The Discourse on Iran Affairs

The Discourse on Iran Affairs

During the election campaign, President Obama talked a great deal about the situation in Afghanistan, Pak-India relations, US-Iran relations and the Middle East problems in general. There were high expectations that his presidency would mark a distinct change in the American policies toward the problems and issues that the world was facing.

Policy Perspectives , Volume7 , Number 1, Special Issue 2010


Question: What is the policy of Obama administration for Iran? What are the possible outcomes of the Western pressure against Iran?

During the election campaign, President Obama talked a great deal about the situation in Afghanistan, Pak-India relations, US-Iran relations and the Middle East problems in general. There were high expectations that his presidency would mark a distinct change in the American policies toward the problems and issues that the world was facing. The fact of the matter is that the rhetoric of the election campaign should never be taken too literally because once the candidate becomes the government, the realities begin to change. As a candidate, one is not aware of the strength of different pressure groups, particularly the Israeli lobby in case of Middle East, as much as one would be after becoming a president.

It seems President Obama’s heart is still in finding the solutions for these problems. Specifically to the question of Iran, he has not completely abundant even now what he said or he used to say during the election campaign. It was a bold departure from the position of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama talked about opening all inclusive negotiations with Iran that also include the nuclear issue. Nevertheless, he was careful even at that time on nuclear issue, trying not to give the impression that he would accept a military nuclear program from Iran.

At the moment, the situation is a bit mixed. The Obama administration continues to hold a hard-line stance on the nuclear issue and is threatening Iran with more sanctions—harder and tougher. Yet, during his presidency which is still very young, there have been fresh initiatives for Iran and the US to talk to each other. Apart from the publicized contacts which are known, there are reasons to believe that there have been unpublicized contacts too. Since President Obama is a realist, he knows that it would be very difficult to solve any of the regional problems without Iran as Iran is the largest entity in the Gulf. There is no doubt that Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah and Hamas has the potential to influence regional issues. Moreover, it has a long border with Afghanistan which is one of Iranian zones of influence in terms of cultural linkages which are ancient and Iran has carefully kept them alive and cultivated.

Similarly Iran has a role in Iraq as well. It has handled the Iraq crisis extremely well in its national interest. Since Iran was a victim of Saddam Hussein’s aggression for eight long years, the power shifting in Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party to the elected government of the majority which, Iranians believe, subscribes to the Shiite school of thought, is a boon for Iran. It has used its cultural and religious linkages to establish a great deal of understanding with some of the armed militias inside Iraq. Leveraging these linkages well in the region has made Iran a power to reckon with and it would be difficult to side step or ignore Iran in regional issues. Obama is also aware of these factors and knows that Iran’s approach to these issues would be one of the determining factors for any future peace talks or any progress that can be made in the Middle East or Gulf.

In this backdrop, the whole issue of US-Iran relations is passing through a very interesting phase where the United States is very increasingly realizing and admitting that: Iran is a reality and an emerging power; it has enough clout to exert influence all around today; and it is bound to have more clout in the years to come. Both sides are in a kind of exploratory phase at the moment. One of Obama’s problems is that the hawks of Israel do not take an enlightened view and would want to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations. President Obama has resisted the pressure from this particular hawkish lobby and generally counseled Israel to show restraint, because it would be a disaster if there is any military action against Iran either by Israel or by United States. He realizes that it would complicate things to such an extent that it would become extremely difficult to resolve the consequences of that unwise and extremely shortsighted decision.

At the same time, Unites States continues to oppose the Iranian nuclear program. When the elections took place in Iran and the protests ensued, the American media in particular which is fed by the American government very often and the American intelligence agencies took a strong anti-Ahmadinejad line. They played these protests up and tried to stage a kind of velvet revolution in Iran, as is seen by Iranian establishment. It was a negative move on the part of the West which Iranians did not take very well.

The West tried to use statements from Tehran for developing a case against its revolutionary regime. One of the charges against Iran over the decades has been that Iran is a supporter of all terrorist movements in the greater Middle East. Iran seems to be providing active assistance, arms, training, and volunteers to Hezbollah and Hamas that have been classified by the West as terrorist movements. In this backdrop, Iran has always been portrayed as a terrorist state by the West. When Iran tries to reach out to Latin America for its own economic reasons, particularly to defeat the sanctions; even that was seen as an attempt to create trouble in American backyard.

Nevertheless, the contacts continued and both sides were trying to identify a common space where their interests could co-exist, if not converge as it is unlikely, and the present confrontation, which is now about 27 years old, can be dismantled. In the dialogue between Iran and the West, United States in particular, Iran seeks to change this mind-set and want the West to acknowledge the fact that Iran cannot be a secondary power. Half of the struggle of Iran is for the West to acknowledge Iran’s correct position in this part of the world.

Although a kind of dialogue has been going on between Iran and the West but meaningful, result oriented and deep dialogue is still not visible. The two sides have started from maximal positions. The US demands that Iranians should completely wrap up its nuclear program which would never be accepted by Iran. Some compromises would have to be found in such a manner that Iran’s self esteem, its sense of dignity and interests are safeguarded. Yet, the United States has not abandoned or given up the policy of containing Iran. It has been its traditional policy and it is too early and premature to assume that there has been any significant shift in that policy. The shift has been in Obama’s own position very rightly.

