Iran, Egypt, and America

When Hassan Rouhani recently announced at his first press conference as the new President of Iran that he is ready to enter "serious and substantive" negotiations with the United States "if the United States shows goodwill and mutual respect", the statement was heralded by the Western media as a hopeful new beginning for Iranian nuclear and foreign policy.

But the election of Rouhani is not really a break from the past. Rouhani is a conservative cleric and a protégé of former President Rafsanjani. He was the secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator under former President Khatami, and he was kept on by Ayatollah Khamenei as his personal representative to the Supreme National Security Council during the Ahmadinejad administration. And his recent statement is no more a break from the past. It does not represent a new path in Iranian policy toward the United States. Each of the four Presidents who preceded him made similar offers in similar formulations. Each of those offers was shunned by the United States. So, if change is to result from a new approach, the new approach will have to be America’s.

When Rouhani says "serious," he means real and not assuming American hegemony. When he says "substantive," he means placing the nuclear negotiations in the wider context of America’s recognition of Iran’s strategic role in the region and of her security interests. When he says "respect," he means the recognition of Iran as a sovereign state and of the Islamic Republic as the legitimate government of that sovereign state.

Each of the past four Presidents has expressed a desire to negotiate with the U.S. under these same conditions. "For most of the past three decades," Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett say, "Tehran has been prepared to pursue rapprochement with Washington, so long as it is based on American acceptance of the Islamic Republic and the reciprocal and balanced accommodation of both sides’ core interests".

As early as 1984, Seyed Ali Khamenei, now the Supreme Leader of Iran, but then the President, declared Iran’s foreign policy an "open door". The door was open to the US as well, he made clear, as long as the relationship was "rational, sound and healthy".

Five years later, his successor, President Hashemi Rafsanjani, clarified "rational" and "healthy" by saying that "Iran will be ready to work with Western countries, but only if they approach us . . . . on equal terms and without colonial attitudes".

But Rafsanjani’s attempts were rebuffed by the United States. His successful intervention to win the release of American hostages in Lebanon, his aide to President Clinton in delivering arms to Bosnia, and his permitting American use of Iranian airspace in the first Iraq war won no reciprocity from America.

So, by the time Seyyed Mohammad Khatami became President in 1997, Iran had become more cautious. After a first term of frustration, Khatami would refocus all future negotiations on wider, more comprehensive discussions. Iran would cast aside negotiations that focused solely on the nuclear issue. Khatami’s foreign minister explained that America would have to show a sincere recognition of Iran’s "strategic importance in the region".

In May of 2003, Khatami showed what such comprehensive discussions would look like. Iran offered a proposal that addressed all of America’s concerns: the nuclear program, support for terrorism and the recognition of Israel. Iran offered to welcome international inspectors and make her nuclear program entirely transparent. She further offered to sign the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty in addition to having already signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty. Iran offered to end all support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad and to support the disarmament of Hezbollah and its transformation into a political party. She also offered to work with the US against all terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda. Finally, Iran promised to accept the Saudi plan for recognizing the State of Israel and normalizing peaceful relations with her. In return, Iran asked that America end sanctions and all attempts at regime change, recognize Iran’s legal right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and recognize Iran’s role and security interests in the region. America turned the offer down cold.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continued to propose negotiations more comprehensive than isolated nuclear talks. But America had to be willing to recognize Iran’s right under international law to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, to accept the Islamic Republic as the legitimate government of Iran, to recognize Iran’s strategic role in the region, to accept Iran’s security interests and to stop isolating Iran from the international community.

America has consistently refused to turn the nuclear talks into a broader conversation that addresses the needs and concerns of both countries. So no new hope is offered by Rouhani’s offer, because the same offer of substantive talks based on mutual respect has been offered by Iran and rebuffed by America for at least three decades. Rouhani’s stance is not a radical alteration of Iranian foreign policy but a reasoned continuation of it. So, if there is to be a change and a new hope in American-Iranian relations, the change will have to come from America. But, America has less motivation to make that change under the Rouhani administration than she did under the Ahmadinejad administration. And that change has nothing to do with the change in government in Iran, but with the change in government in Egypt.

Israel was first drawn to a relationship with Iran, in part, because of an animosity towards Egypt. That animosity had two parts. The first was that by the 1950’s, Egypt had resisted the pull of the US orbit and had gravitated toward membership in the Soviet sphere. The US and Israel feared the incursion of the Soviet sphere into the Middle East. So did Iran. So, Iran, Israel and America had a common interest in opposing and blocking that incursion into the region. The second was an animosity towards her Arab neighbor that pushed Israel closer to Iran because of what is known as the doctrine of the periphery.

The doctrine of the periphery can be traced back to two leaders of Mossad: Reuven Shiloah and Isser Harel. But its central premise, that political compromise with the Arabs is impossible, may be traced back even further to Vladimir Jabotinsky. According to this perspective, Israelis look out from a tiny land to find themselves surrounded by Arab nations who are not only hostile to them but whose differences with Israel are so essential that compromise and friendship are impossible. This impossibility of political ties with her neighbors drives Israel to reach for alliances with non-Arab states just beyond the circumference of her neighbors: to the periphery. This local world view was adopted by David Ben-Gurion and became his doctrine of the periphery. It has been the dominant piece in the Israeli foreign policy puzzle ever since. Four of the most important partners in the alliance of the periphery have been South Africa, Turkey, Ethiopia and, perhaps most importantly, Iran.

