by Shireen T. Hunter
In the last few days, an informal haggling between the United States and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program has developed. Reportedly Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that if America lifted all sanctions on Iran permanently, the Iranian parliament would ratify the IAEA’s additional protocols that calls for very intrusive and extensive inspections. Meanwhile, President Trump has said that the U.S. may want a “100 year deal” to restrict Iran’s nuclear program.
However, it has been clear from the very beginning that agreement about the nuclear issue would not resolve U.S.-Iran problems and lead to normal relations between the two states. Let’s be clear that, as former Secretary of State John Kerry has said, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was to be the beginning of a process of negotiations with Iran on other issues, notably Iran’s missile program and its so-called regional activities. Thus the partial suspension of sanctions was a kind of encouragement for Iran to engage in talks on the issues that really matter for the United States. In fact, one reason the U.S. has shown such sensitivity to Iran’s nuclear program—as opposed say to that of Pakistan, even though Pakistan is close to the Sea of Oman and thus to the Persian Gulf—is because Washington on the whole does not see Islamabad’s regional policies as threatening American interests.
Iran’s Challenge to the Regional Order
At its core, the U.S.-Iran dispute derives from the Islamic Republic’s openly declared goal of fighting imperialism, which it defines basically as the influence of America and its regional allies. In other words, Iran—at least rhetorically—poses a challenge to a regional order dominated by the United States. Even beyond the Middle East, Iran feels more drawn to states that share its anti-imperialist and anti-American mindset. For instance, it has good relations with countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and possibly even North Korea.
Yet history demonstrates that every time a power challenges the established order, be it at the regional or international level, the system reacts and tries either to contain or destroy it. This happened to Napoleonic France, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. Part of all strategies of containment and/or destruction involves starving the challenger of the economic and military instruments that could enable it to carry out its designs.
Iran’s challenge to the established order, although mostly rhetorical, is best reflected in its desire to undermine and, if possible, end the U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. Given that the Persian Gulf’s energy resources are still of great importance to the Western World, if not to the U.S. itself, Iran’s demand that the U.S. and its European allies end their military presence in the Persian Gulf is a nonstarter. Even the Shah, who was a pro-Western monarch, paid a heavy price for constantly repeating the mantra that “the security of the Persian Gulf should be the responsibility of the riparian states.” This attitude proved unrealistic. The Islamic Republic has amplified this unrealism.
Iran’s Challenge to Israel
Iran has also openly challenged the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. There is no way that Iran can actually pose a credible threat to Israel’s security, let alone survival. However, states cannot take risks with their survival and thus Israel often treats Iran’s verbal bravado as a real threat. Therefore, the Israeli government does whatever it takes to convince the West and others to pressure and weaken Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has openly taken credit for convincing president Trump to withdraw from the JCPOA.
Meanwhile, for moral and other well-known reasons, the United States, Europe, and even Russia and China, cannot endorse this Iranian approach. Even Arab states, including Iran’s supposed ally Syria, do not share Iran’s perspective on Israel. They might haggle over the perimeters of a fair settlement to the Arab-Israeli dispute, but none questions the reality that Israel is now part of the Middle East and has a right to exist.
Iran has also posed a security challenge to Gulf Arab states by rhetorically questioning their legitimacy and, at times, through subversion. These states, too, are important for the West as well as Russia and China. When Iran threatens their security it also endangers the interests of great powers. Iran’s threat to the Gulf Arabs has never been as serious as it has been made to appear, especially in the last two decades. Nevertheless, since most of these states—with the exception of Saudi Arabia—are small, they have a perennial fear of Iran. Iran’s rhetoric has intensified their fears.
It is in this context that Iran’s nuclear and missile programs are viewed. If Iran did not challenge the United States; threaten, albeit mostly verbally, Israel; and challenge the Gulf states, its defensive measures such as missiles and a peaceful nuclear program would be viewed with less alarm. The U.S. does not view Pakistan’s nuclear weapons with alarm because Pakistan does not challenge U.S. interests or threaten the Gulf states, and it is not involved in the Palestine issue.
Iran’s Need for a New Framework
In view of the realities of international power and the sharp differences between Iran’s priorities and those of other key players, Iran cannot expect to come out of its current predicament unless it drastically changes its foreign policy priorities.
Iran must realize that there is no way it can win its so-called anti-imperialist struggle. Nor can it liberate Palestine and dissolve Israel. If it persists in this direction, sooner or later it will bring serious economic and even military calamity upon itself.
To achieve a shift in its foreign policy, Iranian leaders must move beyond the revolutionary framework as the basis of their legitimacy. They should replace anti-imperial struggle and Palestinian liberation with ensuring Iran’s survival, its territorial integrity, and its economic and social development. They also must realize that independence does not mean self-isolation. No country, no matter how powerful, is totally independent, especially in a globalized age.
If the Iranian leadership, but most importantly Iranian hardliners, could make this shift, then most problems between Iran and the U.S.—and Europe as well—including nuclear- and missile-related issues, would become manageable. Otherwise, Iran could slide towards a military conflict or a long and painful period of economic, social, and possibly political unravelling since it is very unlikely that the Trump administration will relent in its policy of maximum pressure on Tehran. The sooner Iran makes this change the better.