By Sergei Barseghian
In 2004, I asked Hassan Rouhani, then the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, whose victory in the US presidential election would benefit Iran in the US presidential race: the Democrat or the Republican candidate? Rouhani’s response was that Iran has seen more mischief under the Democrats. Later, he complemented his response in an interview with Iran’s state TV where he said: “We do not prefer the Democrats to win. Historically, Democrats have caused more harm to Iran than the Republicans. In the Bush era, in spite of harsh baseless slogans against Iran, he never actually took any perilous measure against Iran.” George Bush’s rival in the 2004 presidential race was John Kerry, the same Secretary of State whom Rouhani has seen among the undersigned in the nuclear deal.
Months earlier, George Bush had signaled that he was ready to resolve all differences with Iran holus-bolus. Mohamed ElBaradei, former IAEA director-general, delivered the message to Rouhani in a visit on April 06, 2004, saying on behalf of Bush that he wanted leader-to-leader talks not only on the nuclear issue, but also on pretty much everything else. In his memoir, ElBaradei recalls that in a later meeting with Bush in Washington, he had brought with him a written message from Hassan Rouhani, on behalf of the Iranian regime, saying that Iran was ready to enter into dialogue with the United States on all issues, including both Iran’s nuclear program and broader matters of regional security. “The message was on a single sheet of paper, without a letterhead or signature, as it had been delivered to me. I handed the note to Bush, explaining its origin, and told him how important I felt it was for the United States to initiate a dialogue with Iran”.
“I’d like to talk leader to leader,” Bush responded, “but I’m not sure that Iran’s leader is ready to engage.” He was referring to Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. “I think he is bent on the destruction of Israel.”
On one of ElBaradei’s Washington visits, after the Board of Governors’ meeting in June 2004, Condoleezza Rice, national security advisor in Bush’s first administration, Board of Governors summit in June 2004.
Two years later, the Democrats won the Congress election and I once again asked Hassan Rouhani, then an Assembly of Experts candidate, in an exclusive interview with Etemad Melli newspaper, his opinion. “I do not believe that a Democrats’ win in the US could be in our interest. On the recent US presidential race, I said the Democrats are more detrimental than the Republicans, because more US sanctions against Iran have been adopted under the Democrats but no new sanctions has been imposed on us in the Bush administration. The Democrats have a softer, more legal-oriented tone compared with the Republicans. The Republicans are quicker to resort to military options, but the Democrats hesitate more. Even if the Democrats win in the US, the possibility of military threats will not be ruled out. Political and economic pressures will increase because of more coordination between Europe and the US,” he replied.
Ten years later, Rouhani branded the US presidential race as a choice for the lesser of two evils. As on one side stood a pro-JCPOA Democrat and on the other was a Republican con, an optimistic guess is he meant Hillary Clinton by lesser.
Ayatollah Khamenei was the only world leader who, at the peak of polls seeing Clinton as the victor, found Trump more welcome. “The one more outspoken was more welcomed by people,” he said, speaking of the US presidential candidates. By saying after the US election that “we are neither bemoaning nor celebrating because the results make no difference to us,” he actually endorsed what the Chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani had told Arman daily two days earlier. “The two parties are not different for us. They are both following US policies. Ms. Clinton also had differences with Obama over the nuclear deal and thought there were too many concessions. After all, they will do as they want. We are not much concerned. Of course, it sounds, from what occurred during the campaigns, that Trump is a dangerous figure, not abiding by principles.”
Four years earlier, Iran Foreign Ministry spokesperson had stated that it made no difference who took office in the US, new or known, in what seemed a carbon copy of what the Shah’s Foreign Minister Ardeshir Zahedi has said forty years ago: “We had nothing to do with US parties under Truman, then Eisenhower, followed by Johnson, Kennedy, Nixon and Ford. It made no difference for us if the president-elect was a Democrat or a Republican. We engaged with a government named the United States of America.”
Nevertheless, does the historical tendency of Iranians confirm those claims? Has Iran’s taste for Republicans changed? History denies. While heading Iran’s diplomatic mission in the US, Ardeshir Zahedi himself had twice gambled on a Republican win, and lost both. The first was when he poured down the Iranian embassy’s money into the Republican camp, in the hope that winning comes the candidate, whose office hosted 1953 Iranian coup d’état meetings, and was the first American guest during the prime ministry of his father Fazlollah Zahedi. Richard Nixon lost, only to keep his chances for eight years later, when he became the President. However, just like the popular candidate and later the assassinated president, Nixon could not hold office in his second term and resigned after the Watergate scandal. Ardeshir Zahedi had intimate ties with Nixon. Nixon was the greatest of the six US presidents he had known, Zahedi said after his death. It was under Nixon that Iran was called the “gendarme of the Persian Gulf”.