The Israeli foreign policy pendulum has swung from the dominant periphery alliances to the occasional neighborhood alliance. But it never allows itself to be caught with enemies on both sides. Nasser’s pan-Arab United Arab Republic, his neutrality in the cold war and his entering into agreements with the Soviet bloc helped steer Israel towards a secret alliance with Iran. That alliance included mutual opposition to and protection from the Soviet Union, the supply of oil, civilian technological cooperation, military technological cooperation and intelligence cooperation. And it lasted for decades.

Animosity toward Egypt, according to the doctrine of the periphery, necessitated relations with Iran. Fading of the animosity toward Egypt helped negate the need for relations with Iran. In 1972, Egypt expelled her Soviet military advisors and began a realignment toward the West. Egypt’s Western reorientation and her entering into the Camp David peace treaty with Israel help eliminate the need for Israel to ally with Iran.

When Egypt is an enemy of Israel and America, the need to enter into agreements with Iran increases. When Egypt is an ally of Israel and America, the need to enter into agreements with Iran decreases. The replacement of Mohamed Morsi’s Egyptian Brotherhood with the Egyptian military as the government of Egypt ends a brief period of Israeli and American trepidation toward Egypt. And with the end of animosity towards Egypt and a return to confidence in the relationship with Egypt, Israel and America’s need to enter into agreements with Iran decreases. So America has even less motivation to make substantive deals with Iran.

Since Rouhani’s approach to America is no different from the approach of his predecessors that America rejected, if there is to be change in Iranian-American relations, the change in stance will have to come from America. But political changes in the region mean that America has no motivation to change her approach toward Iran. So there is little hope for change in Iranian-American relations, and America will continue not to work with the new government of Iran.

But those same geopolitical shifts and that same doctrine of the periphery mean that America will continue to work with the military government in Egypt. And that necessitates the continuation of America’s refusal to identify the military’s seizure of power as a coup.

But a military coup it was. The elected leader has been arrested. The dictator he democratically replaced has been set free from arrest. The military commander has occupied key posts in government. Several military generals and police commanders have been appointed as provincial governors. The constitution has been suspended and a state of emergency, which gives the armed forces the power to take any measures necessary to maintain security and order, has been declared.

But, despite the clarity of the coup, the Obama administration has refused to call it a coup. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki recently explained that "The law does not require us to make a formal determination – that is a review that we have undergone – as to whether a coup took place, and it is not in our national interest to make such a determination. We have determined we are not going to make a determination".

If you make the determination that the change in government was a coup, you have to cut off aid to, and stop working with, the government in Egypt. So don’t make the determination. As in Iran, there will be no change in Egypt. America will go on working with the government in Egypt.

And there are at least three reasons America will not call the coup a coup and will go on working with Egypt. The first reason America will not call what happened in Egypt a coup so she can go on working with the government is the same as the last reason America will go on not work with Iran: the doctrine of the periphery.

Not calling the military’s re-ascent to power a coup allows America to legitimize the Egyptian government. Legitimizing the military government delegitimizes, and potentially eliminates, the Muslim Brotherhood. A secular, military Egyptian government solidly allied with America, Israel and the West frees up America and Israel to confront Iran. The desire to confront Iran and not negotiate a comprehensive nuclear agreement that addresses both sides’ concerns is served by recognizing and working with the coup government in Egypt.

The second reason America has determined not to determine that the coup in Egypt was a coup is because calling it a coup could necessitate terminating the 1.3 billion dollars worth of military equipment that the US provides the same Egyptian military that just pulled off the coup. But this economic and military aid is part of what was promised to Egypt in exchange for signing the Camp David peace treaty with Israel. So calling it a coup jeopardizes the funding. And jeopardizing the funding jeopardizes peace for Israel. So, as with Iran, America’s interests in the region are served by recognizing and working with the coup government in Egypt.

There is a third reason that, like the first, is less discussed. And that reason is Hamas. Hamas first emerged on the Palestinian scene in 1987. Hamas’ initial inclination was not to ally with Iran. Hamas came to life out of the Gaza arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. So its much more natural inclination was toward Egypt and toward Saudi Arabia, a major leader of the Sunni Muslim world. But the first President Bush pushed the Sunni states not to support Hamas, and President Clinton pushed the Saudis to stop funding it. This rejection of Hamas by the United States pushed Hamas into the arms of Iran.

While it is well-known that Hamas cut ties with the Assad regime in Syria, what is less discussed is that Hamas also cut its ties with Iran. Norman Finkelstein explained to me in an e-mail correspondence that "Once Hamas started supporting the Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Brotherhood started supporting the opponents of Bashar al-Assad, Hamas’ relationship with Iran ended". When the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in Egypt, Hamas returned home. This realignment led to the cutting of ties with Hamas’ supporters in Syria, which then led to the cutting of ties with Iran. Hamas’ lifeline was now solely connected to Morsi and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Cutting that lifeline starved Hamas. Not calling the Egyptian coup a coup and continuing to work with the military regime, cuts off and weakens Hamas. And that has been the continuous US goal since Bush and Clinton first tried to starve it of support.

So the tale of two new governments, the new legitimate government in Iran and the new coup government in Egypt, are connected in many ways. And nothing will change with either of them. The US will go on working with the military dictatorship of Egypt, as she always has, and she will go on not working with the democratically elected government of Iran, as she always has.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.