Iran: Safeguarding its Identity

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By Amal Saad-Ghorayeb
September 3, 2012

A handout picture released by the official website of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shows Khamenei delivering his speech at the opening of Non-Alligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran on 30 August 2012. (Photo: AFP – HO – Iranian Supreme Leader’s Website)

While Iran’s presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and its hosting of the summit earlier this week may not lead to a radical breakthrough in the nuclear standoff or to an imminent resolution of the Syrian crisis, it will raise Iran’s international and regional profile. More importantly, the fact that over 100 states participated in the summit, in addition to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, against the ardent protestations of the US and Israel, represents a slap in the face for Washington. Not only does the heavily attended summit lend “legitimacy” to Iran’s foreign policy behavior, as former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, noted bitterly, but it also serves as a stark reminder of the abysmal failure of the Obama administration’s policy of “engaging” Iran while revealing its complete miscomprehension of the Islamic Republic’s political rationality.

Obama’s oft repeated call for Iran to meet its “international obligations” (read, submit to US diktat) as a precondition for “rejoining” the “community of nations,” rung hollow as two thirds of the world’s nations – i.e. the actual international community as opposed to the elite club consisting of the US and its UNSC and NATO allies – attended the Tehran summit and in so doing, undermined Washington’s campaign to isolate Iran internationally. The irony was clearly not lost on the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who condemned the way the US and Europe “impose their domineering and illegal demands in the name of the international community,” and use the “obsolete” “dictatorship” otherwise known as the UNSC, to “disguise their bullying” which they pass off as “international law.”

Khamenei further used his inaugural speech to underline another self-evident message conveyed by the summit – that Washington’s coercive diplomacy masked as “engagement” was futile, and only strengthened the resolve of the Islamic Republic whose “successful experience in resistance against the bullying and comprehensive pressures by America and its accomplices has firmly convinced it that the resistance of a unified and firmly determined nation can overcome all enmities and hostilities.”

The rationale behind the Obama administration’s “tough but direct” diplomacy with Iran was to make it clear that its alleged development of nuclear weapons and funding of “terrorist” organizations “like Hamas and Hezbollah,” and threats against Israel were “unacceptable.”

Thus, the engagement pursued by Washington did not aim to defuse tensions or to achieve a mutually acceptable compromise, but rather to persuade and coerce Tehran to relinquish its right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology and to withhold support from resistance movements in the region.

Diplomacy with Iran was essentially war by other means; the offer of dialogue accompanied by threats of a military strike and/or further “crippling” sanctions if the outcome of the “dialogue” was not to Washington’s liking. As spelled out in 2010 by Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, “the priority for President Obama and his administration has been to initiate a dialogue and engagement while at the same time keeping all options on the table. When I say all options on the table, it certainly includes potential military operations.”

Needless to say, Washington’s contemptuous tone and belligerent intent masquerading as diplomacy was not well received by its counterpart in Tehran: “On the one hand, the Americans talk of negotiations. On the other hand, they continue to threaten and say the negotiations must have our desired results or we will take [punitive] measures. We do not want any negotiations the result of which is predetermined by the US,” Khamenei bemoaned.

Besides cajoling and pressuring Iran into concessions, engagement also makes it easier for the Obama administration to rally western support for other punitive measures with which to isolate and sanction Tehran into submission. Obama’s National Security Strategy of 2010 makes no effort to conceal this intent: “And we will pursue engagement with hostile nations to test their intentions, give their governments the opportunity to change course, reach out to their people and mobilize international coalitions.” As Flynt and Hilary Leverett observe, “Obama’s professed interest in engagement is being used to build support for more coercive measures against Iran, not to recast fundamentally the US-Iranian relationship.” Former US State Department official and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Ray Takyeh, concurs with this view when he acknowledges that “the purpose of such a policy is not to transform adversaries into allies, but to seek adjustments in their behavior and ambitions.”

Despite Obama’s 2009 Nowruz message to the people and leadership of Iran where he called for an “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect,” US diplomacy was not based on a recognition of Iran as an equal, but on a grudging tolerance of a “rogue” state Washington deemed inferior. In that same speech, Obama condescendingly asserted that while Iran should take its “rightful place in the community of nations…that place cannot be reached through terror or arms,” prompting Khamenei to respond: “Our nation cannot be talked to like this. In the same congratulatory message they (the Obama administration) accuse the Iranian nation of supporting terrorism, pursuing nuclear arms, and such things. What has changed?”

The terms of the “dialogue” were therefore set by Washington and the talks used to dictate its wishes rather than to reach a mutually beneficial agreement. As former US diplomat Chester Crocker writes in his op-ed for the New York Times “Terms of Engagement”: “Engagement is not normalization, and its goal is not improved relations. It is not akin to détente…The goal of engagement is to change the other country’s perception of its own interests and realistic options and, hence, to modify its policies and its behavior.”

The imperialistic hubris inherent in this attitude cannot be overstated for not only does such an approach presume to know what Iran’s interests are, but it also infantilizes the Islamic Republic by suggesting that it neither has a firm grasp of its own reality nor does it know where its true interests lie. This approach is a legacy of the American school of Realism which presupposes a universally valid definition of the national interest that is itself informed by the concept of power. According to this view, states can only have one type of self-interested identity and one understanding of interest defined as physical security, and economic and military power. The fact that states, like other social actors, have variable identities and rationalities which shape their perception of reality and their definition of interests doesn’t figure into the calculations of Realists or US foreign policy makers. Moreover, Realists also overlook the fact that over and above physical security, states also pursue ontological security, that is the security of their identities as particular kinds of actors.

