The Islamic Republic Is Not Cuba

What the Mullahs really think of Obama's surrender to Castro.

39.siThe diplomatic deal between the Obama administration and Raul Castro's government and the transformation of the relationship between Cuba and Washington have made some scholars, politicians and policy analysts excited with respect to utilizing the same method in the case of another longstanding foe, the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Some have been calling for applying a Cuban-style deal -- back-channel diplomacy and the lifting of the embargo and economic sanctions -- to Iran in order to restore full diplomatic ties with the ruling clerics.

Nevertheless, this point of view totally ignores the complexity of the Iranian government and the nature of its ideological, political and institutional underpinnings. In other words, an analogy between Cuba and the Islamic Republic falls apart when the reality is examined.

First of all, Iran poses a much stronger geopolitical threat to the US (and its allies) than Cuba does.  The Islamic Republic has been a major player in scuttling US foreign policy objectives and opposing its allies (including Israel) in the Middle East. Cuba, unlike the Islamic Republic, did not repeatedly call for elimination and annihilation of the State of Israel.  In addition, the Iranian government is supporting and is behind the creation of several crucial militia proxies in the region which have led to further destabilization and conflict in the Middle East.

Secondly, a deal with the US would likely be viewed as a zero-sum game for the Iranian leaders. Iran’s ruling clerics would not be likely to accept any compromises on their top foreign policy priorities, such as: Keeping President Bashar al Assad in power; withdrawing its financial, advisory, intelligence, and military support to the Iraqi and Syrian governments; and assisting formidable proxies such as Hezbollah and Shiite militia groups in Iraq and Yemen.

In addition, in the Cuban case, there did not exist any international consensus on the embargo or economic sanctions against the Cuban government. For example, many European countries were doing business with the Cuban government. On the other hand, in the case of the Islamic Republic, the four rounds of economic sanctions on the Iranian government resulted in the approval of the five members of the UN Security Council, including Russian and China. Unlike Cuba, many regional and global powers are dubious about Iran’s nuclear and regional hegemonic ambitions.

More fundamentally, unlike Castro, Khamenei has shown no real interest and willingness in fully normalizing diplomatic ties with the United States. For example, the Obama administration received no positive response from Khamenei through President Obama’s recent letter or through back-channel diplomacy. In addition, there is no official public debate among Iranian politicians, across various spectrums of Iran’s political system, to even allow the opening of a US embassy in Tehran.  The Islamic Republic’s domestic opposition to normalizing ties with the US is much higher in comparison to the Cuban case.  Although the Obama administration has taken some back-channel steps to negotiate with the Islamic Republic, Iran’s Supreme Leader has not responded with signs of willingness to normalize relationships, and he has been clear in not trusting the “Great Satan.”

The signal that Iranian leaders received from the Cuban deal is not what the Western mainstream media depicts: That Iran is optimistic about normalizing ties with the US. The message that Tehran received was that the Islamic Republic has to persist in its policies as well as ideology, and that economic sanctions will ultimately fail. As foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Akfham articulated, "The defense by the Cuban government and people of their revolutionary ideals over the past 50 years shows that policies of isolation and sanctions imposed by the major powers against the wishes of independent nations are ineffective."

The fundamentals of the Islamic Republic are centered on opposition to the United States, which Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, established. The Supreme Leader derives power and legitimacy from this stance. If the Iranian government changed this fundamental organizing principle, it would not be able to yield power from its loyalists, hard-line constituents, and define itself as the “Islamic” Republic of Iran.

Finally, it is crucial to point out that many young and middle class Iranian people would like to see the normalization of relationship with the United States. Some have expressed their hope through twitter and other social media outlets. However, there is a significant gap between what ordinary Iranian citizens desire to happen, and what the ruling clerics hope to ideologically and geopolitically achieve.

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