Tehran looks ready to tango

The Intelligence Ministry is one of the most trusted sources of information among key Iranian decision-makers.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
While many policymakers and pundits "focus attention" on Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the role and importance of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security "seems to have gone unnoticed" [AP]

“The Iranian regime is not interested in a diplomatic solution with the United States. Sustained enmity with America is a defining, inextricable pillar of the Islamic Republic. Any shift in this paradigm will irreparably destabilise the regime.” This is the argument proffered by those opposed to sustained US-Iran diplomacy. 

At face value, regular chants of “Death to America” and yearly commemorations of the US embassy hostage seizure lend credence to these claims. But behind these assertions lies a deeper reality – and the latest demonstration comes from a surprising source: Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS).  

As the Washington Post‘s correspondent in Tehran, Jason Rezaian, pointed out last week, the MOIS published a report – publicly available on its website – that assesses Israeli threats of war over Iran’s nuclear programme and highlights the benefits of negotiations with the US to avert a deeper crisis.  

To the surprise of many, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry shares the assessment of its counterparts in the US and Israel: the potential destruction caused by military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities would set back the programme only a few years. More telling is their final conclusion: diplomacy is the preferred way forward. 

This sober, pragmatic analysis is devoid of the rhetoric commonly emanating from the Islamic Republic. More importantly, it suggests three important points for policymakers in Washington to consider: 

1. The MOIS matters 

While many policymakers and pundits focus attention on Iran’s President, the role and importance of the MOIS seems to have gone unnoticed. Journalists in Tehran testify that Iran’s heavily staffed Intelligence Ministry sends a daily bulletin to senior leaders every morning, which they read on their way to work. The MOIS is one of the most trusted sources of information among key Iranian decision-makers. 

To that end, the Intelligence Ministry can play a role in planting ideas within the minds of Iran’s top decision-makers. Ayatollah Khamenei’s recent rhetoric shows a Supreme Leader increasingly in lockstep with his Intelligence Ministry. His latest speeches have emphasised the need for “logical” and “rational” frameworks in dealing with the international community. As the saying goes: In politics, there is no such thing as a coincidence. 


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2. Iran has politics 

The MOIS report shows that there is still space in the Iranian system for more pragmatic, nationalistic voices to publicly float ideas in favour of peaceful solutions to the US-Iran conflict. By publishing its report online, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry has taken steps to use its influence, announce its stance on negotiations, help lay the foundation to proceed, and take a subtle shot at inflexible hardliners who could raise the cost of pursuing peace. 

Rival political factions and power centres in the Islamic Republic are now forced to factor the MOIS preference into their decision-making. Given their strong reputation inside the Iranian system, the conclusion of its report is telling: 

“It must be considered that one of the main and most important ways to insure the Islamic Republic against foreign threats and the Zionist regime’s threats is to reduce domestic conflicts and differences, and boost popular foundations… To stop war from starting, there are some options. One of the options is to take diplomatic and political measures, and use the potentials of international bodies, which is a necessary and less costly option. At the same time, military readiness to be able to counter any aggressive action is another main option.” 

This unprecedented important debate raises questions about the commonly held view in Washington that Ayatollah Khamenei has surrounded himself with sycophants who share his rigid opposition to relations with the US. The MOIS report points in the opposite direction: Iran has politics. It can assess and analyse the motives of its adversaries. It is not opposed to improving relations with the US under the right circumstances. 

3. Differentiating America and Israel 

The most important – and arguably the most telling – takeaway from the MOIS report is how directly it articulates why President Obama is different than Israel. For the first time in the 33-year history of the Islamic Republic, key decision-makers in Iran are distinguishing between the Washington and Tel Aviv. The main discourse emanating from the Intelligence Ministry is clear: “The United States has a completely different perspective about Iran’s nuclear activities than Israel”. 

Driving this assessment is President Obama himself. The MOIS believes more generally that “Americans do not see Iran’s nuclear activities as a threat against their country”. As a result, “the US is even ready to negotiate with Iran over enrichment in small scales. So Obama hopes to solve this issue peacefully and through diplomacy“.  

The primary obstacle? According to the MOIS, it is Israel – but not for the reasons many might assume. Rather than ideology, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry sees geopolitics as the driving force: “[Israel is concerned that] the balance of power in the region will be against the Zionist regime” and it therefore “considers enrichment a threat to its national security and wants to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities”. 

The way that Iran’s Intelligence Ministry distinguishes between Obama and Israel is important. As a key source of information in the Iranian system, the MOIS has said that Obama shows he is not willing to rush into war – and it has given him de facto credit for it. To that end, policymakers in Washington should carefully study this publication as a potential opening from Iran. 

It appears as if the most important elements among Iranian elites are preparing the political and ideological grounds for serious and decisive negotiations with the US. If this persists, it can provide the very opportunity that Obama has been looking for.

Reza Marashi is Director of Research at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).  

Sahar Namazikhah is an Iranian journalist and Director of Iran Programs at the George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution.