Post-Deal Iran Asks if U.S. Is Still ‘Great Satan,’ or Something Less


President Hassan Rouhani, by a picture of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The two have offered starkly opposing views of Iran’s future since reaching a deal on its nuclear program. Credit
TEHRAN — A new struggle is unfolding in Iran, where the top leaders have begun to tackle the question of how to deal with the United States after having reached a nuclear agreement with their great enemy.

The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Hassan Rouhani have been offering starkly opposing visions of Iran’s post-deal future, reflecting their divergent attitudes toward the “Great Satan.”

“We have announced that we will not negotiate with the Americans on any issue other than the nuclear case,” Mr. Khamenei said this month. Speaking to a group of hard-line students recently he was even more explicit, telling them to “prepare for the continuation of the fight against America.”

By contrast, Mr. Rouhani said on Sunday that the nuclear agreement, reached after two years of tortuous negotiations, was “not the end of the way,” but “a beginning for creating an atmosphere of friendship and cooperation with various countries.”

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“Our Great Satan without sanctions is just not the same anymore,” said Saeed Laylaz, an economist and supporter of Mr. Rouhani. “Perhaps we should use ‘lesser Satan’ now or something like that.”

In a highly controlled society like Iran, the leaders rarely speak spontaneously, so there is a certain premeditated “good cop, bad cop” aspect to the public posturing about the United States. But the dueling perspectives also reflect the problem of fitting the new, softer image of the United States into Iran’s founding ideological narrative.

Thirty-seven years after the revolution, those longing for Iran to have normal relations with the world, believe their time has finally come, no matter what the supreme leader is saying. By their lights, change is inevitable, and Ayatollah Khamenei is just protecting his political flank against the hard-line clerics and commanders who oppose the nuclear deal.

But other analysts say that misreads the situation, putting a naïvely optimistic spin on the motivations and intentions of an all-powerful supreme leader who, while cautious and calculating, remains a highly conservative force.

There are no outward indications that Mr. Khamenei is enthusiastic about rapprochement between Iran and the United States, these other analysts say. On the contrary, since August he has used every public speech to make clear that there will be no such thing, repeating last week that, deal or no deal, the United States remains the “Great Satan.”

“This deal is a one-off agreement in our interest,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, a hard-line analyst close to Ayatollah Khamenei. “Not an attempt to mend ties with America.”

Iran’s leader, they add, is a staunch ideologue who often says that he is “not a diplomat but a revolutionary,” and the flexibility he has shown on the nuclear issue was out of self-interest, a calculated tactic to get sanctions lifted, not the start of a new era for Iran. To underline his point, he predicted last week that Israel would not exist in 25 years, drawing international criticism.


There will be no such thing as direct talks over other issues, like Iraq, Syria and Yemen. At best, some analysts say, Ayatollah Khamenei is awaiting what he calls in some speeches “positive steps” from the United States. He will “review” such actions before considering real relations.

“If they do not leave the region and keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, the leader doesn’t see any future in having relations with America,” said one former Revolutionary Guards official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his position, adding, “For now, that does not seem likely to happen.”

Whatever the effect on foreign relations, Ayatollah Khamenei’s genuine distrust of the United States is casting an increasingly dark shadow over Mr. Rouhani’s ambitions at home, which are always subject to a veto by the supreme leader, who retains the final word on all matters.

Over the past two years, the president, who came to power promising an end to Iran’s international isolation and a more “normal” life, has raised expectations among Iran’s middle class. He has done so while tiptoeing around the subject of establishing relations with the United States, which has become a symbol of the changes many people would like to see, such as more personal freedom and overhauling the archaic justice system.

Right after the nuclear agreement was signed, for example, some in Tehran called for abolishing the “death to America” slogan and predicted the reopening of the United States Embassy. Neither suggestion gained traction.