I’m currently reading Hooman Majd’s new book, The Ayatollah’s Democracy: An Iranian Challenge. Like his first book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, this volume is filled with an insightful, insider’s look at Iran. One of Majd’s great strengths is explaining the Iranian psyche, something many outsiders — especially hawks in Washington — attempt to do without any firsthand knowledge of Iran or even Iranians.
Writing as a guest blogger on Washington Post‘s Political Bookworm blog, Majd took on the issue of sanctions. Specifically, he looks at whether sanctions which are supposed to get Iran to change its nuclear behavior — either giving up enrichment (which is within Iran’s rights as a Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory, despite U.S. demands) or acquiescing to a more rigid inspections regime to confirm that the program is for peaceful purposes — can work.
Majd writes (with my emphasis):
Iran is a proud nation with a strong sense of history […] It is almost an article of faith among Iranians, including those who oppose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that the West, meaning the United States and Britain, still want to frame their relationship with Iran as one of arbab and nokar, or master and servant.
Iranians’ sensitivity to this issue reflects how they perceive pressure, or demands by foreign nations. […]
[T]here is still tremendous support for the nuclear program in Iran, not just because of Persian pride, which President Obama recognizes, but because it has become the very symbol of Iranian independence from East and West, and a symbol of the country’s resistance to what many Iranians consider unreasonable foreign demands. […]
Despite what some analysts insist, psychoanalyzing the Supreme Leader of Iran from thousands of miles away and proclaiming that he believes the foundation of his rule and the survival of the regime is dependent on anti-Americanism, the reality is that neither the Supreme Leader nor any other Iranian leader, conservative, pragmatist or Green, really believes that — not unless America really does aspire to be the arbab of Iran.
It was the Supreme Leader who declared, in response to U.S. demands that the United States change its behavior, “you change, and we will change too.” Pressure, sanctions, demands and threats cannot change the perception Iran has of U.S. intentions toward it, not even with an American president as civil as Barack Obama. That doesn’t mean that Iran cannot negotiate a way out of the nuclear impasse (and other points of contention with the West), it just means that it won’t from a position of perceived weakness.
As such, it’s not so much that Iran won’t bow to pressure, it’s that it can’t. If it does, it will have lost its very raison d’être.
As Majd points out towards the end of his essay, Iranians are not opposed to negotiations with the West over its nuclear program. Ahmadinejad has often spoken about negotiations in the context of “mutual respect” — which includes talking with Iran about retaining its rights to enrichment and a peaceful nuclear program, without the threat of sanctions or military attack.
U.S. policy-makers, most of whom have never been to Iran, save a few older officials who would have been there three decades ago, would do well to read Majd closely to better comprehend where the Iranians are coming from. Perhaps with an understanding of Iranian thinking, the U.S. will have better luck meeting Iran halfway.