More than once before his death in January 2017, the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani asserted that he had encouraged Ayatollah Khomeini to resolve the problem of Iran’s relations with the US because he feared that after Khomeini was gone, nobody else would be able achieve this.
Rafsanjani’s prediction proved – for now at least – to be accurate. Under the leadership of Ali Khamenei, despite the best efforts of those working under him, US-Iranian relations continue to be as hostile as before.
Relations between Iran and the US since the 1979 Islamic Revolution have had too many ups and downs to enumerate in a single article. But two things have remained constant. Firstly, the respective governments of Iran and the United States have never abandoned their antagonistic attitudes toward one other and have never re-established diplomatic relations. Secondly, though, and in a sense contradictorily, the two countries never completely discarded their secret or public channels of communication.
Under Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, Iranian and American officials have engaged in numerous rounds of private negotiations down the years. Some of the most notable have been:
The Hostage Crisis: On November 4, 1979, just as the government of Mehdi Bazargan, the first post-revolution prime minister, was engaged in on-again, off-again talks with the United States, the “Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line” attacked the US embassy in Tehran. Incensed revolutionaries scaled the walls of the building in Tehran and violently took the embassy’s staff and diplomats hostage. The crisis was ostensibly resolved with the signing of Algiers Accords on January 19, 1981, but the consequences of this episode continue to hang over Iran today.
Madrid Negotiations: Officially, neither party has confirmed these negotiations took place. But there have been persistent reports that while the American hostages were still being held in Tehran, Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign negotiated a secret deal with Iran to prevent the release of American hostages until after the election. These discussions were reportedly held in July 1980 in Madrid, between Mehdi Karroubi and his brother Hasan Karroubi as representatives of Ayatollah Khomeini, and William Casey, Reagan’s campaign chairman, who went on become US’s Director of Central Intelligence. Whatever the truth of these reports, the hostages were released on the same day that Reagan was sworn in as president.
The McFarlane Affair: Unlike the Madrid negotiations, there are no doubts about the Iran-Contra affair, known in Iran as the McFarlane affair. This was a secret US arms deal, agreeing to sell missiles and other arms to the Islamic Republic in exchange for the freedom of some Americans then being held hostage by terrorists in Lebanon. Furthermore, the US agreed, the proceeds would also be used to support the armed conflict in Nicaragua. In November 1986 Robert McFarlane, Reagan’s National Security Advisor, flew to Tehran, bringing with him a gift of a bible with a handwritten inscription from Reagan and a cake baked in the shape of a key. The Iranians who received McFarlane included Hassan Rouhani, the cleric Mohammad Ali Hadi Najafabadi, prime ministerial aide Mohsen Kangarlou, IRGC deputy commander Ahmad Vahidi and trade envoy Fereydoon Vardinejad. Khomeini never had the courage to admit to these secret negotiations and their revelation, when it finally occurred, became a scandal.
Isolation, Lebanon and the Bombing of Khobar Towers: After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in June 1989, Iran’s official stance toward the US continued, though tinged by the fact that Iran had just emerged from a devastating eight-year war with Iraq. With Ali Khamenei now Supreme Leader, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, his successor as president, tried to focus on reconstruction. The Iranian state also desperately needed to refill its post-war coffers by boosting oil exports and in order to achieve this, it needed a modicum of regional stability.
Some analysists refer to this interval as Iran’s “period of isolation by choice”. But even during this period, the Islamic Republic and the US had contact over the release of American hostages in Lebanon. It is reported that Rafsanjani himself played a role in securing the release of these hostages in 1991.
This collaboration, understandably, did little to dispel the tensions between the two countries. And five years later in 1996, toward the end of Rafsanjani’s presidency, a terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia killed 19 US Air Force servicemen and injured hundreds more. The US accused Iran of supporting the attackers, and of orchestrating the attack.
Khatami’s Administration and Missed Opportunities: With the election of the reformist Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997, many in the West were hopeful that relations between the Islamic Republic and the United States would soon start to change for the better. But Khamenei’s deep-seated hostility toward the US was deep-seated and put a stop to any meaningful change. Khamenei blocked any avenue for rapprochement between the two countries through official challenge, and even warned President Khatami against holding any form of meeting with President Clinton during a session of the UN General Assembly in New York.
In 1998, during Khatami’s presidency, a US wrestling team visited Iran for the first time since the 1979 revolution and the US flag was accordingly displayed in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. But this softer “sports diplomacy” led nowhere. Later Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine, K. Albright, acknowledged the key American pivotal role in the 1953 coup d’état that brought down the nationalist government of Premier Mosaddegh, and stated publicly that the coup had been a setback for Iran’s political development. Rather than accepting the olive branch, the Islamic Republic demanded reparations.
When the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Iran cooperated with these world powers to a limited degree. But this stopped short after President George W. Bush delivered his infamous “Axis of Evil” speech, lumping together Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
The Marathon of Nuclear Negotiations
During the second term of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency from 2001-2005, Iran’s nuclear program emerged as the locus of confrontation between the Islamic Republic and the US. Initially Iran chose to bypass the US entirely, negotiating instead with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a few European countries. These talks, however, went nowhere and both the IAEA’s board of governors and the UN Security Council passed several resolutions against Iran.