The Republican slant on the part of Shah and his son-in-law, Zahedi, did not please Kennedy and he discharged Iran’s ambassador as soon as he took office. In 1961, after two years residing in the US, Zahedi returned home to a Tehran whose Prime Minister was Ali Amini, former Iran ambassador to Washington, rumored to be chosen by Shah under pressure from Kennedy. The Pahlavis’ evidence was a dinner shared by the two, their wives, and a journalist during which Kennedy had sought Amini’s opinion on the Eisenhower doctrine. Amini never saw Kennedy again until he returned to Iran. However, Shah never changed his mind that Amini was imposed on him by Kennedy, until 1979.
Carter, a copy of Kennedy
The next year, when Shah sent Zahedi back to the Iranian embassy in Washington, he once again donated $120 m in aid to Nixon’s vice lest a second Kennedy could rise. “If Carter becomes president he will probably adopt a policy like Kennedy’s, so we’d rather have Gerald Ford win,” he had secretly informed Royal Court Minister Asadollah Alam. To the latter too, Jimmy Carter was an “inexperienced foal just like Kennedy”. Shah lost the second bet too and the Americans voted for the man commonly called in Shah’s court as an “inexperienced peasant”, “peanut duffer” “more populists than Mosaddegh”. Alam’s “these foals should be tied in a stable”, gives one the gist of Iran’s idea of the Carter administration.
The wave of Carter’s presidency reached even reached Iran’s prisons. As a political prisoner, Ghassem Sarhaddizadeh says SAVAK stopped its tortures and even provided the prisoners with the luxury of metal forks and spoons when Carter took office. Prisoners could even watch TV and have newspapers every day.
The message Washington Post renowned journalist Joseph Kraft brought in to Shah repeated Kennedy’s demand: “Iran’s ambassador in Washington should be dismissed. He is openly a support of the previous [US] administration and has made the embassy look almost like a Playboy club”. Nonetheless, Zahedi remained in Washington until January 1979.
A great consensus on Reagan
The desire to help Republicans rise to office proved abortive despite efforts made by the Iranian embassy in Washington, but was realized three years later when the US embassy in Tehran was stormed. It was curious for Cater that the fate of the super power’s presidential race was decided not in Chicago or New York, but in Tehran. Der Spiegel wrote of era long gone when the US could decide who was in power in Iran. In 1980, an Ayatollah in Tehran could determine the fate of US presidential race instead.
The curious thing for Carter was that Ayatollah Khomeini reproached him for backing the Shah while Shah himself saw Carter responsible for his ouster. “Carter’s was the same as Muawiyah’s logic,” said Iran’s first supreme leader, referring to a Sunni caliph, notoriously hated in Shiite Islam. As Hamilton Jordan, White House Chief of Staff under Carter put it, the key to the US presidential race was in the hand of those across the world whose decisions and actions could not be predicted until the last minute.
It was only days before the US presidential election in 1980 that Iran announced four conditions for the release of embassy hostages: return of Shah’s assets, commitment to stop intervention in Iran’s affairs, release of Iran’s assets in the US, and withdrawal of US’ anti-Iran claims. The then State Secretary Edmund Muskie hastily agreed with the second provision: Washington recognized Iran’s independence. However, Americans proceeded with caution vis-à-vis the other three conditions. Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, spiritual leader of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, occupiers of the US embassy, said the hostages could fly home on the eve of the US presidential election, if the US agreed with the conditions. The flight did not happen then, but on January 20, 1981, just as transition from Carter to the Republican Reagan was taking place. If the hostages will be released before the election, he would not be surprised since Iranian could well prefer Carter to him, Reagan had commented earlier. The revolutionaries in Iran preferred the opposite choice however, so much so that Gary Sick, Brzezinski’s assistant in the U.S. National Security Council, wrote the Iranians had deliberately postponed the release in order to pave the way for Carter’s defeat. In his book, October Surprise, Sick writes of an agreement between Iranians and Reagan to protract the issue. The claim found evidence in remarks and positions demonstrated in Tehran: “We are in no hurry to release the hostages,” or “we do not intend to help Jimmy Carter in his campaign”.
The revolutionaries were not much univocal, either. Masoumeh [formerly Niloufar] Ebtekar, one of the occupiers now head of Iran’s Department of Environment, has her own account.
