By Jahanzeb Hussain
In the mainstream media, political commentary about the Iranian nuclear issue is portrayed as a conflict between a selfless West trying its best to persuade a hostile and recalcitrant Iran to give up on its nuclear weapons program for the good of the region and the world. The media also looks at the confrontation through the lens of Orientalism and makes the situation appear as if it’s a clash of civilizations, where an enlightened, rational, liberal, and democratic West is engaged with a backward, religious, and belligerent Iran from the East. The endeavor has so far been fruitless; the fatherly West has been unable to convince a childish Iran to forego its naïve claims to sovereignty. Iran still clamors to independently decide its nuclear policies and also has the audacity to stand up for its legal rights to do so. Therefore, harsh sanctions have to be imposed – regrettably, of course – to punish Iran and force the country into changing. Just in case the sanctions are not enough, it’s always safe to move warships near the Iranian coast since the crazed country might throw a tantrum and exercise its forbidden rights over its own territorial waters. There is also the danger that, in face of so much fatherly love from the West, Iran might block the Strait of Harmuz in act of incomprehensible self-defense. The game is on and we have to agonizingly wait for Iran’s next move. Will it grow up, come out of the age of ignorance, and realize that it absolutely has to take orders from the adults in Washington, Tel Aviv, Paris, and London? Or will it continue to act in defiance and will the nation eventually need a few hard lessons in life so that it could grow up to be a responsible nation?
Nothing in living memory threatens the peace and prosperity of the wider Middle East as this stand-off between Iran and the US; therefore, the situation deserves a serious analysis, instead of the charade that we get from the Western media every day (a hint of which is highlighted above). This paper aims to decipher the Iranian nuclear issue in its entirety. It draws from scientific research done on the topic, and cites from high government authorities in hopes of reaching the core of both the Iranian and American policies. Among many things, the paper examines the timeline of the conflict; the American line towards Iran; the Iranian response to American actions; the intentions behind the economic sanctions; the current stalemate; and possibilities for the future.
Iran and its nuclear history
The Iranian efforts to enrich uranium go back three decades. The Shah, the American backed-dictator, actively sought to acquire nuclear technology and the relevant infrastructure from the US and Western Europe. The United States was favorable to the Iranian demands; however the Americans were unwilling to allow its ally to become a full-fledged nuclear state. They placed several restrictions on nuclear agreements with Iran and conditioned them so that the US had a tight control and an ultimate veto over Iranian ambitions. The rationale for this had very little to do with nuclear proliferation or the reasons that are put forth today; as the Ford administration pointed out, “a world with more nuclear powers would be more unstable: […] U.S. influence would ebb as nuclear weapons gave “nations a sense of greater independence” […]” [author’s emphasis]. But before any deal could be finalized, the Shah’s regime collapsed, the nationalist regime of Ayatollah Khomeini took over, and the hostilities between the two countries were renewed. Until this day, the United States has not forgiven Iran for its second act of independent nationalism. We will return to their first sin of nationalism later.
Fundamental American policy
Successful defiance of US policies jeopardizes the entire structural base of the American empire as it undermines Washington’s relentless push to dominate regions of the world, to define a limited sphere of proper political action for other, weaker countries, and to control the resources of sovereign nations. Planners in Washington can’t allow a country to deviate and challenge this order, which has been set by the US since the end of the Second World War. Such actions threaten America’s global interests but what is even more worrisome for the Pentagon is that such activities can potentially inspire others to follow the same path, therefore shifting the balance of power away from the United States. Thus the cancer of independent nationalism, as the US sees it, has to be terminated in order to save the body and its germs have to be eradicated completely. Independence for other countries can’t be a part of the world if the US wants to be an empire.
