Why does Iran still harbor such distrust and animosity towards the United States? This question is a key factor for understanding the continuous failures of negotiations, even after the concluded nuclear accord.
Much of Iran’s bitterness and mistrust towards the United States can be traced back to the Iran-Iraq War. Iranians refer to the war as the “Imposed War” because Iranians believe the United States orchestrated and funded Iraq’s war efforts against Iran (Riedel, 2013). In July 1988, a U.S. Navy ship shot down Iran Air flight 655 killing all 290 people aboard. Iran still marks the anniversary of the incident, alleging the U.S. intentionally destroyed the civilian aircraft. Since the U.S. military maneuvers near Abu Musa Island in 1994, the Iranian government is suspicious of any U.S. military presence in the region. This was further compounded by rhetoric such as President Bush’s declaration of Iran as part of the Axis of Evil and Senator McCain’s call for the U.S. to support regime change in Iran. Cyber-attacks like the Stuxnet virus against Iran’s nuclear facilities further increased animosity and suspicion of U.S. policies and goals.
Understanding the Iranian mindset requires an insight into the foundation of their national identity and national security interests. Shia Islam and nationalism are inextricable elements of Iranian culture. Neglecting this knowledge will lead to more exclusionary policies devoid of the cultural aspects that make negotiations more palatable to Iranians. There are two distinct facets of Iranian culture that form the foundation of all relations: Iranian nationalism and Shiite particularism. According to Bar (2004), Iranians have a strong self-image dating back to an ancient civilization. Persian pride pervades every cultural, political, and economic facet in Iranian affairs. Iranian national identity is birthed from a lineage of Persian history, mythology, kings, and a massive empire. Conversely, this self-image drives their discrimination against Arabs and other non-Farsi groups. A successful policy must address the Persian and Iranian nationalism factors. Ignoring the cultural aspect will likely be seen as more exploitation of Iran’s affairs and so-called rightful hegemonic influence in the region.
Iran’s Security Interests
The first security strategy is regime survival. The foundation of the Islamic Republic is the concept of velayat-e fagih, which is rule of the jurist. The Supreme Leader exercises complete governing authority under the guardianship of velayat-e fagih. The constitution was later amended to give the Leader extrajudicial powers to correct any “flaw” in the judiciary. He enjoys the full support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which refer to him as “Imam” or Source of Enlightenment. The IRGC are the protectors of the revolution and view themselves as the continuity and security of the regime’s ideals.
The second national security interest is defending the country against all adversaries. Initially, this meant defense against military threats from other nation-states but has since evolved to include soft power as well. The Supreme Leader, the IRGC, and the Basij continue emphasizing Iran’s efforts in the soft war supposedly being waged by the West against them. The soft war entails all aspects of soft power against Iran’s Islamic and cultural values.
The third national security interest is expanding Iran’s regional influence. More specifically, this includes all efforts to export Iran’s Shia ideology throughout the region, support Shia uprisings, and become the Shia authority in the region. Davis, Martini, and Alireza further assert, “This involves increasing military support for its allies in the region, especially Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and, increasingly, Iraq. Iran sees not only Israel but also Sunni Arab states (such as Egypt) and Turkey and Pakistan as geopolitical rivals” (2011).
Considering the Iranian perspective is not just tallying up prior injustices, identifying the cultural and geopolitical causes of conflict provide insight into the state’s mindset. Hunter writes, “Indeed, both sides have become prisoners of the past; both have a long list of grievances. To be limited by the past in analysis, perceptions and policy flexibility is a natural human trait, but in today’s circumstances it would be self-indulgent and self-defeating.” Parasility adds, “After three decades of mutual hostility and infrequent direct diplomatic contacts, differences in political culture and diplomatic style, disproportionate involvement of intermediaries and message carriers, and sometimes confusing and mixed signals from those presumed to be speaking for those in authority, such clarity cannot be assumed.” The recently concluded deal does not, of course, eliminate these concerns or these complex relationships. In fact, engagement with Iran doesn’t only make the nuclear fear not go away, it may make the problem in some ways more daunting and challenging.
