By Josh Kutz, MPIA 2015

New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recent visit to the United States, and his phone call to American President Barack Obama shortly thereafter, have fostered significant optimism for an improvement in U.S.-Iran relations. Unfortunately, these hopes are unfounded, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains the ultimate authority in the Islamic Republic and retains the final say on Iranian foreign policy decisions, including those concerning Iran’s nuclear program. His hostility for, and doubt in, U.S. leadership will be an insurmountable barrier.

After decades of conflict between the U.S. and Iran, the Obama Administration appears to have a unique opportunity to capitalize on Rouhani’s recent election and make progress on negotiations concerning Iran’s push for nuclear capability. Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, inflammatory rhetoric has been the norm from Iran’s leadership. The ayatollahs – first Ruhollah Khomeini and now Khamenei – have consistently projected disdain and hatred for the West in general and the U.S. specifically. Recently, such rhetoric has ceased. This lull, however, is temporary.

Thaws in U.S.-Iranian relations are not new, despite the overall trend of confrontation. In 1997, Mohammad Khatami was elected president of Iran. His victory generated significant optimism in the West for improved relations with the Islamic Republic. Yet, despite his reformist agenda, Khatami was unable to improve relations with the United States, as his foreign policy was subject to the ayatollah’s approval.

It appears that Rouhani has been given a longer leash in 2013 than Khatami received at any point during his presidency. During his trip to New York last month, Rouhani revealed that he had full powers to negotiate with the West, implying that he had the Supreme Leader’s approval to do so. However, this opening is at best temporary and at worst an apparition.

It is critical to realize that Rouhani’s rise is the result of a carefully calculated decision by Khamenei. Following the 2009 elections, the Iranian people protested the reelection of Ahmadinejad, claiming that the government had rigged the outcome. This Green Revolution, which lasted for nearly eight months, called into question the legitimacy of the regime. Aware of the need to reestablish credibility, Khamenei intervened in the recent 2013 election to ensure that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) did not engineer the results in favor of a more conservative candidate.[1]

Since Khamenei’s primary objective was to placate the population, the United States should not expect any significant progress in relations with Iran. Indeed, already there have been reports of the Supreme Leader’s displeasure with Rouhani for reaching out to his American counterpart. While it is true that the ayatollah has overtly supported the new president’s outreach to the West, he continues to view the U.S. government as untrustworthy and arrogant. The disconnect between these two behaviors can only be explained by the same reason as Khamenei’s support for the election of Rouhani: the ayatollah seeks to appease the Iranian people, so he has allowed Rouhani’s efforts to give the appearance of readiness to compromise. In reality, he has no intention of negotiating with the “promise-breaking” United States. Bilateral talks have historically represented a red line for Khamenei, and there is no reason for a change in behavior now. Iran’s position on its nuclear program will remain the same.

Despite this likely failure, it would serve U.S. interests to press the initiative and push for talks on Iran’s nuclear program. If the ayatollah refuses to negotiate while the Obama Administration remains obviously willing to do so, his credibility with his people will become eroded further. Eventually, it may be that enough domestic pressure would bring Khamenei to the table.

Long-term possibilities aside, for the present the impasse between Iran and the U.S. is here to stay. We must be careful not to take appearances for granted and remember that while a more amicable face once again represents the Islamic Republic, its ultimate decision-maker remains a hard-liner. Unfortunately, hopes for progress in U.S.-Iran relations are premature and overly optimistic.


  1. Tabatabai, Ariane. “Rouhani’s rise and Implications for Iranian foreign policy and nuclear politics.” Arms Control and Regional Security for the Middle East. June 24, 2013.