9/30/13 Frenemies Forever www.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, "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.