In his book “Mr. Ambassador”, explaining Iran’s ultimate decision to negotiate directly with the US, current foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif writes the country was left with no choice because the US was a permanent member of the Security Council and had the power of veto. Then in November 2008, Barack Obama was elected US President. Throughout his campaign Obama had called for direct talks with Iran to solve the nuclear problem, declaring that the US would “extend its hand” towards Iran if the latter “unclenched its fist”.
Exchange of Letters: After Obama assumed the US presidency, a series of letters were exchanged between him and Khamenei. In his book “The Back Channel”, William Burns, US Deputy Secretary of State under President Obama, writes that this correspondence between Obama and Khamenei laid the foundations for direct talks between the two countries.
In those years, of course, Khamenei never stopped attacking the US in his public speeches and pronouncements. Following the disputed 2009 presidential election in Iran, when the US denounced the regime’s violent suppression of Iranian civilian protesters, Khamenei launched a scathing criticism of Obama in which he declared: “Underneath that American kid glove there lies an iron fist.”
Negotiations in Oman: Even these words of defiance did not mean that Khamenei was rejecting the prospect of negotiations with the US out of hand. There seemed, during this period, to be a tacit recognition that things could not continue the way they were.
In the last two years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term as presient, Iran and the US entered into secret negotiations in Oman. According to Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization and a former foreign minister, Khamenei had personally approved these negotiations even though Ahmadinejad opposed the talks.
Rouhani and the 15-Minute Phone Call: The nuclear talks continued apace after 2013, when Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran. During Rouhani’s first year in office a historic event took place: for the first time, the President of the Islamic Republic and the American premier had a person-to-person conversation on the phone.
The landmark phone call in September 2013 reportedly came about because Rouhani and those officials who accompanied him to the UN General Assembly in New York had let the White House know that they were interested. During the conversation, both presidents emphasized that they were determined to move forward with the nuclear negotiations. In response, Khamenei sharply distanced himself from Rouhani and in a speech, said the discussion had been “inappropriate”.
Nevertheless, the talks continued for two years at the level of foreign ministers. The result was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA, commonly known as the nuclear accords). Iran accepted restrictions on its nuclear program and, in exchange, the US pledged to first suspend all nuclear sanctions against Iran, then to gradually repeal them.
But the agreement was to be short-lived. In his second year in office, President Donald Trump unilaterally withdraw the US from the JCPOA and reimposed all the previous sanctions. In response, Iran announced that as long as the US did not rejoin the JCPOA it would not enter into any negotiations with the Americans over its nuclear program. But despite Khamenei’s fiery rhetoric about the American “bad faith” regarding the accords, Iran has never completely closed the door to negotiations with the US.
The US government has also made sporadic noises about a new agreement. It seems both governments know well that communication channels between the two countries must not be fully closed, even if, as Zarif claims, Iran and the US are not presently talking to each other at any level.
The Munich Discussion: In February 2020 it was reported that US Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, had secretly met with the Iranian foreign minister Zarif when both were in Germany to attend the Munich Security Conference. At first, the US State Department denied any knowledge of the meeting. After it was confirmed, the Republican Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters: “If they met, I don’t know what they said. I hope they were reinforcing America’s foreign policy, not their own.”
After Donald Trump speculated that Murphy might have violated the Logan Act, a US law that bars private individuals from conducting official diplomacy, Sen. Murphy defended the meeting. “For years, I have met on occasion with Javad Zarif, during both the Obama and Trump administrations,” he wrote in notes about the trip that he subsequently released to the press. “I have no delusions about Iran. They are our adversary, responsible for the killing of thousands of Americans and [for] unacceptable levels of support for terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East. But I think it’s dangerous to not talk to your enemies.”
Murphy went on to criticize Trump’s policy towards Iran, writing that it had been a “total disaster”. “His policy is just making Iran stronger and more menacing in the region,” Murphy asserted, “and I wish he could have the guts to see what is right in front of his eyes – blind escalation, with no diplomatic pathway, isn’t working.”
Murphy also said that he had wanted to meet with Zarif for several reasons, including to “gauge whether he thinks the reprisals for the Soleimani assassination are over” – referring to the assassination of General Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force, who was killed by an American drone outside Baghdad Airport in January. In this vein, Murphy added that he had warned Zarif that any attack on American forces in Iraq by groups linked to Iran would be an “unacceptable” provocation.
After the meeting was revealed by the American media, the Iranian Foreign Ministry confirmed the news as well and explained the meeting as part of “general diplomacy that includes meetings with the elite, think tanks and the press.” Zarif went further, declaring that his meeting with Sen. Murphy had spooked the Trump administration because it was an opportunity to talk directly to “the American nation.” “Trump and Pompeo are afraid of a senator hearing the facts,” he said.
Relations as they Stand: The tension between Tehran and Washington is presently at its highest point in recent memory . The Iranian economy is disintegrating after 10 years of US sanctions and as a result of the Trump administration’s campaign of “maximum pressure”. But the US also knows that geopolitically, Iran is an important country in the Middle East, and a serious clash with the Islamic Republic – no matter the outcome – would result in a crisis that could engulf the entire region. For this reason, the two sides have always tried to control the level of confrontation and have stopped short of advancing to the point of no return. After the assassination of General Soleimani, both sides avoided an unbridled conflict over this action, and both sides still talk about negotiations. The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, it seems, lacks the audacity either for war or for peace.