The power of words in International Relations: Rafsanjani, Bush, and the Iranian nuclear program

Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani died today, January 8, 2017.  His death offers an opportune time to reflect on the power of the US president’s words in foreign policy.

Rafsanjani was very conservative, and often brutal, by Western standards – for example, he was an ardent supporter of Iran’s then-nascent nuclear program, and eager to crack down on liberal dissent, tacitly approving of a religious call to kill the dissident writer Rushdie. Yet he was considered a centrist and moderate by Iranian political standards, wanting to focus more on the economy and less about anti-American rhetoric. His contradictions inspired Iran with a taste of progressivism, paving the way for Mohammed Khatami’s two terms as president in 1997.

Khatami’s presidency oversaw the most open and liberal times Iran had seen since the Iranian revolution in 1979, and there was an opening for US-Iran relations to make peace. Instead, at the beginning of Khatami’s second term in January 2002, President George W. Bush labeled Iran as part of the so-called Axis of Evil in his State of the Union address. Anyone remotely familiar with Iranian politics recognized the irresponsibility and ignorance of this rhetoric, but the damage was done. Iran heard the sentiment loud and clear, and overnight became politically unable and unwilling to extend any olive branches. By the end of Khatami’s second term, Iran elected the ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, in a dramatic twist of fate, beat Rafsanjani in an election where the electorate was looking for a more conservative political leader to stand up to the Great Satan, as the United States if often called in Iranian propaganda. The window for thawing relations had closed. Worse, the sentiment fanned the flames for Iran nuclear program, accelerating weapon development and further exacerbating the need for outside intervention and olive branches. Luckily, Secretary of State John Kerry managed to stem this tide with the Iran nuclear deal, but, over a decade later, was unable to undo Bush’s mistake.

Rafsanjani’s death is a reminder that the whole world listens to the United States, and takes the US president’s words seriously. A tweet sent at 3 am remarking  on foreign powers has far-reaching and permanent consequences, and any reversals, “I did not mean that,” or “the media is twisting my meaning” remarks sent a few hours or days later does not undo the damage. Today, Iran is again in a period of relative liberalizations (though the country remains shockingly conservative by Western standards). Trump’s administration threatens to repeat and compound the mistakes of the Bush administration, something that should send shivers the world over.

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