US vs. Iran: A tale of two mindsets
President Trump’s frustrating efforts to engage with Iran’s leadership are understandable and explainable. The President’s negotiating strategies are anchored to economic and business calculations, and personal relationships. To a businessman turned politician, economic sanctions deliver maximum leverage because they threaten the target country’s most valuable asset, it’s economy.
By contrast, Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors, who’ve lead Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, have consistently espoused and acted on values anchored to their deeply held beliefs and worldview. Khomeini labeled the United States the Great Satan and lead chants of Death to America during Friday Prayers. He never wavered in his opposition to America’s presence, influence, and alliances in the region. Economic factors were secondary to ideological considerations.
Khomeini’s beliefs and policies were tested shortly after coming to power when Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army invaded Iran. The Iranian military had been largely equipped and trained by the United States, which supplied and maintained its advance weapon systems. These included the Iranian Air Force’s 80 F-14 fighters and 270 sophisticated Phoenix missiles. The US Navy disabled the missiles in the early days of Khomeini’s government, while lack of parts and the loss of trained pilots quickly degraded Iran’s air force. Most governments engaged in a brutal war with a neighboring tyrant would have sought an accommodation with the US to keep their military equipment functioning. Khomeini never did.
The first American sanctions on Iran were imposed in 1979 after radical students took over the US embassy in Teheran. Iran remained under American sanctions for thirty-eight of the next forty years. The US also promoted and supported sanctions by the United Nations after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) raised concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. They went into effect in 2006 and continued until 2015. Recurring economic sanctions weakened the Iranian economy for decades but failed to change Iran’s behavior across the region.
Sanctions relief came in 2015 after years of negotiations between Iran and the UN’s five permanent Security Council members (China, France, Russia, UK, and the United States) and Germany. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) removed UN sanctions in return for verifiable Iranian cooperation and compliance with IAEA demands. The deal included an agreement that released billions of Iranian dollars frozen in US banks since the 1979 US embassy takeover.
The Obama Administration initially hoped that the JCPOA would improve relations with Iran and open opportunities to work on areas of common interests. It was wishful thinking as Khamenei only offered lukewarm support for the agreement. Then, a week later after the deal was reached, he delivered a blistering anti-American speech to chants of “Death to America, where he asserted that US policies were “180 degrees” opposed to Iranian interests.
It’s against this history that President Trump pulled the US out of the JCPOA in May 2018 and re-imposed sanctions five months later. His administration threatened to punish foreign companies that continued doing business with Iran after a short grace period. This effectively forced international companies to choose between trading with the US or the Islamic Republic. Iranian oil exports quickly dropped by over 50% and most international companies ended their operations in Iran.
The President extended Iran an olive branch by offering to negotiate a new deal and promising quick sanctions relief once agreement was reached. Khamenei’s government rejected the offer and threatened to violate JCPOA Uranium production and enrichment limits unless Europe created alternative trade channels for its exports. It also began harassing and attacking ships in the Gulf. Negotiations with the Great Satan remained off the table.
The Iranian government’s 40-year pattern of decisions on relations with the United States is distinct from its dealings with other adversaries. Even Israel, the Little Satan, wasn’t shunned from the start. Khomeini’s government made a spectacle of closing the Israeli embassy and allowing the Palestinians to move into the site. Yet behind the scene, the Israelis maintained connections with his government and a presence in the country. Israeli technicians helped Iran maintain its planes during the war with Iraq, while American sanctions were in place. It was a marriage of convenience that didn’t last, but it demonstrated Iranian strategic flexibility.
Khomeini and Khamenei have not shown similar flexibility towards the United States. Their consistent policy of shunning and confronting the Great Satan over four decades suggests that they see the US as an existential threat to their Islamic Republic. This threat, as defined by Supreme Leader Khamenei and his fellow Ayatollahs, is not primarily military. It centers instead on the “negative effects of Western secular influences on Islamic principles and Iranian culture… Their views put in context the epithet Great Satan… As noted Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis puts it, “Satan as depicted in the Qur’an is neither an imperialist nor an exploiter. He is a seducer, ‘the insidious tempter who whispers in the hearts of men’ (Qur’an CXIV, 4, 5)., ”
Iran’s ruling Ayatollahs understood the seductive power of Western technology and culture, and America’s historic role as its leading architect and proponent. They were also aware of America’s decades long cultural connections and influence on Iranian society. Their repression of Iranians displaying overt symbols of Western-American culture was a first step. It was followed by a concerted effort to attack western influences, while demonizing America as their source. For American political leaders like Presidents Obama and Trump, four decades should be long enough to reset the relationship. To Iran’s ruling religious authorities, their policy of shunning and confronting the Great Satan is open ended.
This dynamic helps explain why Khomeini and Khamenei rejected any rapprochement and cooperation with the US. The Great Satan is to be avoided, challenged, and confronted whenever and wherever possible. US culture and policies in their view are not just incompatible with Iranian interests; they are toxic to Iranian Islamic values and culture. As a result, the Trump administration’s policy of using economic pressure to force Iran to engage and negotiate is likely to fall short of expectations.
Khamenei’s thinking is reflected in his insistence that the US remove all sanctions as a precondition to new talks. It’s the one negotiating tactic that can deliver economic benefits to the Islamic Republic without requiring actual engagement and close connections with the US. Unfortunately for Khamenei, President Trump is an experienced negotiator who’s unlikely to accept his terms, so the sanctions will likely continue for the foreseeable future. In the end, the Iranian government’s nuclear and regional ambitions may be stymied more by the sanctions’ impacts on its economy than a new agreement with the US.
General: This post is based in part on the research behind two books: Decision Making in a Nuclear Middle East: Lessons from the Cold War and Going Nuclear: The influence of history and hindsight on the Iranian Nuclear Negotiations. Both books are available through Amazon.
 Jack Anderson, Dale Van Atta, Iran’s useless Phoenix missiles, January 29, 1988, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/food/1988/01/20/irans-useless-phoenix-missiles/06c51a0b-1399-4d91-97e5-afcd7501f384/?utm_term=.13883acb2fba
 Zachary Laub, International sanctions on Iran, July 15, 2015, Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/international-sanctions-iran
 Six charts that show how hard US sanctions have hit Iran, May 2, 2019, BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-48119109
 Bozorgmehr Sharafedin Nouri, U.S. ‘disturbed’ by Iranian leader’s criticism after deal, July 21, 2015, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-nuclear/u-s-disturbed-by-iranian-leaders-criticism-after-deal-idUSKCN0PV1B320150721
 Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam (Random House Trade Paperback Edition, 2004), 81.
 Ozzie Paez, Decision Making in a Nuclear Middle East – Lessons from the Cold War (Decisions to Lead, 2016), 73.
 Ben Hubbard, Iran’s allies feel the pain of American sanctions, March 28, 2019, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/28/world/middleeast/iran-sanctions-arab-allies.html