Since the loss of Iran – a “cop on the beat” along with Pakistan and Israel, as they were called in the American capital – the balance of power in the Middle East and Central Asia has never been the same. Despite the fact that Shah’s regime was as brutal as Iran’s present regime, the United States had no qualms about according a privileged status to the country as long as the cop on the beat took orders from its headquarters and kept the neighborhood safe and under control for the US. After 1979, it became harder for the US to dictate the region. It was acceptable to Washington to have a nuclear Iran under the Shah as long as the US had authority over Iran’s program and the Shah was in power, but a revolutionary and hostile Iran with similar capacities is a double worry for the US. Not only is Iran independent under the current regime but having nuclear capabilities gives it even more strength. Thus the historical roots of Iran-US rivalry stem from the dichotomy of imperialism and nationalism, which is compounded further when nuclear energy, and potentially nuclear weapons, are added ingredients.
American backing for Saddam Hussein
The United States immediately sought to punish Iran for its inadmissible act of achieving independence from the West. The article will now seek to illustrate this by creating an inventory of American actions towards Iran after the 1979 Revolution.
One year after the revolution, the United States and Britain backed and armed Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction – including chemical weapons and mustard gas – in a war with Iran that lasted 8 years. Statistically, this conflict was the worst since the First World War, with Iran suffering the majority of the burns. Saddam Hussein was not only supported by the United States and Britain, but the Arab states also sustained the Iraqi assault on Iran through supply of money and weapons. Saudi Arabia – Iran’s principal Arab foe due to historic, cultural, political, and religious reasons – was the chief backer of Saddam Hussein among the Arab countries. Iranian hatred for the Saudis reached its peak during that period, leading Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini to openly call for the overthrow of the Wahabi regime. As far as Israel is concerned, it also played a similar, sinister role in the war. It provided arms to both Iraq and Iran in order to prolong the conflict and temper the balance and maintain it in such a way that it would cause maximum damage to both the countries. One of the major reasons why Iran survived that war was because of Israeli supplied arms. The United States also had the same tactic of providing arms to both the countries so that the war could continue for longer period of time. Every time Iran came close to turning the table, the US and her allies increased their support for Iraq, extending the conflict and the damage on Iran. The war finally came to an end in 1988.
Mossadegh, nationalization of oil and the CIA coup
However, Western backing of Saddam Hussein against Iran was not the first maltreatment Iran received for its perverse act of ridding itself from the clutches of imperialism. When Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s democratically elected leader, decided to nationalize Iran’s British-controlled oil industry when he came to power 1951, he attracted the West’s ire right away. This was the first act of independent nationalism from the Iranians, and it invited similar response from the Americans and British as the 1979 Revolution did. Two years later in 1953, the CIA orchestrated a coup that overthrew Mossadegh and brought the Shah to power. The brutal, pro-American dictator held power till 1979 before he was ousted by Ayatollah Khomeini. Subsequently, the second chapter of Iranian-Western antagonism began.
Same policy but new names
After the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, the American hostilities towards Iran did not subside. In the same year, American warship USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian civil airliner over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 passengers. Since the 90s, the West has been accusing Iran of having the intentions to build nuclear weapons. The third and current phase of Iranian-Western relationship commences here.
When the Berlin Wall collapsed, the US government reviewed its global strategy and concluded that, since the Russians are no longer coming, the new pretext for maintaining the empire would be the “technological advancement of Third World countries”, and the “threats to our national interests could no longer be laid at Kremlin’s door”. It’s in this cadre of Third World technological advancement that Iran was accused for the first time in 1992 of trying to enrich uranium in order to make nuclear weapons. Invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the pretext of weapons of mass destruction is also part of this post-Cold War American policy. This proves that the threat of Russia was just an excuse for American hegemonic policies, just as the “War on Terror” is. The real issue at stake has always been the control over the planet and its resources. The US has a morbid fear of countries that desire to free themselves from American control, no matter when, how, and under what banner, because freedom for other countries, above all Third World countries, automatically means loss of American power and hegemony.
More of the same
The American policy to chastise Iran for its improper behavior of 1979 and onwards has continued unabated. Our first inventory has shown that nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation are not the biggest issue, that the procurement of weapons of mass destruction and their use by American allies are not a concern, that funding and supporting dictatorships is one of the cornerstones of Western policies, and that each and every violation of human rights by Western allies is conveniently ignored. It’s the independence of other countries that makes life complicated for the US and Europe. Another inventory of US policies on Iran’s nuclear issue will prove that that, since the US has a problem with other countries’ freedoms, it’s not interested in coming to a negotiated settlement with Iran. If the United States accepts that Iran is an equal party in negotiations and that Iran doesn’t want to be dictated and exploited by outside powers, the fundamental pillar of American policies towards Third World countries, and indeed developed countries, will collapse.
