08/30/2015 08:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Washington-Tehran Embassies? Khamenei's Private and Public Views on the U.S.

Thanks to the recently established nuclear deal, which was struck in July between the six world powers (P5+1) and the Islamic Republic, other European countries (including France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, etc.) are now rushing to restore their relationships or further strengthen their economic and geopolitical ties with Iran.

In 2011, in Tehran, the UK embassy along with another British diplomatic compound were stormed and ransacked. The timing of this occurrence coincided with the UK's agreement to impose a new round of sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Despite these acts, after four years, both countries have now decided to normalize diplomatic ties and they have reopened their embassies. The nuclear deal can be characterized as the primary force behind the normalization of ties between Iran and the West. The strained ties between the Islamic Republic and the UK has now been replaced with cordial official statements.

It is crucial to point out that a considerable part of the Iran-West normalization of relations lies within economic spectrums. Iran offers a large potential market for investment and is a home to sought-after resources such as gas and oil. Strategic and tactical cooperation (such as fighting the Islamic State) are also part of the normalization package. For example, when it comes to strategic and tactical cooperation in the pursuit of the defeat of the Islamic State, Iran is being viewed as a major force by the West.

As the UK reopens its embassy in Tehran and as other Western countries take concrete steps to further ratchet up their economic, political and strategic ties with the Islamic Republic, the lingering questions on the mind of many are: What about U.S.-Iran ties? What is Khamenei's view on the U.S.? Are we going to witness a thaw in diplomatic ties, based on the latest developments? Will Iran and the U.S. reopen embassies in Tehran and Washington as a result of the nuclear deal? After all, the U.S. embassy was ransacked and stormed in a similar fashion as the attack on the UK embassy.

Iran's Supreme Leader's Position on the U.S. is Unique

The moderate, reformist, and pragmatic camp might be willing to further strengthen diplomatic ties with the United States, short of reopening embassies, in order to gather popular vote. However, they should be aware that foreign policy is not run or informed by the presidency office or the foreign ministry in Iran.

Critical issues, such as restoring ties with other countries, Iran's national security, cracking down on domestic oppositions, regional policies and Iran's nuclear deal are directly informed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his senior advisors in the Supreme Leader's office, and Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as its elite foreign branch Quds Force.

Khamenei holds two stances on the U.S. -- one in private, and one in public -- for the purpose of preserving his legitimacy.

When speaking in public, Khamenei's speeches and statements clearly characterize his distrust towards the "Great Satan." Khamenei does this for multiple reasons.

First of all, the symbolism of opposing the United States (the Great Satan) is deep-rooted in the political establishment of the Islamic Republic. For over 35 years, clerics' speeches, governmental protests, marches and some walls in the cities, have been filled with slogans that incite sentiments to oppose "the Great Satan."

Opposing the United States is a primary keystone of the Islamic Republic's revolutionary principles. Mr. Khamenei was influential in establishing these ideals. From his perspective, the United States should be depicted as a nation that seeks to overthrow the government of the Islamic Republic. The CIA overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mossadagh is also a continuing reminder and key issue carved into the mind of the political establishment.

Secondly, for over thirty years, Khamenei has been clearly expressing his anti-U.S. views in almost every speech which are all quite influential to his social base.

How can he justify an essentially over night ideological reversal that now supports the U.S. and Iran restoring ties? Shouldn't that damage the legitimacy of his views and reveal his inconsistency as a leader?

Third, Khamenei draws his legitimacy from the conservative social base which opposes any normalization of ties with the United States. They view restoring relations with the United States as a fatal move that will impede the survival of the political establishment in the Islamic Republic. Khamenei has repeatedly warned about the threat of cultural influence (soft power) that the US can also impose on Iran were they to restore full diplomatic ties. As he tweeted recently "Economic woes won't cause anxiety, but cultural problems agitate one to lose sleep over them."

For the hardliners, the closer the system is the easier it is for them to control the populations, monopolize, avoid economic competition and sustain power. From Khamenei's prism, one of the major reasons behind that revolution in several Arab countries, was the close ties between those governments and the United States.

Finally, another underlying tension between Iran and the U.S. is Israel. Opposition to Israel is another primary revolutionary principle of the Islamic Republic. As long as Iran opposes Israel, it is less likely to see thaw in relationships or embassies opening in both countries.

On the other hand, we observe that Khamenei has given the green light to Rouhani's technocrat team to sit at the same table and directly negotiate with Americans. Without the approval of Mr. Khamenei, IRGC leaders would not have been willing to cooperate tactically with Americans in the region.

In conclusion, it is not in the political or parochial interest of the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, to alter his public position on the U.S. However, it appears that in private he continues to instruct the president's team to cooperate with America, for economic reasons and ensuring his hold-on-power.

As long as the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, is alive, it is hard to imagine a full normalization of diplomatic ties (such as reopening of embassies) between the U.S. and Iran. Nevertheless, tactical and strategic cooperation, as well as behind-the door talks, will increase.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an American scholar and political scientist, is the president of the International American Council on the Middle East. Harvard-educated, Rafizadeh serves on the advisory board of Harvard International Review. He is originally from Iran and Syria. You can contact him at or follow him at @majidrafizadeh

This post first appeared on Al Arabiya.