It is extremely unlikely that Iran would be seen to have climbed down under pressure from the West because it is a proud nation and there is no reason and no objective factors on the ground as to why Iran should buckle under pressure. It has resisted the pressure and defying it has not brought it down. It is a fact that Iran could do better by developing good relations with the West as it badly needs an injection of modern technology and other basic things. But even while the sanctions and American hostility with Iran have slowed down Iran’s development and progress over the years, it has continued to march forward regardless of consequences of UN Security Council resolutions against it.

Therefore, there is a point of view among American hawks that sanctions have not really been successful. There are serious doubts on the question whether the stricter sanctions against Iran would work because Iran’s position is now unassailable. However, an understanding between Iran and the West would be in the interest of both the parties and the region.

Question: What is the role of China and Russia in the US campaign of imposing sanctions against Iran?

As far as China and Russia are concerned, that is a complicating factor. Looking back to the history of various resolutions directed against Iran, the United States almost always began with very harsh draft for sanctions but behind the scene negotiations with China and Russia and the fear of their veto gradually led to softening of the terms. China and Russia individually and together are not in favor of any more stringent sanctions against Iran because they know that these sanctions are counterproductive. They also realize that sanctions would only strengthen the hawks and hardliners in Tehran. Being the stakeholders in Iran’s prosperity, China and Russia are also facing a problem. On the one hand, both the powers have strong relations with Iran particularly in the economic field. China has burgeoning trade with Iran which is bound to increase. Russia has supplied a nuclear reactor and it would like to sell more of them to Iran if it can. Iran has paid Russia for highly sophisticated air defense system but it has not received it as yet. The Americans have been putting pressure on Russia to delay it or cancel it altogether.

On the other hand, China has a fairly comprehensive relationship with United States. When Obama recently visited Beijing, he went out of the way to recognize China as an emerged power. At one stage, he seemed to be suggesting that there are only two powers—US and China that is G2 as it came to be known—that could sort out the global problems or give a lead at the least. Similarly, Russia has sensitive relations with America too because European politics is involved in it and NATO’s eastward expansion is a cause of concern for Russia. Moreover, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is running out of its time and a fresh treaty has to be negotiated very soon. Thus, neither Russia nor the US can forget about each other.

In this scenario, China and Russia try to maintain relations with Washington in such a manner that the issue of Iran or Iranian nuclear program would not rock their own bilateral relations too much. They are careful, but it is a safe presumption that while they may say they certainly would not want Iran to have nuclear weapons, they would continue to oppose stringent or stricter sanctions against it. So in a way, they are in a muddle. They certainly would not want to jeopardize their relations with Iran and at the same time they also want to be seen by the United States and the West as responsible international stakeholders and actors at global level. In short, the two big powers would seek to continue the process of diluting the American positions and they would probably succeed.

Question: How is the US pressure seen inside Iran? How will it affect the socio-political dynamism in Iran?

Iran has responded to external pressures by improvising and re-tooling up its indigenous capacity. In a way, the sanctions have been a blessing for Iran as it has made considerable strides towards being able to look after itself in the field of technology. Still it cannot be said that Iran is self sufficient. Obviously, the technology that Iran is using cannot be compared with the latest western technology, but Iranians have their paragon: they have fairly modern army, which is not an aggressive army, and it concentrates on defense, particularly on the coastal defense; and they have demonstrated innovative skills.

While taking into consideration the internal situation of Iran with respect to the sanctions, the reality is that Iran would face the people’s pressure but it would not be a pressure to change Iran’s national policy on the nuclear question. Incidentally, the nuclear program is very popular in Iran. There could be many reasons for its popularity such as self esteem, Israel, India and Pakistan being nuclear powers, the threats to Iranian security and sovereignty etc. The pressure that government is facing shows that the Iranian society is dynamic, and not at all static. The revolution is now old and lots of people in Iran feel that the initial dangers to the revolution are no longer there and there should be a better deal for the Iranian people. The policies that the governments pursue or have pursued in Iran in some ways create this demand for change or reforms. For instance, from the beginning of Islamic revolution, the Iranian governments have encouraged the education of women. Iranian women are into the higher education in a big way. Probably, there are more women at universities than men and they are encouraged to go in every profession. When the governments empower people in that sense, they begin to wonder why it is necessary to continue with a rigid dress code or other restrictions that the revolutionaries may have imposed on them. Therefore, a certain momentum for change is built-up.

The same goes for other human rights issues. Iran is a very literate society in which even those people who are by no means rich or affluent buy books. So, when a society is so aware and lives in a world of communication revolution too where it can listen to broadcast from all over the world, then they begin to wonder why they do not have the freedom of speech as anyone else in the world has. So it is a legitimate struggle and this kind of struggle will continue. However, the conservatives in Iran fear change. One reason for that fear is Iran’s own history in which they look at the example of Shah of Iran. They have learned that if the change is too rapid, the governments would lose control and unintended consequences may emerge. This danger makes the governments even more conservative.

