Even if we assume that there is goodwill between the U.S. and Iran to improve relations, the power of algorithms will place major stumbling blocks in the way of efforts toward future normalization. A priori programming of foreign policy options and lines of argument have led to immutable algorithms causing the relationship between the two countries to calcify. On both sides, the key personalities who define national security, interpret events, and shape policies toward one another have had virtually no direct contact or experiences with each other’s country. They interpret events, extract meanings, react to one another, and delineate policies through prisms, images, metaphors, binaries, groupthink, and in the lexicon of artificial intelligence, algorithms.
In both countries, the grey area of deeper analysis is overlooked, while their foreign policy playbooks are encapsulated by a few variables that neither side is willing to deconstruct. The persistence of these algorithms renders almost totally irrelevant the hundreds of journalists, administrators, lobbyists, track II activists, well-wishers, and retired officials on both sides who try to overcome the belligerence that has built up since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Diplomats are merely operators of these long-standing algorithms.
Bringing about a meeting of the minds would undeniably require new thinking by those who truly shape policy. Both countries have ignored a host of potential benefits from doing so in lieu of a tight focus on national and regime security concerns. In this context, is it possible to break out of the current mental framework and arrive at a new and broader understanding? If so, which side is further removed from reality and to what degree is reconciliation really possible?
The Iranian algorithms
Within the very small group of real policy shapers in Iran, the U.S. is always identified with a list of fixed features: imperialism, monopoly capitalism, brute force, the 1953 coup, defense of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, interventionism, moral decay, untrustworthiness, a domineering attitude, unfairness, expansionism, malign intentions, and endless sanctions.
None of the members of this elite group has ever visited the U.S. or met American congressional, business, military, or executive leaders. There is virtually no understanding of the complexity of the U.S. economic system and its global reach; the strength of the private sector; the sophisticated labyrinth of political machinery, bureaucracy, and independent judiciary; social stratification; and the role of entities as varied as academia, Silicon Valley, and K Street. The limitations of these perceptions lead policymakers to select facts that correspond to their own construction of reality, and this frames a mindset that rejects unfamiliar information, perpetuating long-held algorithms. In the process, a sense of proportion is lost and relevant questions are set aside, like why can’t a mid-sized developing country objectively assess where it stands in the international order and focus on its national priorities instead of broader ideological or geopolitical aims?
To what degree does groupthink explain this dilemma? In an age of economic interdependence and globalized networking, is Iran the last developing state to struggle against global powers? And at what cost is it doing so? Is the current Iranian obsession with undivided national sovereignty a result of its political system or a feature of Iranian political culture?
The US algorithms
By contrast, among the key policy shapers in the U.S., Iran is associated with the 1979-81 hostage crisis, Hezbollah and militias and proxies in Iraq and Syria, anti-American slogans and gestures, hostility toward Israel, anti-Western indoctrination, terrorism, human rights abuses, dishonesty about its nuclear program, anti-democratic sentiments, propaganda, and deception.
The relevant American policy shapers have never visited post-revolutionary Iran and have not interacted directly with their senior Iranian counterparts who shape its policies. For them, trying to fathom the intricacies of an ancient society is both difficult and pointless. There is virtually no interest in trying to discern the interrelationships between religion and politics, the legacy of British and Russian intervention, the variety and complexity of ethnic groups, the psychology of being an ancient state, the meaning of government in the political culture, the imperial mindset, the omniscient presence of the state, the contradictions between political liberties and a rentier state, the peculiar interpretation of sovereignty, the unending clash between modernity and religious orthodoxy, and the accumulated historical grievances.
In short, neither the U.S. nor Iran feels the need to grasp the larger historical and political context of the other. Can or should a major global power identify and analyze the inner dynamics and complexities of a mid-sized developing country when formulating its foreign policies? What are the long-term implications when a major power shapes its foreign policy by dismissing the domestic undercurrents of that country? Some are still of the view that U.S. challenges in the Middle East began with the 1953 coup in Iran, and that Middle Eastern fundamentalism has its origins in the American decision to consolidate the Iranian monarchy.
