On June 5, 2014 Bill Hutchinson wrote a piece in the New York Daily News – entitled, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, says ‘military attack is not a priority for Americans now’ – where he discusses Khamenei’s reaction to President Barack Obama’s West Point commencement speech on May 28, 2014; specifically, Obama’s statements that, in the past, America has rushed into military adventures without fully calculating all the variables and “every global threat does not justify a US military response”. Hutchinson points out that this type of rhetoric by Obama is providing Khamenei an arsenal to strengthen the Islamic Republic’s stance on a number of issues, specifically its nuclear program, because Khamenei does not believe Obama will use military force against Iran. Given the warranted concern expressed by Hutchinson, there are two arguments this paper will attempt to make in order to contextualize the speeches of both President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei that the former should not be seen as a sign of weakness and the latter should not be seen as a sign of defiance.
The era in which the United States was able to display its dominance throughout the world primarily through an array of military exercises is coming to end – especially after the “Arab Spring”, WikiLeaks, drone strikes in Pakistan, the Iraq and Afghanistan War, and the 2012 Benghazi attack. For example, most of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia (and perhaps other parts of the world as well) views Washington as a government who supported dictators, compromised on democracy, and imposed its own agenda for the betterment of American interests, and because of this, many within the international community are seeing America in a bad light. Furthermore, military campaigns of any nature is a labyrinth of multi-tier chess boards where one move leads to an inordinate number of subsequent moves that are only revealed after the first move is made (case in point the Iraq War). Therefore, the excerpts from President Obama’s West Point commencement speech where he discusses America’s use of its military is not a unyielding, unconditional declaration that the United States has become passive or submissive. Rather, it is a realization that there are other ways to solve international problems and display strength then just through one’s military. In the same breath, however, the military option is and always will be a part of any White House situation room discussion.
Khamenei’s rhetoric towards America and specifically the President of the United States is not a novice discovery recently revealed in light of President Obama’s West Point commencement speech. For decades Tehran has prescribed to a zero sum strategy when it comes to foreign policy decisions vis-a-vis Washington. Moreover, for the twenty-five years Khamenei has been the Supreme Leader of Iran he has indoctrinated this anti-America position even when he knew it was antithetical to Iran’s best interest. Unfortunately, the monster that was created out of this discourse has been the legion of followers of the Islamic Republic whose support is accompanied by an influential and powerful participation in how Iran’s foreign, and perhaps more importantly its domestic, affairs are handled. Thus, when arguing that Khamenei is predicating that “America cannot do a damn thing” he is simply appeasing his constituents and cronies not only to uphold his reputation but also to maintain his influence within Tehran’s political arena. One thing to keep in mind is that with over thirty years of anti-American rhetoric, it is impossible – and political suicide – for Khamenei to change his tone. But with his willingness to allow Rouhani’s team to try to reach an agreement on its nuclear program is a clear sign that Tehran’s anti-American stance is not a canonized policy. Furthermore, Iran’s willingness to negotiate on its nuclear program has also been a result of the domestic challenges facing the regime ever since the 2009 disputed presidential elections. Juxtaposing this with Khamenei’s speech shows a dichotomy where on the one hand the Supreme Leader states that America is weak, but on the other hand Khamenei is allowing his government to negotiate (and at times speak directly to the Washington) on a potential nuclear deal. And regardless of President Rouhani’s position – officially or unofficially – within the Islamic Republic he and his nuclear negotiating team are moving at a pace set by Khamenei.
Therefore, it is ill advised to suggest that because of President Obama’s message on America’s military that Khamenei is and/or will take a tougher stance during the nuclear negotiations or any other foreign policy decision. Similar to military campaigns, foreign policy decisions are also a labyrinth of multi-tier chess boards and there are far too many variables in this equation to merely simplify this as a two state discord. For example, if Khamenei were to base his decision on Obama’s speech and believe that Washington will not use military force then Tehran runs the risk of further isolation from the world community; Saudi Arabia may increase its pursuit of a nuclear weapon and/or power plant which may begin a nuclear arms race in the Middle East; Israel may seriously consider bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities; further sanctions will be imposed on Iran thus increasing domestic unrest and a potential for protests, riots, boycotts, and the like; America may attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and so on. These scenarios are real possibilities that Tehran regularly considers upon any policy decision that is made.
On a personal note, I have been following Iran’s State ran news network over the past eight years, I briefly lived in Iran prior to that, and I have had countless conversations with many Iranians inside (and those who have recently left) the country and all of these experiences points to the fact that Khamenei’s speech in response to President Obama’s is nothing new. Khamenei and the Islamic Republic of Iran have maintained this rhetoric for decades and they capitalize on opportune moments such as Obama’s West Point commencement speech to remind the world that they are not and will not be subordinate to Washington.
In conclusion, neither President Obama is suggesting that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is off the table nor is Ayatollah Khamenei suggesting that Tehran will do whatever it wants because they do not fear Washington. International relations and world politics is never black and white, all or nothing. With the number of high level, top secret negotiations occurring behind the scenes, the majority of the critics and analyst do not fully understand the details of these country’s conversations and therefore are left to make conclusions based off of speeches and press releases. But if we are able to step back and examine the overall picture it is relatively clear that the words of these two men are only minor pieces of a very complex puzzle.