Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School The National Interest

Can Iran Stay Anti-American?

| January 22, 2016

For decades, resistance to the United States has advanced Iranian interests.

The dramatic seizure of American navy sailors in the Persian Gulf by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards could have endangeredImplementation Day—when on January 16 Iranian compliance with the nuclear agreement so far was verified and the international sanctions against Iran lifted. Instead of derailing the deal, however, the Guards used the incident, as well as the highly publicized prisoner swap, as symbolic events to send the world a message.By detaining the vessels and broadcasting images of its crew to a global audience, the Guards used the opportunity to reveal the future path of Iranian foreign policy in the wake of the nuclear agreement—a path that can be best described as ‘pragmatic revolutionism.’ Rather than view the incident as either a sign of Iranian belligerence or diplomatic cordiality, U.S. policymakers would be wise to understand the inherent complexity behind Iranian decision making and correctly interpret Iran’s actions.

By capturing and releasing the American sailors, the Revolutionary Guards demonstrated their firm resolve to defend a revolutionary Iran as well as their commitment to the nuclear agreement and the possibility of greater future diplomacy. The Guard’s audacious exhibition of the captured American sailors, a source of embarrassment for the United States, was intended to demonstrate their power and ‘revolutionary’ confidence to domestic and international audiences at the very moment when the nuclear deal was so close to being implemented and international sanctions lifted.

The Guards could have potentially used the incident to derail the agreement, but they did not. The reason is simple: the Guards favor the agreement as it lifts economic sanctions and empowers Iran’s position and legitimacy at both regional and international levels. It is not the deal that they necessarily have a problem with but rather the political and economic agenda of President Hassan Rouhani and his aims to moderate the foreign policy of the country. The Guards aim to use the nuclear agreement’s economic opening and the newly conducive international conditions to strengthen Iran’s revolutionary path. Alongside Iran’s outreach to the West, they wish to retain Iran’s proximity to Russia and China in the geopolitical sphere while enhancing its support for groups that resist American and Israeli objectives in the Middle East.

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For Academic Citation: Mohseni, Payam.“Can Iran Stay Anti-American?.” The National Interest, January 22, 2016.