Had Zhou Enlai, China’s post-revolutionary premier and foreign minister, not spent 1917-24 in Japan, Germany, France, and the U.K., one wonders whether he still would have been able to discern the mindset of his counterparts in the 1971-72 U.S.-China secret negotiations. During the talks, Zhou represented the entire Chinese Communist Party apparatus. Similarly, had it not been for a change of mind (and algorithms) among the upper echelons of the Indian army toward foreign policy, national security, and economic growth, would India still have initiated a process of opening up toward the West? This became possible when senior members of the Indian army began to explore the world beyond the Soviet Union and Russia and accepted American global leadership, and thereafter their changing mindset had cascading implications for the country’s political class.
These examples suggest that once elites seek to redefine their national interests and pursue economic growth, they begin to perceive the possibility that their interests might converge with those of others, and then prepare to compromise and potentially even engage in paradigm shifts. Thus, cognitive openness or closure is a function of perceived interests among the real shapers of policy. Those who hold power in Iran perceive normalization with the U.S. as a repeat of the capitulation of the 1953-79 period, while the American political and military class will only normalize relations if its regional security criteria are met.
Is the U.S.-Iranian standoff today characterized by cognitive closure? It may well be that cognitive closure is deliberate and involves strategic calculus, serving clearly defined interests. A study of Iranian behavior over the last three decades makes it all too clear that normalization of relations with the U.S. does not serve the interests of the core elites. Such normalization would upset two balances: the revolutionary-reformist duality in domestic politics in favor of the latter, and relations between the society and state in favor of the former. The zero-sum-game nature of Iranian politics also constrains consensus-building processes and in turn causes groupthink. Moreover, in the event of normalization, American societal soft power, its omniscient private sector, its inescapable and commanding academia, its well-heeled NGOs, its influential think tanks, and its highly systematized lobbying industry may even exert more influence in Iran than the U.S. government per se.
Over a period of time, such capacity will disturb the two aforementioned internal balances of power. The Chinese and the Russians lack any comparable capabilities. Neither has been able to ingrain positive imagery in the Iranian psyche. Moreover, relations with Europe are seen by the core elites as manageable, with no serious security repercussions. Successive Iranian governments — that is, the executive branch — have swiftly learned that without at least a stable modus vivendi with Washington, Iran’s economy cannot function. However, this lesson does not necessarily overlap with the perceived existential threats of the core elites in the country. Even throughout the last 18 years of direct or indirect nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and Iran, at no time have the real shapers of policy in Tehran clearly stated that they anticipate engaging in comprehensive negotiations with Washington to address all outstanding disputes. Negotiators have received unequivocal instructions that they should exclusively focus on the nuclear issue.
Furthermore, normalizing relations with the U.S. would be seen as a threat to the Iranian elite’s grip and ability to shape economic, security, and cultural policies at home. There is an overriding fear that normalization would also imply incrementally drifting toward the U.S. and sharing power with Washington. Given the insidious algorithms, such a development would culminate in surrendering the totality of national sovereignty. One may argue that normalization might not result in such political ramifications, but as Robert Jervis noted in his book Perception and Misperception in International Politics, perceptions in foreign policy supersede realities.
From the U.S. perspective, it may be argued that constraining Iran’s financial resources should be the core pillar of policy as it clearly limits Iran’s military and regional ambitions. While some in Washington may envision a favorable polity in Tehran, the more realistic group of policy shapers may settle for a new orientation toward a different set of national and regional priorities by Iran. It appears that there is no modern U.S. equivalent of George Kennan, someone capable of unravelling the Iranian psyche and understanding, at least in part, its historical hubris and psychological longings. As Kennan’s mental construction of the Soviet Union may also be applicable to the current Russian Federation, it is not certain that a post-transition Iran would wholeheartedly abandon its excesses of national sovereignty and assertiveness. After all, ancient states often do not surrender their imperial habits. Nonetheless, the existing confrontational roadmap sets Iran on a course to eventually become an impoverished regional giant. Given the current state of the global economy and energy markets, poverty may force a new generation of Iranians to familiarize themselves only with past glory from reading history.
