President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the P5+1 nuclear deal (albeit there was no transgression) has once again turned the spotlight on Iran and for all the bad reason. Strategists in White house accuse Tehran of betraying the essence of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal. They argue[i] that post-JCPOA; Tehran poured billions of dollars into military operations abroad leading to an arc of destruction ranging from Yemen to Syria at the expense of its masses. While in Tehran, jinxing of the nuclear deal has united hardliners across the political spectrum, and the Iranian government has vowed to increase the uranium enrichment. This has sent jitters across the international community.
A cursory look at the aforementioned events shows that Washington attempts to constrain Iran has backfired and Tehran’s resolve has further strengthened. If past were to be a guide, sanctions have never deterred Iran from its course. Therefore, it is pertinent to factor in nonmaterial underpinnings while trying to grapple with the Iranian question. Iran views its nuclear program as an ideological resistance against the western tactics to overthrow the Islamic republic. Its worldview of the US is shaped by the history of the US intervention in Iran which dates back to 1953; when Eisenhower administration engineered a coup against the democratically elected government of Md. Mossadeq. His successor Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was often perceived by Iranians as a US agent. They felt their proud legacy of past was compromised. Iranians felt Pahlavi dynasty lacked “etmad be nafs”[ii] which translates as self-confidence and thus felt humiliated being ruled by him, i.e. “loss of ezat e nafs” (Pride). Iranians have used these concepts to evaluate their leaders, and it offers a window to understand Iran’s political culture and worldview.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei[iii] has publicly expressed the sense of betrayal and humiliation felt in the wake of the coup, and the feeling resonates with him till this day. There is a belief that the US aims for “regime change”[iv] and not “behavioural change”. Mossadeq government experience of having a friendly attitude towards the US and still being overthrown is often cited to corroborate the above. The recent withdrawal has further strengthened the perception that Americans can’t be trusted. Immediately after the withdrawal, Khamenei proclaimed[v] “I said from the first day, don’t trust America. I don’t trust these three countries referring to the UK, France, and Germany”.
American attempts to destabilise the regime are often regarded as an assault on Islamic ethos and values. The greater the push from the US; the more is resistance exhibited by Iran. Washington needs to understand that unlike economic models there isn’t any middle path when it comes to identity. Either it is recognised, or it doesn’t. Iranian worldview aims to position itself as a distinct and proud Islamic civilisation. These aims are manifested in Farsi slogan inscribed on foreign ministry office in Tehran which reads- “Neither Eastern nor Western, Islamic Republic”; signifying Iran’s unique standing.
Ideologically, Iran sees itself at the centre of the Islamic world. Iranian diplomat Mohammad Javad Larijani, reinvented the term “Omm-ol-Ghora”[vi] roughly meaning mother base, effectively positioning Iran as an epicentre of Islamic civilisation due to its impeccable revolutionary fervour. Iran had always wanted to play a crucial role in the region. By virtue of geography, population, economy and military, Iran has distinguished place in the region. According to Iranian foreign minister Md. Javaid Zarif, “The Islamic Republic can actively contribute to the restoration of regional peace, security and stability during this current transitional stage in international relations”[vii].
Any policy or action (political, economic or cultural) which puts Persian pride/ezzat at stake by trying to constrain it or its engagement would be resisted tooth and nail by Iran; similar to that of the US. Even during JCPOA discussion the pretence of negotiating from the position of strength or in no way be perceived to be compromising on ezat-e-nafs while giving concessions was taken special care by Iranian foreign minister Javaid Zaraf.
The withdrawal of the US from JCPOA and explicit acknowledgement of desires of “regime change” by trump officials has left Iran betrayed and severely undermined “Persian pride”. Iran’s resolve to enrich uranium is the logical conclusion to all of this. In this context, it is pertinent to note that more than the “bomb”, the nuclear enrichment program manifests Iranian resistance against the western power. It is viewed as the Iranian axis of resistance and struggles to save Islamic civilisation from western assault.
An ailing Ayatollah would like to leave a lasting impression and certainly not be seen as someone compromising on “ezat-e-nafs” as a consequence Iran is likely to multiply the behaviour which the US finds objectionable. Moderate voices will be muffled, and reformists like the incumbent president would very much be pilloried by hardliners. The supreme leader has already given a call for “resistance economy[viii]” that prioritises domestic production to fight the US sanction and tackle issues like unemployment, recession, and inflation. Countries like China and Russia can significantly dilute[ix] the US sanctions by engaging with Iran; more so China, as Iran occupies a central position in its Belt and Road Initiative. This would further whet the Iranian sword of resistance against the US.
The US desire to coerce the Iranian regime using sanctions appears to be of limited utility. Iran strategy requires persuasion. Ex-President Obama rightly sensed it and was able to persuade Iran to sign JCPOA while Trump administration seems to have closed all channels of negotiation. An unfettered and hurt Iran is bound to add to the woes of already destabilised the Middle East. It is pertinent for officials in Washington to analyse the Iranian political culture and worldview- the values and behavioural dimensions of it while framing their course of action and not to consider sanctions as a panacea to all ills. Apart from being ineffective, it has the potential to jeopardise whatever little gains the US has achieved in the past.
[i] Opinion | John Bolton: The Iran deal was betrayed by its own abysmal record. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/john-bolton-the-iran-deal-was-betrayed-by-its-own-abysmal-record/2018/05/09/c8f6bc9a-53bf-11e8-9c91-7dab596e8252_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ba054e8cf654
[ii] Majd, H. (2018, July 16). ‘Never Threaten an Iranian!? Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/07/16/pride-and-prejudice-in-tehran-iran-farsi-nafs/
[iii] Ganji, A. (n.d.). Who is ali khamenei? Foreign Affairs, 92(5), 44-48. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2013-08-12/who-ali-khamenei
[iv] Here’s John Bolton Promising Regime Change in Iran by the End of 2018. (2018, March 23). Retrieved from https://theintercept.com/2018/03/23/heres-john-bolton-promising-regime-change-iran-end-2018/
[v] Analysis: Trump’s withdrawal from Iran nuclear deal isolates US. (2018, May 9). Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/05/analysis-trump-withdrawal-iran-nuclear-deal-isolates-180509051651635.html
[vi] Abedin, M. (2011). The Domestic Determinants of Iranian Foreign Policy: Challenges to Consensus. Strategic Analysis, 35(4), 613-628. doi:10.1080/09700161.2011.576097
[vii] Zarif, M. J. (2014, April 23). What Iran Really Wants. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2014-04-17/what-iran-really-wants
[viii] Iran’s Khamenei says economic progress limited despite lifting sanctions. (2017, March 9). Retrieved from https://www.dnaindia.com/world/report-iran-s-khamenei-says-economic-progress-limited-despite-lifting-sanctions-2347761
[ix] Esfandiary, D., & Tabatabai, A. M. (2018, July 20). Will China Undermine Trump’s Iran Strategy? Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-07-20/will-china-undermine-trumps-iran-strategy