Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivered his most high-profile foreign-policy speech to date at the Virginia Military Institute last week. As expected, politicians and pundits have interpreted his remarks to fit their respective election-year narratives. For Republicans, the former Massachusetts governor articulated a vision that will reclaim “the mantle of leadership” and guide America into a future of reinvigorated global preeminence. For Democrats, the Republican nominee at best plagiarized President Obama’s foreign-policy prerogatives and at worst reaffirmed the fears of many who equate Romney with the disastrous policies of George W. Bush.
But a foreign-policy speech also stirs interest abroad. Perhaps no foreign government paid more attention to Romney’s remarks than the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Republican presidential hopeful did not disappoint: “I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.” After hearing six consecutive American presidents talk tough on Iran, decision makers in Tehran feel confident in their ability to distinguish rhetoric from reality. And what they (mis)perceive may surprise you.
From Tehran’s vantage, Republican presidential administrations have historically been better on Iran-related issues. Indeed, Iranian officials today see themselves as the same regime that ushered Ronald Reagan into the White House after a hostage crisis and failed recovery mission torpedoed Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Reagan and George H. W. Bush were both men that Iran felt it could do business with—as demonstrated by the Iran-Contra affair and the release of American hostages in Lebanon, respectively.
Iranian decision makers acknowledge that George W. Bush’s presidency reflected an extreme and dangerous foreign-policy departure from his Republican predecessors, but not in a way that will force drastic shifts in Iran’s strategic calculus. If a President Romney were to adopt policies in line with Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, history shows that Iran will negotiate when its interests are addressed. But Tehran likely prefers a President Romney who would put neoconservatives back in charge of American foreign policy.
That is because Iranian decision makers believe a neocon-oriented Romney administration would isolate the United States internationally and crack the unity among permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1)—not unlike the George W. Bush administration. As one Iranian official told me recently: “It benefits us if another cowboy is in charge of America who will isolate the U.S. and unravel the coalition against Iran. Romney is already causing problems with Russia and China. The Europeans won’t be able to stomach a return to the Bush policies. All of this gets worse if Romney is president.”
There is a logic to this Iranian argument. When the Bush administration refused to join EU-led negotiations from 2003 to 2005, Tehran realized that Europe was incapable of reaching an agreement without American acquiescence. As a result, Iran’s main strategy became dislodging the EU from the United States and by extension complicating Washington’s relations with Brussels, Moscow and Beijing. Many Iranian officials consider this to be former president Khatami’s signal achievement, helped by American obstinance. And they see a Romney presidency reinvigorating this dynamic through transatlantic fractures that weaken European resolve and P5+1 unity.
Romney may win in November, but Iran should be careful what it wishes for. Tehran has shown an ability to take advantage of Washington’s mistakes abroad, but it has long misgauged America’s domestic politics. This election cycle is no different, and Iranian decision makers fail to grasp an important reality: the Republican party of the 1980s and early 1990s is dead. GOP foreign policy is now run by neoconservatives, many of whom embrace the remarks uttered by a senior Bush official two months after the American invasion of Iraq: “Anyone can go to Baghdad. Real men go to Tehran.”
Fully seventeen of Romney’s twenty-four special advisers on foreign policy served in the Bush administration. His key advisers on the Middle East are all neocons—a frightening prospect given their legacy. If Iranian officials think today’s GOP is the same as it was in 1980, they are badly miscalculating. Romney’s advisers—most of whom supported the Iraq war—have already concluded that war with Iran is essential. Often a president is only as smart as his or her advisers, and for that reason Iran should not dismiss as mere rhetoric Republican support for war.
For over a decade, the GOP has made it clear that it does not want a negotiated peace with Iran. President Obama takes a different tack. He seems willing to deal, and he is one of only a handful of senior officials in his own administration who truly believe the U.S.-Iran standoff can be solved peacefully. Nevertheless, Tehran does not see Obama this way. Iranian decision makers view his record on sanctions and other destructive forms of pressure as far worse than any of his predecessors. Right or wrong, they see Obama as duplicitous and beholden to Israel.
And if Obama wins in November? The Iranian government senses this possibility and understands the limitations: pressure from Congress, Israel and Saudi Arabia, among others. Iran has therefore planned accordingly—with a dual-track policy of its own: suggesting comprehensive talks while also floating the idea of eventual withdrawal from the nonproliferation treaty.
Iranian officials are playing a dangerous game based on misperceptions. They see an international community that is genuinely concerned with Tehran’s reaction to increased pressure, and the misperception is that Washington and its allies do not want a war for which they do not have the bandwidth. As a result, Iran will likely continue waiting for what it perceives as a fair offer from the United States. In the meantime it will continue changing facts on the ground to gain terms as favorable as possible for its showdown with the next American president.
Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council.