James Blight – my professor in a class of only four students – told us that you cannot expect an Iranian to start talking about anything current on U.S. without mentioning once about the 1953 coupe. I could see the proof when he moderated a charged-up discussion later between the former Iranian ambassador Hussein Mousavian and the former U.S. ambassador Thomas Pickering at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo. After a short initial start by Pickering, a long informative rejoinder by Mousavian began with the coup of 1953 and ended with the current stand-off between Iran and the U.S. The audience could grasp Iran’s anger, distrust, wariness, frustration and perhaps, hopelessness vis-à-vis the U.S. and the rest of the world. Soon, it was clear that the two hours of talk could hardly produce anything meaningful which could give the audience a basis for hope that the nuclear crisis in Iran would not turn into another intractable military conflict in the Middle East.
This situation prompts many questions in mind. Instead of attempting to predict an uncertain future of Iran, however, let’s be conservative and ask a reasonable question for a sensible answer: what brought Iran into such precarious ominous position?
The current standing of Iran’s nuclear programme, including uranium enrichment does not go beyond its sovereign right under any international law. The dual-capacity to enrich higher level of uranium – that could be either used for peaceful use or diverted for military purpose – does not violate international law as long as it is accountable to the IAEA. Several countries possess such dual-capacity, one of which Japan – which does not have a nuclear weapon programme – can make nuclear bombs approximately within six months if it wants to. So why then Iran is a matter of headache for world peace and security?
First, Iran is framed as an aggressive country by the hawks in the West. However, Iran’s last 200 years of history belies that assertion. Iran has neither attacked any country nor does it have an offensive military posture. Nevertheless, its foreign policy towards Israel is threatening to an extent that its supreme leader calls to uproot Israel from the world map. Iran is also notorious for carrying out terrorist attack in thir party states. So the fear of an Iran with dual-nuclear capacity is alarming for the West, especially for the U.S. which has a security pact with Israel.
However, this fear would have been unfounded if Iran’s nuclear programme were transparent. That is the second reason for headache. Iran has been inconsistent in its effort to open up its nuclear facilities for IAEA inspection. Even Khatami – who took an unprecedented initiative for a dialogue with the U.S. during his term – was caught off-guard when the then Egyptian IAEA director El Beredei accused him for concealing information with proof concerning its nuclear activities.
That being said, the underlying nuclear crisis is much more dynamic and complex. Iran is right to blame the U.S. for its decade long antagonistic policy, starting from the 1953 coupe that overthrew the first democratically elected prime minister in Iran, to supporting a brutal regime under the Shah, its policy of supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, countless sanctions against Iran and the list goes on.
Nevertheless, in spite of all its astringent rhetoric against the U.S., Iran dearly wants to normalize its relations with it. From Rafsanjani’s administration to Khatami and even during Ahmedinejad’s administration, there have been numerous attempts by Iran to re-establish its relations with the U.S. The ‘grand bargain’ – offered during the 2003 U.S. attack in Iraq – is a famous one. It is not surprising at all, and in fact, it is more rational for the two countries to cooperate since their mutual geopolitical interests in the Middle East are quite common. Yet, all efforts failed due to many unfortunate circumstances; when Iran was serious the U.S. domestic politics was not propitious and when the U.S. was committed – only once during Clinton’s second term – Iran’s domestic politics was impeding. Moreover, miscommunication during these numerous attempts further fuelled mutual distrust and misunderstanding.
On top of this unfortunate relations, Israel and the Arab countries have effectively made things worse. The Benjamin Netaneyahu’s centre-right government has successfully inflated Iran’s nuclear programme to a state of security ‘crisis.’ The Arab countries – notably Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. – have a long cold war with Iran, which shows how divided the Muslim world is when it comes to maintaining regional Sunni supremacy against its Shia identity. As a consequence, the hawks in the U.S. government have been winning on this issue, imposing political pressure on the Obama administration to an extent that a few recent breakthroughs in negotiation with Iran – such as the one brokered by Turkey and Brazil in 2009 – were spoiled. The forthcoming U.S. presidential election has made the situation more sensitive politically.
However, a few recent developments have started changing the circumstances that promise some hope; although one needs to be cautious to make such assertion. It is in Obama’s best interest to prevent an Israel attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, let alone a full scale military conflict. It will be a catch-22 situation for Obama if Israel attacks Iran. It can neither stay uninvolved nor can let the situation worsen once it shoulders Israel’s military security, since it is highly likely that Iran will go into a full scale counter attack. Both cases will severely weaken Obama’s chance for a second term.
Finally, Netaneyahu’s administration has been encountering tough challenges domestically. Israel’s former prime minister Olmert, former Mossad chief Dagan and former Shin Bet chief Diskin has effectively weakened Israel’s justification to attack Iran. According to them, an attack on Iran’s nuclear facility can only force it to develop nuclear bomb eventually. Israel’s attack against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility in 1981 serves as a perfect example, which caused Saddam to initiate nuclear weapon program. The top U.S. military brass and their intelligence have come to a consensus that Iran does not have a plan for nuclear weapon program yet. The Israeli lobby group, the J Street has also been trying their best to reframe the crisis in the U.S. against the powerful AIPEC. Furthermore, the recent sanctions against Iran have effectively weakened the country. Iran realized that it cannot run more than a year without drastic domestic consequences under the current sanctions.
What lies ahead is uncertain but critical. It is easy to dissect a crisis – although not always – but equally difficult to predict the end. As James Blight – an expert on Cuban Missile Crisis and one of the key figures behind the making of The Fog of War with former U.S. Secretary of States McNamara– made it clear in my class, the challenge is always to restrain the hawks among all the parties. Kennedy was successful in 1962. Obama is yet to show such brinksmanship before his election concerning Iran’s nuclear programme.
Asif Farooq is a researcher at the Centre for Studies on Rapid Global Change. He is also doing his M.A. in Political Science at the University of Waterloo.