In light of these security concerns and psychological barriers, Iran’s economy — characterized by the availability of goods and services at high prices — will survive, but it will not develop. There is far more cognitive closure on the Iranian side than on the American one. The real shapers of policy in Iran have made clear that their vision of the country is a revolutionary one, and that they are not interested in constructing another normal country like others in the region. Regardless of the political orientation of the president, the U.S. cannot possibly normalize relations with a revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran. Both countries have fundamental security concerns about the other.
The Chinese in the early 1970s and the Indians in the late 1980s abandoned their revolutionary idealism and accepted the norms of the international system built by the Western powers, and particularly by the U.S. The Islamic Republic of Iran has no such intention. Due to its regime security concerns, it continues to challenge the Western and liberal pillars of the global system. In a security context, domestic realities, economic opportunities, and political advantages tend to be inconsequential. Do the U.S. and Iran need each other? The real shapers of Iranian policy toward the U.S. are interested only in conflict management; for now, they have no intention of pursuing conflict resolution.
Three pertinent questions loom: Can Iran meet its economic needs while continuing to defy the West? Will Iran’s gradual economic decline be arrested by aligning with China? Will a foreseeable transition of power in Iran force the new shapers of policy to half-heartedly pursue the accommodative Chinese and Indian paths of embracing realpolitik in the international system?
For the U.S. too, three questions seem relevant: Does the U.S. need a transformed relationship with Iran for potential geopolitical or economic reasons? Is the U.S. benefiting economically and geopolitically from Iran’s defiance? Will the U.S. ever feel the need to move beyond a policy of containment to counter Iran’s ambitions?
The likelihood of a breakthrough in Iranian-American relations depends on the face-to-face encounters between the two countries’ real policy shapers. As John Gaddis underscores in his book Strategies of Containment, the human element was pivotal in the new understanding forged between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Cognitive closures are reversed when perceptions change through direct deliberations. Existing binaries need to be deprogrammed. Fear of divided sovereignty on the Iranian side and concerns about acquiescence toward an adversary in the American subconscious are major stumbling blocks. However, a strategic transition may include the following:
1. No settlement will endure unless it addresses all outstanding issues simultaneously on a matrix. In this context, the nuclear file is perhaps a reflection of many other underlying conflicts;
2. The two governments are in need of a dispassionate reassessment of each other’s dispositions and presumptions in shaping policies;
3. Both countries need an objective assessment of the other’s medium to long-term capabilities. Iran would help to improve its regional and international status by conducting a realistic appraisal of America’s Middle Eastern and global role. For its part, the U.S. could offer concessions to allow Iran to transition from prioritizing regime security to prioritizing national security, and shoring up its national security would bolster its national economic development;
4. Iran needs to break out of its Cold War mentality with regards to the U.S. In parallel, Washington will benefit in the long term if it becomes more attentive to the historical and psychological sensitivities of not just the Islamic Republic of Iran but also of Iranians — and the same applies to U.S. policy toward other ancient states, like China and India;
5. Diversifying its foreign relations would help Iran pursue such a strategy, in a manner similar to Indonesia and its policy of interdependence with China, Japan, Australia, India, the EU, and the U.S. However, Iran’s economy cannot flourish unless its banking operations return to normal. Its current foreign policy orientation will only further diminish its already limited economic potential. Iran cannot continue to decouple its foreign policy from the need for economic growth. An incremental and process-oriented approach to address the impasse will serve American interests. An exclusively security-based approach by the U.S. will only prolong the standoff. As a general rule, the U.S. will accomplish exponentially more if it employs psychological tools more extensively in the conduct of its foreign affairs;
6. For a roadmap to play out over time, both countries need to take a long-term view and aim to form a stable, constructive, and mutually respectful relationship. A shift in perception on both sides would be the ideal first step.
Mahmood Sariolghalam has a PhD in international relations from the University of Southern California. Over more than three decades, he has taught in a number of countries, including the United States and Iran. His publications and research focus on Iran’s foreign policy and political culture. His current research concerns the psychological infrastructure of Middle Eastern authoritarianism. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
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