“Iran’s incumbent president Abolhassan Banisadr had reiterated in cabinet meetings that he preferred Democrats to remain in power … whereas most Iranian elites and officials disagreed. Basically, both American parties were seen as steadfast secular capitalists on a national level and imperialists on an international one … we were convinced that Banisadr was actively trying to make deals with those around Carter while another group perhaps preferred to play Reagan cards.”
The lawmakers, authorized by the founder of the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini to decide the fate of the hostages, were divided too. A group believed that if they did not help the Democrats and Carter, the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan who had radical stances would win and it was necessary to prevent his rise to power. On the other hand, a group of the MPs, often the younger generation, feverishly disagreed with any push for Carter’s reelection, being on the belief that there was no difference between Democrats and Republicans in their confrontation with the Islamic Revolution.
The issue was brought to a closed parliamentary session. Ebrahim Yazdi, Kazem Sami, Ahmad Sadr Haj Seyyed Javadi, Hashem Sabbaghian, Mohammad-Ali Hadi Najafabadi, and even Mohammad Montazeri and Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani believed that an urgent final vote for the Algeria Accords (between Tehran and Washington) was needed to prevent Reagan’s presidency. Young opponent MP Manouchehr Mottaki, later Iran’s Foreign Minister under Ahmadinejad went behind the lectern, expressing pleasure that for the first time in history of the US election, Iran could influence the results. Drawing on the Supreme Leader’s remarks, that Carter was a bad president for the United States, he started addressing his colleagues:
“Imam [Khomeini] also said that Carter should consider a job other than presidency. Dear representatives! These remarks are clear. Mr. Carter should not be elected and this does not mean someone else has been endorsed. Mr. Carter’s policy on the Islamic Revolution must be defeated.”
On Thursday, November 06, 1980, the last parliamentary session before the US election was supposed to pass the Algeria statement, 27 young parliamentarians made an obstruction for the first time. The parliament lost majority and the investigation of the Algeria Accords was postponed to the next week, which was too late as Reagan was elected. The key to the White House remained with Republicans for 12 years, eight years with Reagan and four years with his vice George H. W. Bush, until arrival of the Democrat Bill Clinton.
Iran’s first official response after Clinton’s presidency came from Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati. “In the history of the Islamic Revolution, we have seen the ruling of Democrats and Republicans over America and there has been no substantial difference in their policies toward Iran. At any rate, Iran does not want a resumption of ties with the US,” he said. The gist of the Iranian traditional rights’ opinion on the victory of the Democrat candidate had been revealed a few days earlier in Resalat daily’s editorial, penned by Mohammad Sarafraz who later became the director of Iran’s state broadcasting, IRIB.
“Clinton, the new US president, owes his victory to the Zionists and the country’s mainstream decision-making authorities. Instead of leading the world, he wishes to lead America … Democrats are more inclined toward indirect intervention in other countries’ affairs, more so using human rights as a pretext. It means we should expect US’ policeman behavior to go on decline but that does not signify an end to its interventions in other countries.”
A secret channel for reconciliation between Iran and the US was blocked with Clinton’s presidency. August 02, 1992, Hossein Mousavian, Iran’s ambassador to Bonn, informed sitting president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s interestedness to mediate between Iran and the US. Twenty days later, Rafsanjani announced Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s negative response due to suspicion towards US’ intentions. Five days later, Mousavian was informed through German Vice-Chancellor Bernard Schmidbauer of President Bush’s efforts to improve relations with Iran. Two months later, Bush lost the election. And two months after Clinton’s inauguration Mousavian heard from Schmidbauer the US was not prepared for Iran’s peacemaking initiatives. The new US president had asked Kohl to cease ties with Iran. President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani corresponded through his brother Mohammad Hashemi with German Chancellor on September 10, 1993, once again suggesting an end to two decades of hostility between Iran and the US. ‘I will speak willfully with President Clinton again. I neither represent nor advocate you nor the United States, but will give the message to Washington and European leaders. I told Washington quite clearly that tension between Iran and the United States should be reduced,’ Kohl promised. ‘Why should not the US be prepared while Iran is?’
Three months later however, Director General of the Office of the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Rudolf Dolzer informed Iran of US’ reluctance to cooperate with Germany over détente with Iran, calling Iran’s failure to recognize Israel as the main obstacle for the reconciliation.
