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Frenemies Forever - Real Meaning of Iran's Heroic Flexibility

Frenemies Forever - Real Meaning of Iran's Heroic Flexibility

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Published by h86
Frenemies Forever - Real Meaning of Iran's Heroic Flexibility
Frenemies Forever - Real Meaning of Iran's Heroic Flexibility

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Published by: h86 on Sep 30, 2013
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9/30/13 Frenemies Forevewww.foreignaffairs.com/print/137117 1/3
September 24, 2013SNAPSHOT
Frenemies Forever
The Real Meaning of Iran's "Heroic Flexibility"Akbar Ganji
 AKBAR GANJI is an Iranian journalist and dissident. He was imprisoned in Tehran from 2000 to 2006, and hiswritings are currently banned in Iran. This article was translated from the Farsi by Evan Siegel.
The apparent restraint of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's speech before the United Nations General Assembly onTuesday afternoon seems to have disappointed many Western observers. They charge Rouhani with failing to showmuch of the "heroic flexibility" that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently claimed wouldcharacterize Iran's new diplomatic strategy toward the West. In truth, the West should not be so surprised. Iran'sdiplomatic offensive of recent weeks is, in fact, a significant shift -- just not in the way most Westerners have seemedto think."Heroicflexibility” has never been what most foreign commentators believe it is.It is neither a rhetorical feint to buytime for Iran’s nuclear program, nor is it a signal that Khamenei is desperate to strike a deal with the United Statesafter years of punishing sanctions. Both interpretations have it wrong, and for thesame reason -- they fail to interpretIran’s diplomatic offensive in the context of Khamenei’s grand strategy, which has been consistent from the time heassumed power. Khamenei does not want Iran to be at open conflict with the West, nor does he want it to be asupplicant to the United States. He is signaling that rapprochement is possible, but not at the price of abandoningIran's resistance to Western hegemony.Khamenei has spoken of heroic flexibility several times since becoming Iran’s leader over twenty years ago, and ineach instance he has emphasized that friendly dialogue is not the same thing as friendship. In a speech on August 7,1996, before an audience of interior ministry officials and Iranian diplomats, hesaid,[1] “the sphere of international politics is a field of heroic flexibility, which is sharp faced with the enemy. Therefore, our diplomats must be firm intheir principal positions and take as their model His Holiness Imam Khomeini’s steadfastness and manliness.” In aspeech delivered to members of the Guardian Council on September 5, 2013, hedeclared[2], “When a wrestler iswrestling with an opponent and in places shows flexibility for technical reasons, let him not forget who his opponentis.” Even enemies smile at each other while negotiating, he told Revolutionary Guards commanders on September 17.
9/30/13 Frenemies Forevewww.foreignaffairs.com/print/137117 2/3
Khamenei does not believe that the relationship between Washington and Tehran needs to be overtly hostile, in other words, but he does seem to think that Iran and the West are bound to remain ideological adversaries. Indeed,Khamenei has always contrasted “the Islamic-Iranian model of progress” with what he labels the West’s “tyrannical”model of development. The fundamental goal of the Islamic Republic, he says, has always been to create a newIslamic civilization.” Khamenei has long envisioned an Iran that is independent, powerful, and technologicallyadvanced, and which has a strong Islamic-Iranian identity.He also believes that the West is inherently hostile to that vision. That explains, in part, why the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West have been so contentious. Khamenei genuinely suspects that the United States and its allieswant to hinder Iran’s independent scientific development. There are some things that Khamenei thinks an “Islamiccivilization” simply cannot compromise on, including the pursuit of independent technological progress, the divisionof gender roles in social life, and a commitment to public piety as a means of national solidarity.But within those parameters, pragmatic compromise is always a possibility. Indeed, Khamenei believes that adjustingto new circumstances is an obligation for Islamic civilization if it hopes to survive. One can see that in Khamenei’sapproach to women’s rights in the context of Iran’s Islamic identity. He has long argued that it is the duty of allMuslim women to pursue economic and educational advancement -- while keeping their commitment to Islamicidentity. In a speech delivered on January 4, 2012, hesaid[3], "Women are half of society and it is very good that if we are able, we should use this half of society in [professional, economic, and political life.]." But he made sure toadd, "We are in complete agreement with such employment and participation insofar as it does not harm the familyinstitution, which comes first, since it is irreplaceable."Khamenei is now applying the same sort of conditional pragmatism to international politics. He thinks that Iran mustcontinue to resist Western hegemony, and must maintain a commitment to its Islamic political system; but withinthose terms, he thinks that Iran and the United States should be able to achieve a mutually beneficial relationship.In principle, this framework should be familiar to the United States. Khamenei is attempting to follow the road taken by independent nationalist leaders such as Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Léopold Sédar Senghor in Senegal, GamalAbdel Nasser in Egypt, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil. That said, Khamenei believes that the most promising precedent for rapprochement between Tehran and Washington is the relationship between China and the United States,in which the countries treat each other as equals and, for the most part, avoid interfering in each other’s domesticaffairs. Khamenei wants to continue to be able to promote Islamic democracy as an alternative to liberal democracy --much as communist China’s ideological system has been tolerated by the United States.The question now is whether Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility will be sufficient to the task of reducinghostility with the United States. There is some reason to think that it will be. Judging from the events of recent days,including the Iranian government’s release of a group of political prisoners and its hints of domestic liberalization,Khamenei is willing to make some compromises to achieve diplomatic progress. It remains to be seen, of course,how much flexibility he is willing to show when it comes to discussing the details of Iran’s nuclear program.But the United States should certainly be prepared to consider compromises of its own, including curtailing thesanctions that even the Iranian opposition considers an aggressive affront to national sovereignty and pride. TheUnited States may also have to belatedly recognize the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, and cease its attempts tomanufacture regime change.

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