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Why Iran won’t bow to foreign pressure

Guest Blogger

Hooman Majd has special insight into the impulses that drive his native Iran, and he has delivered them in two books, “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran,” and his latest, “The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge,” which examines the 2009 Iran elections and the Green Revolution. Here, Majd draws on his keen understanding of Iranian culture and history to explain what drives Tehran to resist foreign pressure to curb its nuclear ambitions.

By: Hooman Majd

At a time when there is great debate about the efficacy of the latest round of sanctions on Iran -- pressure intended to change Iran’s behavior -- the question shouldn’t be whether sanctions are having a painful effect, which of course they are, but whether sanctions will achieve the intended result. Essentially the sanctions, imposed by both the U.N. and individual countries, seek to force Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and bow to the West in its demands that it prove its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.

There is no reason to believe that sanctions, or any other form of pressure on Iran, will bring this result.

The Islamic Republic’s foreign policy is founded on the principle, etched into tile at the entrance to the Foreign Ministry, that Iran is a truly independent nation. “Neither East nor West; Islamic Republic,” the slogan reads, written at a time when most countries of the world fell into one camp or the other of the superpowers, the United States or the Soviet Union.

Iran’s revolution, which drew the support of the majority of Iranians, even those not hostile to the West, was successful partly because of what that slogan meant to them after more than a hundred years of foreign domination, interference in their affairs, and the country’s inability to chart its own course independent of the consent of the West to which Iran was allied.

Iran is a proud nation with a strong sense of history -- ancient history as well as contemporary from the greatness of the Persian Empire and its resurgence under the 16th Century Safavids to the indignity of a simple CIA- and MI-6-sponsored coup eliminating its one moment of democracy in 1953. It is almost an article of faith among Iranians, including those who oppose
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that the West, meaning the United States and Britain, still want to frame their relationship with Iran as one of arbab and nokar, or master and servant.

Iranians’ sensitivity to this issue reflects how they perceive pressure, or demands by foreign nations. These demands are sometimes described as a component of a carrot-and-stick arrangement (thus essentially defining a master/servant dynamic), and sometimes as something much worse – even crippling, if prescriptions are not followed.. The threat of war, or all options on the table, is an altogether different but also ineffective threat.

As the former Iranian ambassador to the UN, Javad Zarif, was fond of saying, Iran is allergic to threats and demands, and he couldn’t have put it better.

Iran has suffered for more than 30 years because of its central foreign policy tenet, and Iranians know it. Yet there is still tremendous support for the nuclear program in Iran, not just because of Persian pride, which President Obama recognizes, but because it has become the very symbol of Iranian independence from East and West, and a symbol of the country’s resistance to what many Iranians consider unreasonable foreign demands.

The Iranian government has spent years explaining to their people what the Non-Proliferation Treaty and their adherence to it means; it has spent years outlining the fact that five powers that possess nuclear weapons and refuse to disarm, along with Israel, which goes unpunished for its nuclear arsenal, want to deprive their nation of a right they’re guaranteed under an international treaty.

The Islamic republic has been under some form of international pressure and sanctions almost since its inception -- well before there was any nuclear program of any sort. And many Iranians believe it’s only because the West simply disapproves of Iran’s independence, and not because of anything the country has done. How else to explain why the West will not sell spare parts for Iran’s civilian aircraft fleet, a fact that has resulted in Iran’s having one of the world’s worst aviation safety records? Or how to explain why the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for using chemical weapons in his war against Iran, a devastating war Iran commemorated the same week Iran was under the spotlight at the UN General Assembly?

Sadly, perception is often more important than reality in international relations, as any diplomat can attest. Iran has not been as intransigent on its nuclear program as we imagine. And even as the Iranian president engaged in 9/11 conspiracy theories in New York (which he probably first heard about from American sources, on YouTube and blogs), the country continued to insist that it is open to negotiations, as long as they are entered into from a position of mutual respect, and devoid of pressure and threats.

Despite what some analysts insist, psychoanalyzing the Supreme Leader of Iran from thousands of miles away and proclaiming that he believes the foundation of his rule and the survival of the regime is dependent on anti-Americanism, the reality is that neither the Supreme Leader nor any other Iranian leader, conservative, pragmatist or Green, really believes that -- not unless America really does aspire to be the arbab of Iran.

It was the Supreme Leader who declared, in response to U.S. demands that the United States change its behavior, “you change, and we will change too.” Pressure, sanctions, demands and threats cannot change the perception Iran has of U.S. intentions toward it, not even with an American president as civil as Barack Obama. That doesn’t mean that Iran cannot negotiate a way out of the nuclear impasse (and other points of contention with the West), it just means that it won’t from a position of perceived weakness.