The most significant continued concern is Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Additionally, other problems include: Iran’s support for terrorist groups; the regime’s hostility towards Israel; the expansion of Shia theology throughout the region; Iranian threats to close the Straits of Hormuz; Iran’s proliferation of instability through proxy groups; and the theological contention between the Qom and Najaf Howza. Iran’s strategic objectives clash with U.S. goals for the region. Robb and Wald (2012) write, “Tehran’s strategic objectives to expand its influence, export revolution and undercut the Middle East peace process have threatened longstanding U.S. efforts to maintain a regional balance of power, defend key allies and support Arab-Israeli peace”. Moreover, Iran’s strategic objectives adversely affect other nations.
Israel views Iran as the biggest threat to their national security. Israel contends that Iran is will never try to build a peaceful nuclear program but rather that Iran is enriching uranium to build nuclear weapons to use specifically against the Jewish homeland. On October 1, 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). In his remarks, Netanyahu (2013) stated, “Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map. Against such a threat, Israel will have no choice but to defend itself.” Israel does not consent to any negotiations that allow Iran to pursue a nuclear program, regardless of the enrichment levels. Israel does not accept containment. This is why Israel still does not accept or consider the new deal as a positive step or one to secure a new kind of Iran for the future.
Turkey supports Iran’s pursuit of a peaceful nuclear program and has occasionally acted as a mediator to support Tehran’s efforts. Despite Turkey’s assistance, Iran and Turkey are regional rivals with diametrically opposed worldviews. According to Barkey, “Turkey is a constitutionally secular state where the military is the self-appointed guardian of secularism. Iran is a theocracy in which Islamic law rules and clerics play decisive roles, including control over the military.” (2012). Like its neighbors, Turkey opposes any Iranian efforts to build a nuclear weapon, which Turkey views as a destabilizing, regional factor.
The Gulf States
Iran maintains strained relationships with its regional neighbors. The Gulf States or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), collectively oppose the prospect of a nuclear Iran building a nuclear weapon. The GCC warns that a nuclear Iran would threaten the stability of the region well into the Persian Gulf. This would also change the balance of power by enhancing Iran’s persistent efforts to export its ideology and influence the internal affairs of Gulf Coast states. Some of the most notable examples are the violent, Iranian-supported Shia protests occurring in Bahrain and Yemen and the continued dispute over the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs (Fulton & Farrar-Wellman, 2011).
Russian and Chinese Interests in Iran
Russia and China have a unique and somewhat symbiotic relationship with Iran. The Iranian government has been steadily increasing exports to both countries despite international sanctions. Russia and China openly state their opposition to any Iranian efforts to build nuclear weapons, but also believed in alternative approaches beyond punitive and extreme sanctions. Both countries have conceded to international sanctions against Iran but also violate the sanctions when it is opportunistic for them both. Russia and Iran continue to bolster the Iranian government through military arms shipments, dual-use technology, oil purchases, and financial transactions. Iran is a strategic partner for them both and serves to limit Western influences in the region in a way that benefits both Chinese and Russian geopolitical interests.
No Easy Fix
Iran’s new accord could and hopefully will signal a new engagement that builds new channels of trust and interaction with rivals, both regional and global. Even if this most optimal outcome does occur, however, the national, cultural, historical, and geopolitical tensions that caused issues to begin with will not completely disappear. Iran not having a nuclear weapon will of course be good news to Europe, the United States, and Israel, just to name a few. But that will by no means stop Iran from pursuing its long-held belief in being an important global player and unquestioned regional hegemon. As the saying goes, the game has only just begun!
Chinese purchases of Iranian oil raise tantalizing questions
A fully loaded Chinese oil tanker ploughing its way eastwards from two Iranian oil terminals raises questions of how far Beijing is willing to go in defying US sanctions amid a mounting US military build-up in the Gulf and a US-China trade war.
The sailing from Iran of the Pacific Bravo takes on added significance with US strategy likely to remain focused on economic rather than military strangulation of the Iranian leadership, despite the deployment to the Gulf of an aircraft carrier strike group as well as B-52 bombers and a Patriot surface-to-air missile system.
As President Donald J. Trump, backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appears to be signalling that he is not seeking military confrontation, his administration is reportedly considering a third round of sanctions that would focus on Iran’s petrochemical industry. The administration earlier this month sanctioned the country’s metals and minerals trade.
