ROXANE FARMANFARMAIAN - This past two weeks, the full wrath of Europe and the US has settled on Iran in what US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned at the beginning of the Obama administration would be “crippling sanctions”. Among the impacts: Oil exports have fallen more than 1.3 million barrels per day (bpd); close to $10bn in annual trade with the UAE, a key source for Iranian imports, is drying up; the Iranian rial is plummeting; inflation has ballooned to 30 per cent; and annual revenue is projected to drop by more than 50 per cent to $50bn. Iran is becoming effectively isolated, its oil export stream squeezed off, its access to international financial networks and markets denied, and many of its companies and officials blacklisted. The sanctions are designed to force Iran to halt its nuclear programme. The West accuses Iran of using its programme to build a bomb. Iran claims it is only for energy and medical use.
Iran has officially responded in three ways:
1. It has threatened to use its enriched uranium to fuel a submarine and to convert its Navy to nuclear power (which would require 92 per cent purity), an example of its uncanny ability to cross red lines before the West even realises there is a red line to be crossed.
2. It has released a position paper outlining its views and goals, and calling for three-monthly talks, an acknowledgement that promises on either side must wait until the upcoming presidential elections.
3. It has embarked on what the media is calling a “charm offensive”. Its UN Ambassador has offered assurances it will not ratchet up conflict, a signal it won’t immediately close the Strait of Hormuz - though, as sanctions reduce its flows of oil export and goods import, its own cost for doing so drops.
Iran’s mild response to the draconian sanctions regime fits what Hossein Mousavian, research scholar at Princeton University and former Iranian nuclear negotiator, calls Iran’s post-revolutionary character. Revolutionary idealism, he says, explains Iran’s failure to adopt typical realpolitik approaches to threats from other states, such as its failure to respond in kind to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War. It could also be why the West can still offer no hard evidence - despite the plethora of satellite reconnaissance and intelligence collection gathered over a decade of military presence on both sides of Iran’s border - that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon - perhaps it simply doesn’t have one, even though it may be gaining the capacity to do so.
One of the reasons for this failure is that the nuclear issue is only one of a host of accumulated issues that divide Iran and the US. Locked in a bilateral relationship of suspicion - and almost paranoia - their enmity dates back to the revolution 33 years ago, which replaced the Shah - a strong US ally - with Islamic clerical rule.
From the first days of the new regime, the US took a dim view of the clerics’ administration and never officially recognised it. The most acrimonious standoff in the history of modern state politics was triggered by Washington accepting the Shah into the US for medical reasons in 1979, without requiring him or his family first to renounce the throne, or informing the Iranian government of the move. From an Iranian perspective, the seizing of the US embassy in Tehran months later was aimed to protect the revolution against a CIA coup reinstating the Shah. After all, the 1953 coup - in which covert US and British agencies replaced the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadeq, who had nationalised oil resources, with the Shah as an absolute monarch - was hatched in that same embassy basement.
Cultural missteps on both sides led to the first protracted stand-off between the US and Iran , known today as the Hostage Crisis. It was an event unique in US history. It made the US feel helpless on the international stage, and stole its idealistic self-image as a country beloved for its democratic ideals. For the first time, the US heard rhetoric condemning it as imperialist and supporting a criminal dictator; it has never forgiven Iran for its sense of humiliation.
30 Years Of Sanctions
Iran has been under US sanctions for 30 out of 33 years since. The US has never established diplomatic relations with Iran (yet even at the nadir of the Cold War, it had an embassy in Moscow). Following the US lead, the UN failed to denounce Iraq for invading Iran in 1980, and delayed for years condemning Saddam for using chemical weapons.
Abandoned by the UN during the Iran-Iraq war, Iran felt it could rely only on itself, a lesson it has never forgotten - and which has had significant repercussions for the nuclear issue. Iran has also been the target of the first officially acknowledged use of cyber-warfare, Stuxnet.
It was under President Bill Clinton in 2002 that the nuclear issue emerged, thanks to information provided by US-branded “terrorist” group Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK), which killed six Americans during the Shah’s era. Killing numerous clerical leaders after the Iranian revolution, it also landed on the Islamic Republic’s terrorist list. From its camp just over the Iranian border in Iraq, the MEK produced information that Iran’s nuclear energy programme was weaponising.
It is the only hard evidence ever produced that Iran had a weaponisation programme, which, according to subsequent assessments by the US National Intelligence Estimate , ended in 2003. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam Hussein, the Iranians shut down the programme. Iran maintains it did not reveal the information itself because it feared attack by Israel, which had already hit WMD installations in Iraq and Syria. Its reticence can also be understood in light of its mistrust of international institutions, and its perpetual labelling as a rogue, being painted on the “Axis of Evil”.
How do we understand the strategies of a highly ideological, authoritarian regime, at risk of imposed regime-change by powers acting on evidence that does not exist? Iran’s first strategic goal is to be recognised as having the sovereign and legitimate right, as a signatory to the Nuclear NPT, to develop enriched uranium for peaceful purposes. The West views such rights as bearing responsibilities, which it interprets as meaning Iran must suspend all enrichment while addressing Western concerns - a scenario which gives Iran no guarantees it won’t be left in infinite suspension. Iran’s view is rights come first, but that even without enjoying full recognition of its rights; it is fulfilling its responsibilities, such as accepting ongoing IAEA inspections. Iran takes this very seriously. Supreme Leader Khamenei has stated he would resign if Iran cannot exercise its legitimate rights to enrich.
Iran’s second major strategy is to get sanctions lifted and its nuclear file removed from the UN Security Council. After ten years, it has a stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium it wants to exchange for graduated sanctions relief. It has offered to open its facilities to full transparency if its right to enrich to five per cent is recognised.
Iran’s third strategic goal is to be recognised as an important regional power. From the outset of the West’s containment and subsequent isolation of Iran , it has adopted an eastern-facing strategy to secure support, trade, and influence, and to carve out a position as a regional hegemon. The pride in the scientific achievement represented by the N-programme is intimately tied to that strategy - and explains why it is supported by hardliners and opposition forces alike.
Iran’s fourth strategy is to stolidly grow the atomic industry, but so slowly that it has crossed several red lines without triggering a shoot-out with the West. In effect, the West has grown acclimated to an industry that has gained the trappings of inexorability. In contrast, Iran’s main tool of aggression - other than funding its favoured militias - is language, manipulated to move the spotlight where it wants it.
If regime change, rather than a nuclear agreement, is the ultimate Western goal, the Iranian regime’s top priority is survival. It remains close to Washington’s old nemeses, Iraq and Afghanistan, as they are all three in a sense victim of US wars, and Iran will want to draw the other two in should it be a victim of another round. However, as it has no WMD deterrent, its first order of business is to convince the US and Israel that it does not want war. The game-changer is if either attacks. Iran will claim innocence, and that it never intended to build a bomb. But as of right now, it must do so to protect its sovereignty.         –Aljazeera