Hence the Iranian leadership encourages outrage at what it interprets as Western attacks on Iran’s legacy. Tehran scuttled the George W. Bush administration’s efforts to establish a “red phone” hotline in the Persian Gulf, for example, after the State Department referred to the Persian Gulf as simply “the Gulf.” And whenever public discontent grows inside Iran, Iranian leaders embrace expansionist rhetoric. On July 9, 2007, for example, Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of a hard-line daily widely seen as the voice of the supreme leader, raised regional anxiety when he penned an editorial suggesting that the island nation of Bahrain — home to America’s Fifth Fleet — should return to Iranian control after almost five centuries of separation. Two decades after Arab leaders unwisely ignored Saddam Hussein’s description of Kuwait as Iraq’s 19th province, none are willing to shrug off Iran’s description of an independent Arab state as merely a renegade province.
The Iranian leadership interprets Iran’s conflict with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan through the lens of religious warfare as well as a perverse Persian-nationalist Monroe Doctrine. Hence the Tabnak News Agency, most closely affiliated with “pragmatist” former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, accuses the United States of seeking to transform Afghanistan into a “new Andalusia,” a reference to the expulsion of Muslims from Spain, by “converting the Afghans to Christianity . . . and corrupting the Afghans morally.”
While both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama extended olive branches to entice Iran to the table, the Iranian regime filters all American actions through Tehran’s deep-rooted sense that it is locked in a proxy war with the United States. Hence, when Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, apologized for the CIA-sponsored coup in 1953 against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian regime responded by demanding that the United States pay reparations. The irony here, of course, is that the clerics opposed the left-leaning premier as much as the Eisenhower administration did. More recently, when Obama lifted Bush-era preconditions on direct dialogue, Khamenei responded by imposing conditions of his own, first and foremost the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Middle East.
It was in the context of proxy war that Khamenei, upon hearing that American forces would withdraw from Iraq, declared, “Today America has been defeated in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it has no choice but to leave these two countries.” Two weeks later, on November 16, Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of the paramilitary Basij, elaborated. “The result of the heavy casualties and disgrace the United States experienced in Iraq led to the emergence of a proâ’Islamic Republic government,” he explained, adding that American forces would face the same fate in Afghanistan. “I say with certainty that the United States is so weakened that if we attack them today, they not only will lack the ability to counter us, but they will also beg Iran for negotiations,” he concluded.
Iran’s current overconfidence is reflected in other ways. No longer do its leaders describe the state merely as a regional power; rather, against the backdrop of their growing presence in Latin America and the dispatch of ships to the Horn of Africa and the Mediterranean, they call Iran a “pan-regional power.” The Iranian leadership believes that the nation is on the threshold of an Iranian century.
While Iran embraces a uniquely Persian worldview, it also masterfully games Western diplomatic culture and the American desire to strike deals. Shortly before he was taken hostage in Iran, Bruce Laingen, the American chargé d’affaires in Tehran, outlined the Persian approach to negotiations. “Perhaps the single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism. . . . The practical effect of it is an almost total Persian preoccupation with self and leaves little room for understanding points of view other than one’s own.” In practice, this meant that “one should never assume that his side of the issue will be recognized, let alone that it will be conceded to have merits.” Indeed, never have Iranian authorities recognized the legitimacy of any American or European negotiating position. While American diplomats may seek concession for concession, Iranian authorities interpret concessions as an admission that Washington’s previous position was illegitimate, and simply readjust the baseline from which to talk.