The sailing raises the question whether China is reversing its policy that led in the last quarter of 2018 to it dramatically reducing its trade with Iran, possibly in response to a recent breakdown in US-Chinese trade talks.
“The question is whether non-oil trade remains depressed even if some oil sales resume, which I think it will. That’s the better indicator of where Chinese risk appetite has changed. Unfortunately Iran‘s reprieve will be limited—but better than zero perhaps,” tweeted Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, head of Bourse & Bazaar, a self-described media and business diplomacy company and the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.
A Chinese analyst interviewed by Al Jazeera argued that “China is not in a position to have Iran’s back… For China, its best to stay out” of the fray.
The stakes for China go beyond the troubled trade talks. In Canada, a senior executive of controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran.
Reports that Western companies, including Kraft Heinz, Adidas and Gap, wittingly or unwittingly, were employing Turkic Muslims detained in re-education camps in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang, as part of opaque supply chains, could increase attention on a brutal crackdown that China is struggling to keep out of the limelight.
The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the crackdown but has stopped short of sanctioning officials involved in the repressive measures.
Bourse & Bazaar’s disclosure of the sailing of the Pacific Bravo coincided with analysis showing that Iran was not among China’s top three investment targets in the Middle East even if Chinese investment in the region was on the rise.
The Pacific Bravo was steaming with its cargo officially toward Indonesia as Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was touring his country’s major oil clients, including China, in a bid to persuade them to ignore US sanctions.
A second tanker, the Marshal Z, was reported to have unloaded 130,000 tonnes of Iranian fuel oil into storage tanks near the Chinese city of Zhoushan.
The Marshall Z was one of four ships that, according to Reuters, allegedly helped Iran circumvent sanctions by using ship-to-ship transfers in January and forged documents that masked the cargoes as originating from Iraq.
The unloading put an end to a four-month odyssey at sea sparked by buyers’ reticence to touch a cargo that would put them in the US crosshairs.
“Somebody in China decided that the steep discount this cargo most likely availed … was a bargain too good to miss,” Matt Stanley, an oil broker at StarFuels in Dubai, told Reuters.
The Pacific Bravo, the first vessel to load Iranian oil since the Trump administration recently refused to extend sanction exemptions to eight countries, including China, was recently acquired by China’s Bank of Kunlun.
The acquisition and sailing suggested that Bank of Kunlun was reversing its decision last December to restrict its business with Iran to humanitarian trade, effectively excluding all other transactions.
The bank was the vehicle China used in the past for business with Iran because it had no exposure to the United States and as a result was not vulnerable to US sanctions that were in place prior to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.
China’s willingness to ignore, at least to some extent, US sanctions could also constitute an effort to persuade Iran to remain fully committed to the nuclear accord which it has so far upheld despite last year’s US withdrawal.
Iran recently warned Europe that it would reduce its compliance if Europe, which has struggled to create a credible vehicle that would allow non-US companies to circumvent the sanctions, failed to throw the Islamic republic an economic lifeline.
In a letter that was also sent to Russia and China, Iran said it was no longer committed to restrictions on the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water stocks, and could stop observing limits on uranium enrichment at a later stage.
Russian president Vladimir Putin warned in response to the Iranian threat that “as soon as Iran takes its first reciprocal steps and says that it is leaving, everyone will forget by tomorrow that the US was the initiator of this collapse. Iran will be held responsible, and the global public opinion will be intentionally changed in this direction.”
The Iran Question
Will there be war with Iran? Will there not be war with Iran? The questions are being asked repeatedly in the media even though a single carrier task force is steaming up there. The expression is old for the latest carriers are nuclear powered. Imagine the mess if it was blown up.
There are two kinds of weapons in the world … offensive and defensive. The latter are cheaper, a fighter plane compared to a bomber. If a country does not (or cannot afford to) have offensive intent, it makes sense to focus on defense. It is what Iran has done. Moreover, its missile centered defense has a modern deadly twist — the missiles are precision-guided.
