Recent revelations that the Islamic Republic of Iran and the U.S. have held secret talks as a way of resolving months of attacks by Tehran-backed Houthi rebels on shipping in the Red Sea have raised eyebrows. Surely the two countries have been implacable foes for decades? How could they be engaged in constructive negotiations?

At first glance, this seems unlikely. Since its establishment following the 1979 revolution in Iran, the ideology of the Islamic Republic established in its wake has played heavily on anti-imperialism and the rejection of what is seen as “U.S. hegemony.”

Tehran has tended to divide the international system in terms of what it sees as the “oppressed” and the “oppressors” with the U.S. as the chief oppressor and the Islamic Republic as the defender of the oppressed.

These ideas were an important part of political culture and debates among many Iranians before 1979 in response to what many people felt had been excessive foreign interference. Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s first supreme leader, co-opted these ideas.

In practical terms, this meant a rejection of the Carter administration’s close involvement in Iranian affairs, despite human rights abuses under the Shah of Iran.


The desire to reject U.S. influence was perhaps evident in the takeover of the U.S. embassy in 1979 and the subsequent hostage crisis. With the Iran-Iraq War which broke out after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, defense against the U.S. also became an integral part of the Islamic Republic’s ideology because it was perceived that Iraq had U.S. support.

But to view the Islamic Republic’s relationship with the U.S. simply in terms of Khomeini’s ideology — or without appreciating different approaches from within the Islamic Republic over the years — provides an inaccurate picture. Historically, pragmatism and dialogue have also played an important role.

Mohammad Khatami, who was elected president of Iran in 1997, was pragmatic and considered dialogue integral to the Islamic Republic’s ideology. He sought to bring Iran out of the isolation from the international system that had been characteristic since the 1979 Revolution.

Khatami’s Dialogue Among Civilisations speech to the United Nations in 1998 drew on intellectual debates about the aims of the Islamic Revolution and reforming the Islamic Republic. His speech recommended designating 2001 as the year of dialogue among civilizations, a proposal that was unanimously adopted by a vote of the UN General Assembly.

In 1998, Khatami addressed the American people on CNN, as a part of this dialogue. He drew parallels between the American War of Independence and Iran’s search for a national identity, declaring: “We feel that what we seek is what the founders of the American civilization were also pursuing four centuries ago. This is why we sense an intellectual affinity with the essence of the American civilization.”

In 2001, Khatami condemned the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Under his direction, Iran also signed a secret deal to provide assistance to U.S. forces in their campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan that year.

‘Axis of Evil’

But a combination of factors, including being labeled as a key member of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” contributed to more strained relations with Washington under Khatami’s successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Considered by many as a populist leader, Ahmadinejad’s policy towards the U.S. (and Israel) was aggressive, ideological, and less pragmatic. With a dramatic rise in human rights abuses under Ahmadinejad, western concerns centered on Iran’s uranium enrichment activities and Bush’s “war on terror” rhetoric prompted a steady deterioration in the Islamic Republic’s relations with the U.S.

After Barack Obama took office as U.S. president in 2009, reports of fraud in the Iranian presidential election of that year brought Iranians in big cities on to the streets. Obama condemned what he called the “unjust” violence against protesters. Meanwhile, EU, UN, and U.S. sanctions hardened as a response to Iran’s developing nuclear program.

Nuclear Deal

At this stage, Iran’s political establishment could see the need to restore the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy both with the Iranian people and internationally. The election of Hassan Rouhani as president in 2013 went some way to resolving both of these issues.

In contrast to Ahmadinejad, Rouhani promoted a policy of “constructive engagement.” A series of secret meetings between the Obama and Rouhani administrations contributed to the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the Iran nuclear deal — in July 2015. This restricted Iran’s nuclear program in return for a promised easing of sanctions.

The JCPOA was just one sign of this pragmatism between Tehran and Washington. The U.S. and the Islamic Republic also cooperated in response to the rise of Islamic State (IS). The removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003 with the subsequent de-Ba’athification policy created a security vacuum in Iraq which allowed IS to grow.

Despite different priorities and their ongoing rivalry, the Islamic Republic and the U.S. needed to cooperate against what each saw as the greater enemy. This sort of backchannel communication was seen again recently when the U.S. secretly warned Tehran it had intelligence of a planned IS attack in Iran in January.

Ultimately, the Islamic Republic’s priority is its own survival. This is all the more pertinent following the massive “woman, life, freedom” protests.

The death in custody in September 2022 of the Kurdish-Iranian woman, Jina Mahsa Amini, for what the Islamic Republic’s morality police said was improper wearing of her hijab, sparked the largest protests since the 1979 revolution drawing horrific violence from authorities. An upshot was that many ordinary Iranians questioned the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic.

Given this crisis of legitimacy at home, it makes sense for the Islamic Republic to balance its ideological fervor with a degree of pragmatism in its relations with the outside world. Hence the indirect secret talks with the U.S. — conducted with an Omani diplomat as the go-between — over the Red Sea attacks.

If pressure applied by the Islamic Republic and Washington on the Houthis and Israel respectively can bear fruit in some way, both sides increase their chances of coming out with a political win when they most need it.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Shabnam Holliday is an associate professor in international relations at the University of Plymouth.


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