If there is one thing for which Washington’s policy approach toward Tehran is often criticised, it is the lack of a thorough understanding of Iran’s complex power structure. The same criticism, however, is scarcely extended to include Tehran’s skewed approach toward the US and its multifaceted power formation. That key US related specialists, analysts, and pundits in Iran focus entirely on the Obama administration and, to a lesser extent, the Congress as way of brokering a potential deal with Washington underscores this analytical challenge in Tehran.
Iran’s framework for policy toward Washington must take into account that any US administration plays a mediating role between its own political posturing and the dense web of economic and financial interests within which it is situated. Short of this recognition, and despite all the positive signals from both sides over the appointment of Javad Zarif as Tehran’s top diplomat, any real deal or understanding between Iran and the US is either unlikely or short-lived.
For Tehran, it is central and constitutive to acknowledge the vast economic and financial networks that facilitate the rise of American politicians, from state governors to House representatives to US presidents. Right at the time that an Islamic Republic began to be assembled in Iran, a massive economic restructuring kicked off in the US that initiated a dual process there. On one hand, small and large business crystalised into global networks with their central nodes anchored in the US. On the other hand, and as a result of this economic integration and subsequent globalisation of labour, US political parties lost their ability to rely on the old social classes, which once provided the core of their electoral support.
The political consequences of this dual process have become increasing apparent over the past two decades. Given their inability to rely on the old social classes, US politicians are pushed to package their messages and diffuse them aggressively through various media spaces in order to collect votes. Within such context, media makes or breaks politicians. As President Obama’s campaign manager, David Axelrod noted back in 2011, “media is the nuclear weapon” of campaigning. If media is the nuclear weapon of campaigning, those that fund this weapon are its generals.
Over $1bn were raised for the first time in the 2008 presidential election. From those that contributed to Obama’s campaign in 2008, 24 percent gave less than 200 dollars. Big business picked up the rest of the bill. As prominent American scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson has documented, Obama’s massive expenditure on cable and radio shifted voter preference in his direction, particularly in narrowly decided states such as Indiana and North Carolina, and in states such as Florida and Virginia, in which the Obama spending advantage over his opponent was large.
Significantly greater sums were spent on the 2012 Presidential election in the US, amounting to slightly over $10bn. Billions more have been spent in elections from state to national levels across America and the bulk of this money comes from big business.
US politicians are therefore pushed to play mediators and not statesmen as a result of their reliance on these vast economic networks. A clear example is President Obama’s handling of US policy toward Tehran since street protests erupted in Iran shortly after the contested 2008 presidential election there. Whilst the top military brass sought some form of approach toward Iran that accommodated US interest both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the Congress wanted Obama to take a hard stance against Tehran.
Axelrod managed to convince President Obama that the Congress was more important at that point in time, stating, “A foreign policy without constituency is a failed policy”. American policy shifted as a result as unprecedented sanctions were imposed on Iran. The “constituency” that Axelrod noted included the same financial and economic networks that Obama himself had relied on for the top job. The new American president is therefore a coalition leader and things are decided through consensus. Strictly dealing with Obama is missing half of the ball game.
Dealing with the US then, should Iran seek to do so, would involve an understanding between Tehran and the various economic and financial networks interwoven with the American political formation. This is a challenge. First, it does not mean pushing the game from the international arena into America. Not least because Washington would not allow that.
States that have active and powerful lobbies in Washington are integrated within America’s security apparatus. Russia and China, for instance, are not part of the American security formation and will never be allowed to have meaningful lobbies in Washington as a result. Neither will Iran. Russia and China, however, are both integrated in the world economy and thus have a way of dealing with these powerful global networks that are centered in the US – Iran does not, and this is a second challenge.
As talented as Dr. Javad Zarif is in deploying diplomatic avenues, and as willing as President Obama might be to do the same, a stable relationship between the two sides requires moving beyond diplomacy and security/military posturing across the region. What is required is some form of global economic integration, where Iran can decide the extent of its involvement. This is the area about which Iranian decision makers need to think clearly.
Diplomacy and security posturing are useful for Tehran in so much as they facilitate temporary conditions for integration within these economic spheres. One important entry point, for instance, is the oil industry, through which Tehran can form enduring connections with the most prominent global financial networks that are extremely powerful in the US.
Short of this dual approach, a diplomatic overture with the US is either unlikely to materialise or will be short-lived if it does. This is because there is no reason to believe that future US administrations will honour a deal with Iran should a parallel relationship involving Washington’s financial backers and Tehran not be in place.
Just as Americans need to understand the various interests that underpin Iran’s strategic calculation, Tehran too needs to understand the dense web of interests that is the American power formation. This means that diplomatic overtures are necessary, but not sufficient, and need to be deployed as part of a broader vision with regard to potential relations with the US.
Kusha Sefat is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Cambridge, Queens’ College.