As an Iranian general remarked when questioned about the carrier task force: some years ago it would’ve been a threat he opined; now it’s a target. Iran also has a large standing army of 350,000 plus a 120,000 strong Revolutionary Guard and Soviet style air defenses. In 2016 Russia started installation of the S-300 system. It has all kinds of variants, the most advanced, the S-300 PMU-3 has a range similar to the S-400 if equipped with 40N6E missiles, which are used also in the S-400. Their range is 400 km, so the Iranian batteries are virtually S-400s. The wily Putin has kept trump satisfied with the S-300 moniker without short-changing his and China’s strategic ally. The latter continuing to buy Iranian oil.
Iran has friends in Europe also. Angela Merkel in particular has pointed out that Iran has complied fully with the nuclear provisions of the UN Security Council backed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action i.e. the Iran nuclear deal. She is mustering the major European powers. Already alienated with Trump treating them as adversaries rather than friends, they find Trump’s bullying tiresome. President Macron, his poll ratings hitting the lowest, is hardly likely to engage in Trump’s venture. In Britain, Theresa May is barely able to hold on to her job. In the latest thrust by senior members of her party, she has been asked to name the day she steps down.
So there we have it. Nobody wants war with Iran. Even Israel, so far without a post-election government does not want to be rained upon by missiles leaky as its Iron Dome was against homemade Palestinian rockets.
Topping all of this neither Trump nor Secretary of State Pompeo want war. Trump is as usual trying to bully — now called maximum pressure — Iran into submission. It won’t. The wild card is National Security Adviser John Bolton. He wants war. A Gulf of Tonkin type false flag incident, or an Iranian misstep, or some accident can still set it off.
In Iran itself, moderates like current President Hassan Rouhani are being weakened by Trump’s shenanigans. The hard liners might well want to bleed America as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iran’s game just started
By announcing that Iran will begin keeping its excess uranium and heavy water, the Islamic Republic now sends a firm and clear message to the west, exactly one year after U.S. president, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from its nuclear deal with Iran.
At this point, it seems that Iran has made a wise decision. Over the last year, the European troika has not only done anything to revive the nuclear deal or bring any kind of benefit to the Iranian nation, but they have actually backed up U.S. by developing new plans to undermine Iran’s “missile work”, and diminish its “power in the region” as well as its “nuclear technology”.
As stated in clauses 26 and 36 of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
(JCPOA), if the other side fails to meet its obligations, Iran is entitled to
partially or completely end its commitments as well. So, Iran’s recent decision
could be analyzed both on legal and strategic terms.
However, it seems that the strategic aspects of Iran’s decision are even more important than its legal aspects. This decision is strategically important because it stops Washington and European troika to carry out their anti-Iran scheme, a dangerous scheme that they actually started devising when Trump took the office in 2017.
At the time, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, and Emmanuel Macron, the French president played a major part in carrying out the west scheme. A scheme based on enforcing Iran to keep its “nuclear promises” and stay committed to a “distorted nuclear deal” while “U.S. had abandoned the deal”, and at the same time, trying to “diminish Iran’s power in the region” and “reduce its missile activities”.
All other actions of Europeans toward Iran were also simply targeted at carrying out this major plan, including how they constantly changed their strategies toward Tehran, and how Germany, U.K. and France intentionally delayed in launching the alternative trade mechanism (Instex) with Iran.
Now, Iran’s decision to keep its Uranium and heavy water is definitely in compliance with JCPOA, and more importantly, it will seriously undermine the “American-European” joint plan against Iran. This also explains why French government was so distressed by Iran’s new nuclear strategy and had such a quick reaction, considering that Emmanuel Macron, the French president and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister both have had important roles in carrying out the American-European anti-Iran scheme.
At any rate, what is clear now is that the game has just started! And the Iranian political system and specially the foreign ministry have a great mission to run this game wisely.
In following days, the European troika might want to force Iran into changing its decision by threats such as reviving the European Union sanctions against Iran or even taking Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council (so that Trump administration can meddle in Iran’s affairs). But, it is time for Iran political system to be adamant in its decision.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry should clearly ask the Europeans to choose one of these options, either Iran will “further reduce its commitments to the nuclear deal” or the Europeans should do something practical to “protect the rights of Iranian nation”.
It is also necessary that the Iranian political system reveals the American-European joint anti-Iran scheme to the people so that the true nature of Europeans is showed to Iranians. In that case, Europe and specially the European troika will completely lose their reputation.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
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