Iran and weapons of mass distrust
Will the conciliatory tones coming out of Washington and Tehran really be enough to bring the nuclear standoff with Iran to an end?
The Guardian has revealed that the United States plans to establish a low-level diplomatic mission in Tehran, for the first time in nearly three decades. “We will receive favourably any action which will help to reinforce relations between the peoples,” a conciliatory Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters.
Striking an equally conciliatory note, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said last month: “We are determined to reach out to the Iranian people.”
In addition, undersecretary of state William Burns is attending nuclear talks with Iran this weekend.
So, can we all breathe a sigh of relief and will a special interests section be enough to keep the hawks at bay? I certainly hope so, for everyone's sake, but I am not holding my breath.
After all, none of the points of contention between Iran, on the one side, and the US and Israel, on the other, have yet been resolved – and Iran and Israel, with US backing, have been incredibly reckless in their brinkmanship.
Of course, Iran insists that it is a law-abiding global citizen and that its nuclear ambitions are civilian, and hence within the scope of international law. In fact, a House of Common's investigation concluded that: “We do not believe that the United States or any other country has the right to dictate to Iran how it meets its increasing demand for electricity.”
Nevertheless, is a civilian nuclear programme worth the prospect of war and why doesn't the country develop less controversial technology to get itself out of the fix?
The doubters see in this defiance a confirmation that Iran is working on a covert nuclear weapons programme, although those who advocate this view have not yet come up with a shred of convincing evidence.
Given the “logic” of nuclear proliferation, if Iran were in fact building a bomb, it would have, in theory, sound strategic reasons for doing so, hemmed in as it is by the US army on two fronts, and within striking range of nuclear-armed Israel, Pakistan and India.
But surely Tehran must know that before they have finished building a reactor, Israel, like it did in Iraq in the 1980s, or the US, would level it, although it wouldn't be quite the cakewalk it was in Baghdad.
Assuming the programme is civilian, a rationalist and pragmatist might well ask: why develop a technology you can ill-afford and for which you have no domestic capacity? Moreover, what is the need in an inflamed situation for bellicose pronouncements and dangerous sabre-rattling?
As a sceptic, I would say that President Ahmadinejad and the hardline clerics who now have the upper hand are exploiting the classic politics of fear and patriotism in a bid to hold back the liberalisation Iranians demand, and to divert domestic attention away from their dismal socio-economic and human rights record.
This captures part of the picture, but we must not overlook the deeply ingrained suspicion and even paranoia that underpins and undermines Iran's relationship with the Pax Americana. Although most ordinary Iranians do not share the regime's strident anti-westernism and admire much about the west, they do harbour a great deal of distrust.
Iranians, like many Middle Easterners, feel that their aspirations to determine their fate and to become members of the modern world have been partly stifled by western interference: from engineered regime change to propping up the corrupt and oppressive shah, to arming its arch rival Iraq. There are also plenty of internal reasons.
Such a sense of weakness is painful for Iran, which was a major imperial power in ancient times until the Arab conquests, and the Safavid dynasty, although not Persian in origin, restored some of that lost sense of power.
In addition to suspicion and fear, another issue is pride. Given Persia's status as the cradle of modern science, Iran has made numerous efforts to revive that legacy, which could partly explain the current regime's nuclear obsession, and the Shah's before it.
But Iran is not alone in these sentiments. Much of the Middle East is still reeling from centuries of foreign domination, whether Muslim or European, and this has led to an identity crisis that can manifest itself as a sense of paranoia towards the outside world.
In fact, as I've argued before, western insensitivity to local sensibilities and its unreasonable demands for completely pliant “client rulers” is partly behind the rise of hardline leaders. It is high time for the US to rethink the client state model.
Even Israel, which many regard as being somehow outside the Middle East, suffers, in its own way, from the same malaise. Although Israelis did not suffer from colonialism in the classical way, ie as strangers in their own land, they have spent many centuries perceived as strangers in other lands.
Like Ahmadinejad, Ehud Olmert, who has been on the back foot domestically, has tried to use the sabre-rattling with Iran and the disastrous invasion of Lebanon to deflect criticism of his government's record.
However, with their perception of being surrounded by enemies and the still-fresh trauma of pogroms and the Holocaust, many ordinary Israelis are in a true panic over Iran's nuclear programme, and believe its official designation as an “existential threat”. In addition, the “tough Jew” mentality that still dominates Zionist ideals is one of the factors behind Israel's own sabre-rattling and brinkmanship.
So, what's to be done about all this deep-seated distrust in a volatile region?
Well, I propose that a campaign is started to encourage all Middle Eastern countries to sign a mutual non-aggression pact. After that, a regional security council should be set up where Arab, Israelis, Iranians and Turks can discuss directly their security concerns. Then efforts to transform the region into a WMD-free area should be re-started in earnest.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 23 July 2008.