TEHRAN — “We were naive to think the United States would keep its promises in a deal with us,” Hasan, a retired captain in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war — now a prominent film director — said last week from his office in a major regime production studio in central Tehran. “I thought enough time had passed since the revolution that we could potentially engage with America again,” he continued, before he let out a resigned sigh.
For years, I had spoken with Hasan and his colleagues, all members of the IRGC, as part of my academic research into their organization. (They all agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity. The first names used here are pseudonyms.) In our most recent conversations, they seemed to be tacitly marking an abrupt end to a rare moment, in which they felt that changing Iran’s relationship with the United States was both possible and justified. Their tone was marked mostly by embarrassment for having felt hopeful in the first place.
Just four years earlier, these same IRGC members had hotly debated whether President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, were doing the right thing by seeking to strike a deal with not only European powers, Russia, and China, but also the United States. In 2014, they would gather regularly, usually over lunch, and hold lively discussions about the most recent developments in the negotiations. Hasan — one of the most vocal proponents of the potential deal — said excitedly during one of the meetings, “If Zarif can achieve this deal, he’ll be our Mossadegh,” referring to Mohammed Mossadegh, the Iranian prime minister from 1951 to 1953, who nationalized the oil sector and was later deposed in an American-British coup.
“But just like Mossadegh, he’ll eventually be thrown aside by the Americans,” Ghassem had chimed in during that meeting in 2014. Ghassem had lost two of his brothers in war. His eldest brother was killed by an Iraqi bomb, and his youngest brother died in 2005 due to complications from exposure to chemical bombs. He carried around the weight of their deaths and dedicated his work to creating films that uncovered the different geopolitical power dynamics of the Middle East in the 1980s. Ghassem was one of the leading filmmakers for state television in the country. He had made numerous documentaries that investigated the role of the Reagan administration in supplying weapons to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in his fight against the newly established Iranian government.
“America is too bogged down in the Middle East to try those tactics again, though,” Ali, one of his colleagues, rebutted. “Plus, they’ve learned their lessons that they can’t keep trying to change regimes in our region. Rouhani and Obama will work something out,” he said hopefully.
Those meetings between two dozen IRGC members in 2014 that I had attended were full of cautious optimism. Despite Western media perceptions that the IRGC might stand against negotiations with the West over Iran’s nuclear program, my research in Iran with men in this organization led me to believe that they would, in fact, back the resulting deal, which they ultimately did. Despite the misgivings of people like Ghassem, the majority of the men whom I had been doing research with echoed Hasan when he told his colleagues: “It’s time for our countries to put our past differences aside.”
These men, all in their late forties and early fifties, saw themselves as the new shepherds of the Islamic Republic. They were eager to have their country engage with the West, to lessen social restrictions at home, and to open Iran’s economy.
Despite the West’s conventional wisdom about the IRGC, on the ground I found a much more diverse group of men who challenged each other, who harshly questioned the tactics of other institutions in the government, and who were vocal critics of the clerics who had been at the helm of the regime since its inception in 1979. Although not all believed in engagement with the United States, these men — all of whom had fought with their lives to uphold the Islamic Republic throughout the 1980s — now believed that it was time for the system to reform from within, without losing its identity. They saw no other way forward, and at the end of the day, they were pragmatists. Men like Hasan and Ghassem, and the dozens of other men in the IRGC whom I had spent years researching, understood the political stakes in remaining too rigid. After all, they were young activists who had taken to the streets in the late 1970s to overthrow a regime that refused to compromise, until it was too late.
Once the Iran deal was announced in July 2015, Hasan and his colleagues cautiously rejoiced. They believed that the agreement was the first important step toward broader ideological change. But, the 2016 presidential election in the United States cast a dark shadow over a prospective detente. With Donald Trump’s victory, his campaign promise to rip up the nuclear deal, and his eventual choice of Iran foes John Bolton as national security advisor and Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, the fate of the Iran nuclear deal got progressively bleaker. These developments began to foster regret in the groups of men in the IRGC who favored a slow rapprochement with America.
“I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t foresee this coming,” Hasan told me this past weekend. “Ghassem was right, we shouldn’t have trusted the Americans.”
When I spoke with Ghassem, he did not boast that he had predicted the ill-fated trajectory of the deal. He wasn’t against Iran having good relations with any Western country, he had repeatedly told me during those debates in 2014. But he just did not think the United States would ever want anything but full capitulation from the Islamic Republic.
“What my friends didn’t see when they were rooting for the Iran deal,” he recently told me solemnly, “was that there’s a segment of the American political establishment that can never forgive us for kicking the United States out of Iran during the revolution in 1979. I mean, the United States was the shah’s biggest ally, and then we came to power and told them they couldn’t dictate how we governed anymore. And once we took their embassy and held their people hostage in 1980, that was a slap in their face. They can never forgive us for that. They want to see us broken at our knees, in complete surrender.”
“It doesn’t matter if there are people in both of our countries who want to turn a new page,” he continued. “The Obamas and Rouhanis of our countries are just one segment of the political establishment.”
The feelings of frustration, anger, and betrayal were palpable in every conversation I had with my research interlocutors the past few weeks, as the fate of the Iran deal hung in the air. But the word that kept coming up over and over again was “naive.”
“Iran had abided by this deal, and not only does America want to go back on its word, but it also seeks to spread lies about our activities” Hasan told me, angry at the narrative now coming out of the United States and Israel. “Look, I make movies for a living, and what the United States and Israel are doing today is a carbon copy of the screenplay they used to sell the invasion of Iraq in 2002. We were naive to think the Americans would stick to their promises in this deal, but are the American people and the rest of the world really that naive to fall for the same lies again?”
No matter what policy Trump settles on going forward, the men I talked with all said they want Iran to continue working with Europe. “But we won’t be this naive again, not when it comes to America,” Mehdi, a high-ranking member of the IRGC, said. “The old clerics at the top of our government, most of whom have never trusted the United States since taking power, are probably having a good laugh at us right now.”