Nevertheless, there was a period of reforms before Ahmadinejad and there was no upheaval. It was a gradual process. So Iran has to find its own way. No one can do it from outside. The progress of Iranian people in the direction of human rights such as better justice, better distribution of wealth, and freedom of speech should be an internal struggle and it seems that the direction would be positive. Today’s Iran is probably less dogmatic than immediately after the revolution but they still have strong convictions in the spirit of revolution. Therefore, when Iran is threatened in a state of siege, then the dynamic are different: The Iranians would forget their internal differences and unite because they have very strong sense of nationhood. They defer the internal struggles and close their ranks as it happened when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. This is the characteristic of the Iranian people which the West could not understand.

Quite the opposite, the West keeps on providing funds for Iranian dissidents and setting up television stations to arouse the Iranian people against their government on the matter of freedom of speech, women’s rights and so on and so forth. But on the nuclear issue, there is no significant group in Iran which wants to give up the nuclear program just to oblige the West.

Question: What are the causes of growing tension on the Saudi-Yemen borders? What would be the consequences of this tension for Arabs-Iranian relationship?

Yemen has a long history of internal divisions that mar the governance in the country. There are vacant spaces in its border areas which can be exploited by the Al-Qaeda or other such elements, but one of the dominant factors could be that Al-Qaeda wants to keep Saudi Arabia under pressure because Saudi Arabia has been very determined in its relationship with the US. However, what complicates things is that even the West sometimes would like to see its own friends in the region to be kept under pressure. They are always fearful that Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or any other state might break away from the Western control and take their own independent decision. Yemen is a hot-spot and Saudi government is right in the sense that it cannot allow the phenomenon of armed groups in Yemen to get out of hand and that is why they reacted strongly at this time. This problem can easily be understood in terms of its own dynamics but the Western media is trying to bring up the sectarian element into it.

Iran is careful in diplomacy and international relations. For instance, when Iran exchanged a few statements with Saudi Arabia, it tried to limit it to an exchange between the two governments. The Saudis might have said something about Iranian suspected involvement in the Yamani troubles and Iran then responded to it but they appeared to be walking on a tight rope. Iran does not seem to be giving any support to Al-Qaeda as a movement and once the chips are down, it would not tolerate the Al-Qaeda fugitives in its own case either. In fact, in the case of Afghanistan, Iran is opposed to the Taliban because it always regarded them as an aberration of Sunni thought processes and extremely narrow-minded interpretation of Islam, which is hostile to Iran’s own approach to Islam.

The American diplomacy continues to incite Arab opinion against Iran and is constantly trying to prey on Arabs fears that Iran might go nuclear. There is another constant theme in the western propaganda for driving a wedge between Arabs and Iranians that Iran wants to be hegemonic power of the Gulf or of the Middle East. There is Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia which inhabits in the oil rich part of Saudi Arabia. The West constantly drums that fact up and tries to create doubts that Saudi Arabian stability particularly energy security would be threatened if there is a Shiite revolt or Iranian penetration in the oil-bearing Eastern parts of Saudi Arabia.

This kind of threat is kept alive more by the Western media than by the regional media as a part of West’s policy that has tried to turn this Shiite-Sunni issue into a fault-line for many years. The US saw it as fault-line and it exploited it very badly in Iraq that led to thousands of very tragic deaths and events such as attacks on holy shrines etc. These are the weapons that the opponents of Iran use in this region rather successfully. However, it is not a fault-line for the people in the region who live with it very comfortably. Although there is a certain dialectical tension within the Iranian revolution from the very beginning regarding the neighborhood, there is no great evidence that Iran possesses an expansionist policy.

A degree of distrust between the Arabs and Iran cannot be denied, yet the Arab States and Iran are wise in a sense that they do not fall into this trap easily. Perhaps the more obvious massage from Iran to Arabs is that it has no hegemonic intentions and it would like to have friendly relations with the neighbors as its relations with UAE and Dubai are excellent in a way that UAE handles the bulk of Iran’s trade in particular.

The leader of the revolution, Imam Khomeini, kept on repeating endlessly that Iranian revolution was not sectarian but a Muslim or an Islamic revolution in nature. However, there are other voices in Iran which see the Iranian revolution, first and for most, as a Shiite revolution. That tension is there but this is not a tension that any other state should worry about too much because the Iranian decisions at the state level are always practical and pragmatic regardless of their internal discourse and internal debate. The Hezbollah-Iran relation is not simply a Shiite nexus. It is, in fact, against the terrible injustice that has been done to Palestine and Lebanon that have been invaded a number of times in the past 6 decades. In the case of Palestine, Hamas is a Sunni dominated organization but it has an excellent relation with Iran.

The fact of the matter is that the US has not succeeded in creating an Arab/Sunni front against Iran/Shiite. It is a tug of war and the key of course is whether or not president Obama shows perseverance in dealing with Iran peacefully and developing a proper dialogue.

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