Viewpoint by Jonathan Power*
LUND, Sweden (IDN) — The policies of Iran’s government are not set in stone, as critics interminably suggest. In early December Iran’s prosecutor-general was reported as saying that the morality police were being disbanded. Clearly, two months of demonstrations, led mainly by women, and now with open support by Iran’s football World Cup team while competing in Qatar, have made some in the government have a big think about its long-term policies. [2023-01-12-28] ARABIC | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | KOREAN | RUSSIAN
Boiled down, this means asking itself if it wants to remain an outcast and or does it want to get on with the job, emulating its neighbours, of becoming a prosperous and wholesome, unsuppressed society. Nevertheless, the hard-liners still have the upper hand, much of the time, witness the recent executions of arrested protestors.
Dealing with its home-grown social grievances is one thing, dealing with the US is another. This too demands a big re-think. Is it prepared to go back to the terms of the nuclear deal negotiated with President Barack Obama which was based in part on a degree of mutual trust or does it assume since President Donald Trump tore it up no future US president can be trusted?
Of all the present foes of America it is Iran which has consistently been over time the number one. Since its Islamic Revolution in 1979 that overthrew the secular-minded Shah and supplanted him with a militant, sometimes warlike, Islamic theocracy, it has been America’s Great Satan. (But for Europe rather less so, although no country has broken ranks with Washington.)
In the November 2019 edition of Foreign Affairs two professors, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, wrote, "Imagine historians 100 years from now trying to decide which foreign power the US feared most in the decades from the late Cold War…They would see Russia first as an archenemy, then as a friend, and finally as a challenging nuisance. They would see China become a great power rival. North Korea would appear as sideshow. Only one country would be depicted as a persistent and implacable foe: Iran."
As in its early years the regime has been profoundly irritating the US. It has returned to enriching uranium towards a level that could mean, if it wanted to, it could one day build a nuclear bomb quite quickly. (An effective delivery system is another matter.) It has been long supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria and provoking Israel via its surrogate, Hezbollah, in Lebanon and giving help to the rebelling Shi’ites in Iraq. In Yemen it has given modest support to the Houthi uprising.
One fifth of the world’s exported oil flows through the Persian Gulf on which Iran has a long shoreline. None of the oil goes to the US but interruption can affect the price of oil. Ironically, much of it goes to China, a supporter of Iran. But, contrary to some panicky voices in Washington the Straits of Hormuz at the Gulf’s head cannot be closed. It’s too wide for that.
In balance of power terms Washington’s obsession with Iran is absurd. Its economy is barely 2 percent as large. The US and its allies in the Middle East—Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—together spend about 50 times more than Iran. It has missiles but as yet they don’t go very far. Its (presumed) bombing attack on Saudi Arabia's oil storage complex with drones that flew below the radar was done with relatively elementary technology.
President Barack Obama did take this inequality on board and, backed up by Russia and the EU, he did forge an agreement with Tehran that rolled back Iran’s nuclear research and removed the threat of it developing weapons (which it probably had no plans to do anyway—at least that is the way the CIA has long seen it).
The 2015 agreement was meant to be the entry door to engaging in negotiations with the regime to limit Iran’s provocative interventions in the Middle East. But Obama also missed his opportunities. Early in his tenure Iran offered him an olive branch and he spurned it. He came to push for the anti-nuclear negotiations too late in the day. Trump, with his perverse urge to sabotage everything that Obama had accomplished, pulled the plug on the deal before it had the time to set itself in concrete.
After 40 years of alienation from and persecution by the US and its allies why should anyone be surprised that Iran has attempted to push back, especially where it can do damage in its backyard. Its constant hostility towards Israel is because it fears that Israel is working for the downfall of its regime. In Iraq there would be no Iranian presence if there hadn't been the US-led war of 2003. Saddam Hussein was helped by the US and the UK in his war against Iran.
Saudi Arabia has an urge to bring down the regime in Tehran, for reasons part political and part religious. This is why Iran via the Houthis is attempting to bleed the Saudis dry. But who gets kudos from supporting the Saudi tactics which have spared neither women, children or hospitals? Iran’s relationship with Syria is principally a marriage of convenience by two Shi’ite states which feel threatened by the Middle East’s majority of Sunnis. It does not threaten US essential interests.
Iran and the US have never been further apart. The EU tries to be a moderating force but is cowed by the reach of American economic sanctions. Yet if the US undermined Iran to the point of destabilizing its economy and its government it would be shooting itself in the foot, unleashing further instability in the Middle East, not least another massive refugee crisis.
Iran can be belligerent, but it doesn't help to constantly confront it. Obama showed the way with EU and Russian support. The sooner the US can return to that path the sooner can the Middle East become much more peaceful.
This year we may see some Iranian woman walking the streets of Teheran without wearing the hijab. Needless to say, such a step forward relates little to foreign policy, but it does indicate some influential members of the regime, when they choose, can be flexible. Washington must seize its moment—make an offer on the nuclear deal that the Iranian government cannot afford to pass up. The two sides are already very close. To close that gap should not be too difficult to do. [IDN-InDepthNews — 12 January 2023]
* Jonathan Power was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers.
Photo: The foreign affairs ministers of the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, France, China, the European Union and Iran (Lausanne, March 30, 2015). Wikimedia Commons.