As such, it’s not so much that Iran won’t bow to pressure, it’s that it can’t. If it does, it will have lost its very raison d’être.

By Steven E. Levingston  | October 7, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags:  iran nuclear program; iran resistance to foreign pressure; iran history and foreigners;  
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Well said Hooman.
I totally agree with all your statements.
And that's where the conflict arises. America truely believes that has the perfect democratic system and everyone else should abide by them. I don't think that is true and I don't like the Iranian Regime neither since they are practicing stone age dictatorship methods. But this doesn't legitimize Americans neither for what they are prescribing in their forign policies neither.
I like the idea of independence for my home country. But I don't like the regime in charge specially that it is religiously motivated and now it is turning into a military dictatorship. I guess the initial phase of standing up to face forign pressure requires some brutality and dictatorship. Once the country is in a stronger position, all the internal tight grips will be lossened.
This is the history of every nation that is now developed.

Posted by: nader2 | October 7, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Beautifully articulated Mr. Najd.

I wish Washington Decision makers would heed your warning and read your analysis.

It's better to be poor and free than rich and enslaved.

Economic sanctions didn't work against Mossadegh in 1953 (even though they were devastating to the economy)

US measures economic well being as the ultimate measure of well-being, Iran does not, and that's one of the major disconnects.

Posted by: BG75 | October 7, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse



Posted by: clownsandliars1 | October 7, 2010 7:54 PM | Report abuse

Every time there has been an offer from the U.S. to enter into talks with Iran the extended hand has been accompanied by threats of military strikes that continue to be "on the table". Is it possible no one has told American policymakers how such threats are taken in Tehran? Or are the initiatives designed to fail.

The "carrots and sticks" metaphor is another example. Even Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Cold War veteran who minces no words, has recognized the insulting connotation of that Washington favorite.

Posted by: Procivic | October 7, 2010 8:33 PM | Report abuse

As a witness living in Tehran, I confirm Hooman's analysis.

Posted by: Kaveh1 | October 8, 2010 6:05 AM | Report abuse

I have been rereading the books by Hooman Majd, Ray Takeyh and Baqr Moin over the last 4 weeks. This is in addition to the daily fare of news and analysis ranging from the lucid to the absolute loony tunes that is dumped in my inbox. Having lived in Iran for the last 10 years I think I know a little bit about this proud nation and agree with Hooman that Iran is caught in a very simple trap. It simply cannot allow itself to bow to current demands because it has marketed itself and its military and economic strength to the point that it would be highly embarrassing to climb down. At the same time the top leadership have allowed the Revolutionary Guard to morph into the very same military industrial complex that is holding America hostage. They too believe that there is no profit in peace. Hence they will not allow the top leadership to bow.
Thus we find ourselves in a catch-22 situation where Iran is expecting the West to make all the concessions while it continues to peddle a proud imperial history that simply acts as a very thin veil for modern day corruption and oppression back at home.
Where I take issue with Hooman is in his falling into the typical Iranian trait of not wanting to accept responsibility for their own actions. The 1953 coup is a typical example. While the plans were drawn up by the CIA and the British and payments were made by the two governments, the coup would have been a failure if it was not actively supported (whether paid or not) by Iranians - especially from the side of the Bazaaris and certain members of the cleric. Mossadeq himself is also not blameless because his erratic and authoritarian behavior alienated a large part of the support that he had when he started his nationalization project. So yes, America and Britain must take their part of the blame, but I am waiting for the Iranian elite to accept that Iranians themselves executed the plot. If this 1953 event was really such a big issue why is the British still in Iran. It was after all they who asked the Americans for help when they could not get Mossadeq to agree to their preposterous proposals.
At the beginning of the revolution there was no demand that America should be kicked out of Iran because of 1953. It is now common cause that even the invasion of the American embassy was initially not supported by the late Ayatollah Khomeini but it was only after he saw how he could use this incident to strengthen himself internationally and domestically that he gave his blessing and support to the hostage taking sage. And in a sense it is this incident more than anything that has been haunting the American collective psyche when it comes to Iran.
Might it not be too preposterous to suggest that both countries need a serious and prolonged session of self criticism about each other before they attempt to heal the past? Might it be even more preposterous for President Obama to send a letter to the Supreme Leader and ask to come and pay him his respects?

Posted by: cyrusix | October 8, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

This appears to be a honest representation and it begs the west to take the initiative to normalize relations with Iran.

Posted by: arbeee | October 8, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

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