Post-Deal Iran Asks if U.S. Is Still ‘Great Satan,’ or Something Less – Thomas Erdbrink/The New York Times

by Newsstand

TEHRAN — Negotiating the nuclear agreement was a torturous, two-year process for Iran’s leaders, but a new kind of struggle is unfolding now in Iran, where the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Hassan Rouhani have begun to tackle a question Iranians have not thought about much since the revolution 37 years ago: How to deal with their great enemy, the United States, after having reached a compromise with it.

The two leaders are offering starkly opposing visions of Iran’s post-deal future, reflecting their divergent attitudes toward the “Great Satan.”

“We have announced that we will not negotiate with the Americans on any issue other than the nuclear case,” Mr. Khamenei said this month. Speaking to a group of hard-line students recently he was even more explicit, telling them to “prepare for the continuation of the fight against America.”

By contrast, Mr. Rouhani said on Sunday that the nuclear agreement was “not the end of the way,” but “a beginning for creating an atmosphere of friendship and cooperation with various countries.”

How the opposing visions are ultimately resolved may be uncertain, but as the nuclear pact is carried out and the sanctions are lifted, Iran’s favorite scapegoat can no longer plausibly be regarded as the root of all evil in the world.

“Our Great Satan without sanctions is just not the same anymore,” said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and supporter of Mr. Rouhani. “Perhaps we should use ‘lesser Satan’ now or something like that.”

In a highly controlled society like Iran, the leaders rarely speak spontaneously, so there is a certain premeditated “good cop, bad cop” aspect to the public posturing about the United States. But the dueling perspectives also reflect the problem of fitting the new, softer image of the United States into Iran’s founding ideological narrative.

Those longing for Iran to be a normal country, with normal relations with the world, believe their time has finally come, no matter what the supreme leader is saying. By their lights, change is inevitable, and Ayatollah Khamenei is just protecting his political flank against the hard-line clerics and commanders who oppose the nuclear deal.

But other analysts say that misreads the situation, putting a naïvely optimistic spin on the motivations and intentions of an all-powerful supreme leader who, while cautious and calculating, remains a highly conservative force.

There are no outward indications that Mr. Khamenei is enthusiastic about rapprochement between Iran and the United States, these other analysts say. On the contrary, since August he has used every public speech to make clear that there will be no such thing, repeating last week that, deal or no deal, the United States remains the “Great Satan.”

“This deal is a one-off agreement in our interest,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, a hard-line analyst close to Mr. Khamenei. “Not an attempt to mend ties with America.”

Iran’s leader, they add, is a staunch ideologue who often says that he is “not a diplomat but a revolutionary,” and the flexibility he has shown on the nuclear issue was out of self-interest, a calculated tactic to get sanctions lifted, not the start of a new era for Iran. To underline his point, he predicted last week that Israel would not exist in 25 years, drawing international criticism.

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There will be no such thing as direct talks over other issues, like Iraq, Syria and Yemen. At best, some analysts say, Mr. Khamenei is awaiting what he calls in some speeches “positive steps” from the United States. He will “review” such actions before considering real relations.

“If they do not leave the region and keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, the leader doesn’t see any future in having relations with America,” said one former Revolutionary Guards official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his position, adding, “For now, that does not seem likely to happen.”

Whatever the effect on foreign relations, Mr. Khamenei’s genuine distrust of the United States is casting an increasingly dark shadow over Mr. Rouhani’s ambitions at home, which are always subject to a veto by the supreme leader, who retains the final word on all matters.

Over the past two years, the president, who came to power promising an end to Iran’s international isolation and a more “normal” life, has raised expectations among Iran’s middle class. He has done so while tiptoeing around the sensitive subject of establishing relations with the United States, which has become a symbol of the changes many people would like to see, such as more personal freedom and overhauling the archaic justice system.

Post-Deal Iran Asks if U.S. Is Still ‘Great Satan,’ or Something Less – The New York Times