Finally, after a generation of the USA-Iran ‘cold war’, an interim agreement was reached last weekend so that a relative thaw and detente can begin. The explanation for Iran being placed on the most dangerous-countries list was initially its more fundamentalist Islamic theocratic rule, including the hostage-taking of American diplomats at the end of 1979, kept for 444 days till 1981.

The Islamic Revolution had overthrown the Western-friendly, USA-supported Shah Muhammad-Reza Pahlavi on April 1, 1979. He had come into power in 1941 when the Anglo-Soviet invasion forced his father to abdicate after his sixteen-year rule. This was during World War II, and the West and Soviet Union wanted to secure Iran’s oil resources, but promised to pull out after the war. The last Shah continued the pro-Western but authoritarian rule that his father had began. In 1953, the West, notably USA (CIA) and the UK (M16) interfered directly in Iran’s internal affairs and the prime minister had to resign. Again, it was about geopolitical issues and oil; after all, Iran has the third largest reserves in the world.  

There was unrest at several times during the last Shah’s rule. Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile in France from 1964, but had built up major support at home. However, it seems his revolutionary takeover in 1979, was not expected, neither by Iranians nor by the West. The Shah’s ‘white revolution’ to help develop the farming sector and rural communities had not been effective and many opposed the country’s Western leaning. It has been said that the modernization, which was often ‘Westernization’, was too fast and too shallow. The Shah’s military build-up had been costly. Upon Khomeini’s return, the military declared itself ‘neutral’.

But Khomeini’s ten years in power until his death was only partly successful; the war with Iraq and the decline in quality of the civil service meant that there was not much development. From 1989, Iran had pragmatic conservative leaders. In 2005, a fatwa was issued forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. Yet, the last eight years under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, turned out to escalate the ‘cold war’ with USA and the West, and severe economic sanctions were enforced on Iran, approved by the United Nations.

After President Hassan Rouhani took over in August this year, the thaw began, leading up to the first step of normalization of relations with America and the West, with the six-month interim agreement signed last weekend, with some easing of the economic sanctions. When (and if) all sanctions will be lifted entirely, depends on future agreements.

Iran represents a major power in the Near East, but it has also historically experienced invasions, by Greeks, Arabs, Turks and Mongols.  It has played a major role in the region and further afield, and the Persian Empire was at times of superpower dimension. Iran has reasserted its national identity over the centuries and is a distinct political and cultural entity, representing one of the world’s oldest continuous major civilizations.

Iran is a power to reckon with, politically, economically and culturally, and was never the ‘world’s most dangerous country’. Maybe it is USA, on its own, and with NATO’s military might, that should have such a name? As seen from Iran, the Arab world and beyond, it is America that is seen as dangerous.

Most Iranians are Shia Muslims, while other countries in the neighbourhood, including Saudi Arabia, are Sunnis. In this time and age, this should not matter, but it does. In the ‘great power game’ of USA and the West, this is only important as far as it can lead to internal and regional instability.

Considering that Saudi Arabia’s internal stability, with the type of regime it has, is likely to be shattered in the next decades, USA and the West would want to extent its control over other major countries. Iraq is already under the West’s control, although in a sad state after the unjustified invasion. Iran must also be controlled. Whether this will be possible without American invasion remains to be seen. The current thaw gives hope.

It should be made clear that the sanctions against Iran, and placing it among the countries which the then President George Bush in 2002 termed the ‘axis of evil’ (with North Korea and Iraq; plus Cuba, Libya and Syria termed ‘beyond the axis of evil’), was based on USA’s and the West’s interest for control.

It was argued that the countries were about to acquire nuclear technology and the capability to manufacture the atom bomb. Nuclear technology used for peaceful purposes, such as energy production, is looked upon with suspicion. Iran always maintained that the purpose of its nuclear technology programme was solely peaceful – besides, it was originally started with American assistance!

The international community has signed the ‘Non-proliferation Treaty’ (from 1968), banning new countries from obtaining nuclear weapons. That may be good, but it is a limping treaty. Those countries that have such weapons should also destroy them. And, how come the only country in the world that has used the atomic bomb, notably USA, is allowed to have any say in whether other countries should obtain it, not to speak of being allowed to keep the overkill capability itself?

I find that the Non-proliferation Treaty belongs to the thinking of a post World War II era now gone; that was a time when USA and the West harnessed their control and froze the global power structures. Isn’t it about time to reconsider this? Well, it will probably not happen until USA’s economic position declines dramatically, and that will take time; Europe is also not declining that fast. The West’s moral, democratic, scientific and other values, traditions and leadership are likely to last after their economic decline, or, should we say, after other states have reached more parallel economic levels, with high living conditions for large sections of their populations in countries such as China, the ‘Asian tigers’ (a term not often used any more), India, hopefully Pakistan, as well as countries in Latin America and Africa.

The world is en route to an era when large numbers of people will be better off than today – as we move away from the West’s economic hegemony. Yet, there will still be large and even growing differences among people within and between countries. The West at least claims that ‘we are all equal’, even people who live far away on the other side of the globe. To upcoming countries’ leaders have not yet gained that vision, it seems. But I believe they will.

The West’s role in international development in the coming years should be to preach the importance of equality. It is in the long run the only way for peace and sustainable development. The West should also realize that its consumption of non-renewable resources is entirely unsustainable; ‘eternal economic growth’ is a flaw in the Western development model – and now it seems everyone wants to follow it. We, the people all over the world, have engaging tasks ahead. I trust the youth will understand this and make the world better. I belong to the age-group that failed – and we also failed in Iran’s and the Arab world’s integration in the ‘good society’. On their side, they need to embrace democracy and equality.

Is Iran the most dangerous country in the world? No, and it never was! Benjamin Netanyahu , Israel’s hawkish and often quite weird prime minister, was entirely wrong when he after the agreement that Iran signed with the ‘bullies’ last weekend dismissed the agreement, claiming that the world had become a more dangerous place. Even quite conservative Americans (and all Americans in leadership positions are conservative) agreed that the world had become a bit safer after the agreement. My only hope would be that the next agreements will be such that they don’t give the West entire control over Iran, or veto over its decisions and political direction. That would be tantamount to ‘virtual occupation’. Iran’s neighbours Afghanistan and Iraq were forced into submission, but life for the people didn’t improve. Iran should not suffer a similar fate.

 The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.