agreement Iranians active on social media were wondering if it is
another Turkmenchay or not. Luckily, the majority of Iranians don't believe so
although Abolhassan Banisadr, a prominent opposition figure who served as the
first President of post-revolutionary Iran, has called the interim deal "worst
than the Turkmenchay Treaty."
To further understand the situation, let's compare this metaphor to another
one, which is often used in explaining the behavior of the regime:
In July 1988 after the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the Supreme Leader of the
time Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini reluctantly accepted UN Security Council
Resolution 598 and the immediate ceasefire. He equated his decision (like
Socrates) to drinking the poisonous chalice. Since then, pundits have
participated in an incongruous scholastic dispute over what conditions would
lead the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to drink the proverbial
poison and accept a nuclear deal like his predecessor.
Khomeini has been lambasted by many Iranians for prolonging the war with Iraq
but no one has condemned his decision to accept the UN Security Council
resolution as an act of giving away a piece of land or undermining national
interests and rights.
The real problem for the current Iranian regime headed by Ayatollah Khamenei
is not about drinking the poisonous chalice. It has to do with the signing of a
nuclear Turkmenchay. Realpolitik suggests that the regime should not be trapped
between the Scylla of ever-growing sanctions and the Charybdis of a humiliating
The US President has apparently grasped this notion. Speaking at the
Brookings Institution's Saban Forum last Saturday, Obama rejected that Iran
would surrender under more sanctions and military threats: "I think [this
notion] does not reflect an honest understanding of the Iranian people or the
When debating the recent Geneva deal and the prospect of a comprehensive
agreement, US foreign policy makers, especially Congress, need to distinguish
between Iran as a regime and Iran as a state. "What's the difference?" they
Yet, as the literary critic Paul De Man once brilliantly explained, "What's
the difference" in some situations could be an answer rather than a question
that indicates the responder does not "give a damn what the difference is." This
would be an imprudent answer from the US Congress.
About the Author:
Ali Reza Eshraghi is the Iran Project Manager at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and a teaching fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was a senior editor at several of Iran's reformist dailies. During his more than 15-year career in journalism, he has published hundreds of articles and op-ed pieces in various Persian, Arabic and English media including the New York Times, CNN and Al Jazeera. Eshraghi is an alumnus of the Duke-UNC Rotary Center for International Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution. Formerly, he was a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism and The Institute of International Studies (IIS). He was also a research fellow at the Religion, Politics and Globalization Program at UC Berkeley. Eshraghi studied Political Science and Islamic Studies at Imam Sadiq University in Tehran.
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