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Speeches for Iranian New Year Cast Doubt on International Cooperation

On one hand, the Iranian year 1395 began about eight months after the conclusion of an historic nuclear agreement and just over two months after the January implementation of that agreement. This has naturally contributed to expectations about broader negotiations between the two countries, as well as the utilization of the newfound economic freedoms that come with the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

On the other hand, there has been a great deal of pressure against such reconciliation and cooperation, from critics on both sides of the nuclear deal. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is the ultimate authority in virtually all matters of Iranian policy, was quick to caution his subordinates against negotiation with the West in areas other than the nuclear agreement. And yet, now that that agreement has been implemented and Iran’s economic recovery has reportedly been slower than anticipated, Khamenei has used his Nowruz speeches to criticize the US for standing in the way of broader economic cooperation.

The International Business Times quoted the supreme leader as reiterating some of what has already been observed by global financial analysts: that international banking institutions are fearful of reestablishing their relations with the Islamic Republic, in light of the persistent danger of punitive measures by the US government.

A number of sanctions remain in place on Iran as a result of its human rights violations and support for international sanctions. These can still be violated if companies are not careful about whom they do business with and under what circumstances. Furthermore, there have been persistent concerns about Iran’s willingness to cooperate with the international community, especially in light of its provocative tests of three nuclear-capable ballistic missiles earlier this month. Such incidents factor into global businesses’ concern that suspended sanctions could come back into effect, or that other global enforcement measures could replace them.

This wariness stands to affect the Islamic Republic alongside those businesses themselves. After all, International Business Times reports that Iran needs upwards of 500 billion dollars in largely foreign investment in order to modernize its infrastructure and make up for the damage wrought by economic sanctions. But instead of changing Iranian policy in a way that facilitates a more cooperative and less risky business environment, Khamenei used his Nowruz speeches to suggest that the US alone is at fault for unilateral and unprovoked hostility.

Specifically, the Wall Street Journal quotes Khamenei as accusing the US of having implemented the July 14 nuclear agreement “in paper only,” while standing against the overall spirit of that agreement by failing to lift the lingering barriers to foreign investment. Meanwhile, critics of the Iranian regime have blamed it for repeatedly violating the overall spirit of the agreement in the sense of its international cooperation over and constraints on Iran’s potential progress toward nuclear weapons.

Further buttressing this argument, Khamenei’s Nowruz remarks served to reiterate the justifications that have been offered by a number of Iranian officials for this month’s ballistic missile tests. Such tests are not technically banned by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but there is a parallel UN Security Council resolution that calls upon the Islamic Republic to avoid those tests and other moves toward the development or use of weapons that are capable of carrying a nuclear weapon.

But Khamenei described the tests as an aspect of Iran’s legitimate national defense and said that the US has no business attempting to enforce constraints on that. Reuters quoted him as saying, “America is thousands of kilometres away from the Persian Gulf and conducts exercises there with regional countries … but if we have exercises in our own security realm they protest loudly.”

Reuters also quoted Khamenei as saying that American presidential candidates “compete to vilify” the Islamic Republic. He has similarly indicted the sitting president, although in doing so he has arguably ignored the tendency of some of that president’s domestic critics to regard his policies as weak and tending toward appeasement. The White House, by contrast, tends to characterize its own policies as opening the door to the very reconciliation that Khamenei claims the US has been resisting. Indeed, this appeared to be a major point in President Obama’s own Nowruz message to the Iranian people.

The fiercest critics of the Iranian regime tend to characterize this shift as a mistake, based on the false premise that a more “moderate” Iranian president could lead the way toward broad-based reconciliation. Even so, the persistence of that delicate tone arguably undermines Khamenei’s claims about persistent aggression.

However, Khamenei’s own aggression may have prompted a slight backward shift in the tone of President Obama’s Nowruz message. That is to say, IranWire characterizes the overall address as continuing to hold the door open for increased trade and international cooperation, but also expressing a sense of disappointment over the fact that Iran’s behavior had not changed in the ways that would have made this cooperation more politically attainable.

And although Khamenei’s remarks are intent upon blaming the US for ongoing discord, those same remarks raise pertinent questions about whether a mutually beneficial outcome is attainable at all. Indeed, by declaring that his preferred name for the new year is “the Year of the Resistance Economy,” Khamenei seems to have already committed his government to ongoing confrontation with the West. “Resistance Economy” is the name that the supreme leader gave to a set of policies aimed at reducing the impact of economic sanctions, as opposed to complying with the international demands that brought them about.

The Fiscal Times raises additional interesting questions regarding the Iranian regime’s likely preferences for the identity of the new American president who will be taking office during this Iranian calendar year. The article suggests that there is reason for Iran to desire a reversal of the Obama administration’s policies, in that the more antagonistic foreign policy of the Republican Party better serves the us-versus-them narrative that was expressed in Khamenei’s Nowruz message.

On the other hand, the continuation of policies similar to President Obama’s could have benefits to Iran’s economy and political influence, despite what Khamenei would have his listeners believe. The Fiscal Times acknowledges that thanks to the nuclear agreement and a set of permissive Western policies, Iran’s influence over the broader Middle East is larger today than it was several years ago. And this trend could conceivably continue over the long term, provided that Iran’s ongoing provocations do not go so far as to compel the US to impose new sanctions or take other punitive measures.

But Khamenei’s recent speeches, complete with defense of the ballistic missile launches, certainly keep open the possibility of a further breakdown in the White House’s cooperative tone. And the statements of other hardline Iranian officials make this possibility seem all the more likely. For instance, the Jerusalem Post reported on Monday that Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Saeed Qasemi had strongly contributed to the global concerns over Iran’s expansionism when he publicly called for the annexation of Bahrain, a small island nation where Iran has been vying for influence with its main rival Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain is also the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the source of the “exercises” that Khamenei cited the US as conducting “with regional countries.”

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