Why Iran won’t bow to foreign pressure
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.
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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