Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Iran nuclear deal has vindicated the narrative of Tehran’s hardliners in the eyes of many in Iran: All along, the hardliners have argued that the United States is inherently opposed to Iran, and that Iran’s actions and policies do not affect this reality. Whether Iran escalates (as it did under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) or compromises (as it did under Hassan Rouhani), they argue, hostility will guide Washington’s actions toward Tehran. These hardliners warned against signing the nuclear deal, saying the US was destined to break the agreement, and now their prediction has come true.
Like all narratives, it is neither entirely true, nor entirely false. While there are many examples of the US reaching out to Iran in order to reduce tensions, there are also many examples of the United States betraying implicit or explicit agreements with Iran, sending the already tortured relationship into even deeper enmity and mistrust. Trump’s killing of the nuclear deal is just the latest one.
The Conoco Affair
In the early 1990s, Iran faced a stark reality: The Iranian revolution was a failure. Rather than becoming a leader of the “Islamic world,” Tehran was isolated, marginalized and economically weak. Its effort to export the revolution was an abysmal failure: Not a single country in the Middle East had followed Iran in establishing an Islamic Republic. So it changed its approach. Instead of exporting its revolution by pursuing regime change, it would now instead make Iran itself such a success so that other countries would seek to emulate the Iranian model.
But to be successful, Iran needed access to technology and financing — both of which necessitated improved relations with the West in general and the United States in particular. To open up to Washington, Tehran decided to give the first post-revolutionary oil contract that it would offer a foreign company to an American oil giant: Conoco. A political rapprochement could be achieved if there first existed an area of common economic interest, according to the calculations of Iran’s then-president, Hashemi Rafsanjani.
On March 6, 1995, after several months of negotiations, Conoco and Iran triumphantly announced they had a deal. To ensure the blessing of the White House, Conoco had kept the US government closely informed of its negotiations. The State Department had repeatedly reassured Conoco that the White House would approve the deal.
But Washington betrayed both Tehran and Conoco. Pressured by Congress, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobbying group and Israel, President Bill Clinton swiftly scrapped the deal by issuing two executive orders that outlawed all trade with Iran. Clinton announced the decision on April 30, 1995, in a speech before the World Jewish Congress in what at the time was described as “a major demonstration of support for Israel.”
Tehran was shocked. Washington had betrayed its word. Despite reassurances from the State Department that the deal had the Clinton administration’s political backing, Clinton succumbed to pressure from AIPAC and Israel. What was supposed to be an Iranian olive branch to the US to expand trade and economic cooperation ended up becoming an Iranian humiliation in which Washington eliminated all trade with Iran.
The “Axis of Evil”
From Tehran’s perspective, the September 11 terrorist attacks were a reminder to Washington that Iran and the US shared many common interests. Iran had been fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan for nearly a decade by providing both military and financial support to the Northern Alliance. And now Washington was turning to the Northern Alliance to exact its revenge on al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts.
Tehran decided to demonstrate its strategic utility by offering Washington its assistance in defeating the Taliban. The Iranian government offered its air bases to the United States and offered to perform search-and-rescue missions for downed American pilots. Iranian officials also served as a bridge between the Northern Alliance and the United States in the fight against the Taliban, and on occasion they even used US information to find and kill fleeing al-Qaeda leaders.
But Iran’s most crucial assistance was not to win the war, but to win the peace. After the defeat of the Taliban, the US and Iran coordinated closely to support Afghanistan to establish a new constitution. In December 2001, the US, Iran and the Afghan parties gathered in Bonn, Germany, to decide on a plan for governing Afghanistan.
The United States and Iran had carefully laid the groundwork for the conference weeks in advance. Iran’s political clout with the various warring Afghan groups proved to be crucial. It was Iran’s influence over the Afghans and not US threats and promises that moved the negotiations forward.
By the last night of the conference, an interim constitution had been agreed upon and all other issues had been resolved except the toughest one — who was to govern Afghanistan? The Northern Alliance insisted that, as the winner of the war, the spoils should be theirs. Though they represented about 40 percent of the country, they wanted to occupy 18 of the 24 ministries. Around 2:00 am, the US delegation gathered the various parties to resolve this final sticking point.
For two hours the different delegations took turns trying to convince Yunus Qanooni, the representative of the Northern Alliance, to accept a lower number of ministries, but to no avail. Finally, the Iranian lead negotiator Javad Zarif took the Afghan delegate aside and began whispering to him in Persian. A few minutes later, they returned to the table and the Afghan delegate conceded. “OK, I give up,” he said. “The other factions can have two more ministries.” This was a critical turning point, because the efforts by other states to convince Qanooni had all failed. “It wasn’t until Zarif took him aside that it was settled,” the US representative, Ambassador James Dobbins admitted in retrospect. The next morning, the historic Bonn agreement was signed.
For the Iranians, this was a moment of triumph. Not only had a major enemy of Iran been defeated, but Iran had also demonstrated how it could help stabilize the region and how Washington could benefit from a better relationship with Tehran.
But the joyous mood in Tehran quickly turned sour. On January 29, 2002, President George W. Bush lumped Iran together with Iraq and North Korea, describing all three as dangerous and threatening states that formed an “Axis of Evil.” Once again, Iran had been punished rather than rewarded for reaching out and collaborating with the United States. The Iranian hardliners’ skepticism about the US government’s trustworthiness appeared to have been proven right. The “Axis of Evil” declaration “was a fiasco for the Khatami government,” Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at Hawaii University, commented. “That was used by the hardliners, who said: If you give in, if you help from a position of weakness, then you get negative results.”
Today, these same hardliners will likely repeat those exact words. Thus, rather than responding to Trump’s renewed pressure on Iran following the killing of the nuclear deal by returning to the negotiating table, Tehran is more likely to counter-escalate and try to amass leverage against the United States either by re-expanding its nuclear program or by advancing its regional position.
After all, in the hardliners’ narrative, the United States has taught Iran that escalation and strength are the only way Tehran can successfully deal with Washington’s “inherent hostility.”