Bush the junior
In the competition between Clinton’s VP Al Gore and George W. Bush, there was much hope in Tehran that oil-hungry Republicans’ win could soothe the sanctions imposed during the Democrats’ tenure. Iran’s first official response to Bush’s victory came from Iran’s foreign ministry Kamal Kharazi. “In recent years, nothing has changed in the relations between Iran and the US. Improvements in the relations between Iran and the US depends on the new US president and his willingness for mutual ties”. As Mousavian puts it, a common belief in Iran was that they would experience another pragmatist called Bush and there was a possibility for détente in his presidential time. At the time, Reformists who pursued relations with the US dominated Iran’s parliament and executive branch. However, neither Iran’s expression of grief for 9/11 terrorist attacks nor its collaboration with the US to defeat Taliban, did not prevent Bush from incorporating it in the notorious Axis of Evil. Bush the son put the last nail in the coffin of US-Iran relations, as Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said. Khatami told the diplomat Hossein Mousavian that any improvement in relations was off the agenda, at least during his tenure.
In the 2004 presidential race, John Kerry challenged Bush’s reelection. With Rouhani’s response to the question I asked during a presser, Associated Press had come to the conclusion that the Islamic Republic was backing George Bush. Even Kerry’s proposition that Iran could have its nuclear fuel cycle was not much welcome in Tehran on the grounds that it was ‘part of US’ presidential campaigns’. In his first debate with his Republican rival, Kerry accused Bush of having no strategy on Iran, failing to curb the country’s nuclear activities through diplomacy or sanctions. He called the Europeans’ engagement in nuclear talks with Iran as a sign of US’ weak diplomacy. “In order for the sanctions to be effective, we should have been working with the British, French and Germans and other countries. And that’s the difference between the president and me,” Kerry said. Kerry’s idea to join nuclear talks with Iran was realized 9 years later, where he negotiated and made a deal with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif as Barack Obama’s State Secretary.
Iran’s ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could not wait for end of the race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain in 2008 to make his prediction. “I find it unlikely that the apparatus behind the White House let Obama to step in,” he predicted. He later explained: “I did not support Obama, I just announced a piece of news that they will not allow Obama’s presidency. We have intelligence from within the US that they will not let him become President even if everyone voted [for him]”. His prediction was wrong but he congratulated Obama in an unprecedented move. “I congratulate you on having gained the majority of the votes of those who took part in the election,” he wrote. Even more surprising than the letter itself was the elaboration that came from Ahmadinejad’s advisor Hamid Mowlana:
“Mr. Ahmadinejad has sent a letter to a man elected by the people of America, not the American President. It is important and the difference between the two should be clarified for the people so that they do not think Iran’s president has sent the US president a letter of congratulation. [Iranian] People may think a man elected by [American] people is considered the president the day after the election but they should know that Obama has seventy days to go before he becomes the president and the situation will be different then,” he explained.
Ahmadinejad’s letter remained unanswered. Obama, instead, wrote to the Supreme Leader almost a month before Iran’s 2009 presidential election, asking him to help Washington start a new chapter in Iran-US relations. The letter went public during the Supreme Leader’s July 20 Tehran Friday prayers sermon following demonstrations against the presidential elections in Iran. “The US president was quoted as saying that they were waiting for the day [Iranian] people would pour into the streets. On the other hand, they write letters, expressing interest in relations, showing respect for the Islamic Republic. Which one should we believe?”
Ahmadinejad administration once again activated the German channel a year before Obama’s first term would end. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s bureau chief, asked Chancellor Angela Merkel’s advisor on foreign and political security affairs Christopher Huesgen to inform Washington of Iran’s readiness to resume ties with the US. Mashaei had even said Iran was ready to help Obama’s reelection. In response, Americans advised the Germans to avoid engagement in the issue.
Iran’s official stance was that it made no difference for Iran if Obama remained or Republican Mitt Romney replaced him in the Oval Office. “In the short run, Obama’s presidency is better for Iran because he will not threaten to start a war but in the long run, Romney could act in the interest of Iran,” said hardliner Ansar Hezbollah’s Hossein Allah-Karam.
Kayhan daily that had announced Obama’s reelection in 2012 with the headline “Mr. Change”, branded Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton the “Victory of a Madman over a Liar”. In his editorial, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Hossein Shariatmadari asked Trump to rid Iran of the nuclear agreement, the JCPOA, but predicted that he will be wiser than that to tear down a document completely prepared in the interest of the United State.
At the back of Iranians’ minds lies a hypothesis that the Democrats are better able to make a global consensus against Iran and major sanctions have been imposed under their terms in office. However, both US presidents who extended a hand of friendship toward Iran after the revolution were Democrats. Khatami refused to face Bill Clinton and shake hands with him on the sidelines of the 1999 UN General Assembly; his bodyguard had to do this instead, but Obama’s hand remained extended for such a long time that it finally shook the hands of Mohammad-Javad Zarif on the sidelines of a UN General Assembly.
* This piece was originally published on Tarikh-e Irani [Iranian History], our sister website.
Source: Iranian Diplomacy