This is particularly relevant in the case of Iran, which derives its identity and hence, its popular and constitutional legitimacy from its jealously guarded independence. The US’ hegemonic role in Iran’s political, economic, military and security affairs, during Reza Shah’s rule, remains firmly embedded in the nation’s political consciousness. Not discounting the multiple social, economic, political and cultural factors which lay behind the Islamic Revolution, it was also in part, a reaction to US hegemony over Iranian affairs. The US’ heavy handed political intervention, security and intelligence penetration, and control of Iran’s economy, particularly its oil industry, rendered it tantamount to an occupying or colonial power in the eyes of many Iranians. The revolution was therefore at the same time a revolt against the monarchy and a war of liberation against US “imperialism,” as embodied by its key catchphrase: “Independence, freedom, Islamic Republic.”

The very existence of the Islamic Republic was somewhat reactive and its identity defensive. Iran became a state preoccupied with protecting its new-found independence and dignity. So deeply ingrained in the political culture was the fear of foreign domination that constitutional safeguards were set up to protect the country from foreign control and to preserve its “metadiscourse” of independence, or “hyper-independence” as one scholar terms it.

In effect, ideological principles such as sovereignty, justice, independence, self-sufficiency and dignity are not abstract values but founding principles and strategic necessities which emerged from Iran’s historical experience of foreign domination. This experience taught Iranians that the politics of dependency practiced by pre-revolutionary Iran was a sure recipe for strategic weakness and domestic collapse, as the Shah’s regime illustrated. Moreover, Iran did not see in the US’ Arab allies a success story worthy of emulation. From Tehran’s perspective, the US uses the political and military assistance it offers these regimes as a tool with which to extract political concessions, making them beholden to it. Moreover, in depending on the US to shore up their regimes domestically, Arab states are viewed as having lost their nations’ sovereignty, independence, and regional power in the process, not to mention their popular legitimacy, as the recent Arab uprisings illustrate. By remaining independent of the west, Iran believes it cannot be blackmailed into anything, as the US’ regional allies have been.

Any fundamental changes in Iran’s foreign policy objectives would essentially mean that the Iranian state would have overturned its founding principles and destabilized its sense of ontological security. As Iranian Ambassador to Syria, Mohammad Reza Shaybani once explained to me: “If we were to become one of America’s moderate allies in the region there would be no meaning for the Islamic Revolution in Iran. If we gave up our principles, the US would support us again, but then there would be no difference between Iran now and what it was before the revolution.” This would be the case not only if Iran were to revert to the foreign policy of the Shah’s era or to transform itself into a “moderate” regime allied with the US, along the lines of Mubarak’s Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, but even if it were to adopt a politically neutral regional profile, as some observers believe Washington is actually demanding. Viewed from the Islamic Republic’s lens, detachment from current regional conflicts would not only be an abandonment of its ideological principles and strategic interests, but would also undermine its own identity.

This explains why Iran has remained steadfast on the nuclear issue in the face of severe economic and political sanctions as well as threats of a military strike. For Iranian political scientist Homeira Moshirzadeh, Iran’s prioritization of its nuclear program, despite the economic and political costs this has entailed, lies in the fact that “Iran’s nuclear policy has become a matter of identity” and as such, is impervious to Realist and Rationalist deconstruction. Specifically, Iran’s nuclear policy is located in the discourses of independence and justice: “The discourse of hyper-independence gives meaning to the Iranian overemphasis on self-sufficiency and Iran’s rejection of proposals that imply dependence on foreign sources in the nuclear field. The discourse of justice allows us to understand Iran’s continuous reference to double standards in the international system and its demand for an international recognition of its right to nuclear technology.”

The power of these discourses is evident in Ali Asghar Soltanieh’s (Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency), affirmation that “Iran will never give up enrichment at any price, even the threat of military attack will not stop us.” It is also evident in Khamenei’s recent declaration at the NAM summit that Iran “will never give up the right of its people to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” Such intransigence is not confined to Iran’s political class but extends to the general public as well, including supporters of the opposition Green Movement. According to the findings of a poll conducted by the University of Tehran, 78 percent of Mousavi supporters wanted “Iran not to give up its nuclear activities regardless of the circumstances” despite their recognition of the sanctions’ cost (a World Public Opinion poll revealed that 86 percent of this category believed sanctions would increase).

As a matter of both strategy and ontological security, the attempt to goad Iran with incentives or bully it into a dependence on the West for its political, economic, security, or technological needs is fundamentally futile and counter-productive. The perceived loss of national dignity and sovereignty would call into question Iran’s political identity and would also jeopardize its hard-won status as a regional power, owing to its confrontational stands vis-à-vis the US and Israel. Even partial concessions on the nuclear issue and on Iran’s regional policies are seen detrimental to its strategic interests in so far as they are perceived as a sign of weakness and hence a prelude to further concessions.

In the final analysis, the ongoing regional conflict between the US-NATO-Israeli-GCC axis and the resistance front does not leave much room for neutrality. Both Iran’s abandonment of its leading role in this regional front and its relinquishment of its right to a full nuclear fuel cycle would be equivalent to ontological insecurity, ideological betrayal and strategic suicide. So long as Washington requires that Iran stop being Iran, the latter will only continue to defy it and further entrench itself as a formidable power in the region.

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is a Lebanese academic and political analyst. She is author of the book, “Hizbullah: Politics and Religion,” and blogger at ASG’s Counter-Hegemony Unit.

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