It has been widely accepted that Iran halted its uranium enrichment program in 2003 and did not restart it at least after 2007. This fact was attested by George Bush’s National Intelligence Council in 2007. Even though Iraq was invaded by the US in 2003 which increased the presence of American military in countries surrounding Iran – Afghanistan and Pakistan have direct American presence since 2001– Iranian leaders didn’t opt for speeding up uranium enrichment for the sake of self-defense. Instead, they suspended the process and tried to reach out to the US in an effort to resolve the problems the two have. The outreach was done through Europe (France, Germany and Britain – the EU-3) between 2004 and 2006, during which Iran extensively cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), allowing the agency to have unprecedented access to Iranian nuclear facilities and even military facilities. Iran offered a permanent cessation of uranium enrichment, and in return the EU-3 agreed to political and trade benefits for Iran, as well as a guarantee of non-aggression by the EU towards the country. However, the EU-3 couldn’t get the United States to provide a guarantee of non-aggression, an end to hostilities and normalization of relations with Iran. Had the US been interested in a constructive dialogue and a desire for a positive outcome, Washington would have jumped at this golden opportunity to achieve what it publicly says it wants. Needless to add, but the Iranian offer and the negotiations between Iran and Europe were barely reported in the American media, if at all.
Despite American intransigence on the nuclear issue, the two countries have worked together in Afghanistan and Iraq, however. It’s only as a result of Iranian help that the US was able to form Karzai’s government in Afghanistan and Nouri Al-Maliki’s coalition in Iraq. Iran used its religious, linguistic and cultural connections in these two countries to aid the US with the installation of their respective governments. American officials have openly recognized the value of Iranian help. Given this, the US still refuses to engage with Iran on the atomic issue in a respectable manner, which not only further increases but also validates Iranian skepticism regarding American intentions. To add insult to injury, the US declared Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil”.
Consequently, Iran re-started the uranium enrichment. This doesn’t mean that Iran refused to cooperate with the West or with the IAEA. The country has always been keen on finding opportunities that would build confidence with the West. This includes the “fuel swap deal” with Brazil and Turkey in 2010. Under the deal, Iran would halt uranium enrichment before it reaches 20% (high-enriched uranium, which then starts to become weapons-usable). Furthermore, Iran would shift its low-enriched uranium (LEU), uranium below 20% to be stored in Turkey for 12 months. From Turkey, the LEU would be transferred to France and Russia, where it would be enriched till 20% for Iran. The LEU would be returned to Iran as fuel for its nuclear reactor in Tehran. This was a remarkably significant breakthrough. However, the United States gave Iran a cold shoulder on this occasion too. The deal would have meant that Iran would not have enriched uranium on its own, therefore ending Western concern that Iran might use it for making nuclear weapons. The uranium would have been enriched for Iran by other countries, which would have given the West leverage over Iran’s nuclear program. Even though Iran has the right to enrich uranium on its own under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran agreed to an important compromise by forgoing it. If the US had been favorable to the deal, Iran in return would have received fuel guarantees from the West which would have kept Iran’s nuclear program going. Iran would have kept its right to have nuclear energy for civilian purposes and would have given up its right to enrich uranium on its own. Iran would have received recognition from the West that as a signatory of the NPT, Iran has legal rights to possess nuclear capabilities for civilian purposes; and the West would have not only received guarantees from Iran that it doesn’t intend to obtain nuclear weapons but they would have also been able to have some control over Iran’s nuclear program.
Despite Iran’s desire to be independent from other countries on nuclear policy (which includes reducing dependency on its nuclear allies like Russia and China, as well as to have its own engineers acquire the know-how on enriching uranium, a feat which would give Iran power and prestige) Iranian leader still were willing to compromise. President Ahmadinejad, during his last visit to the UN in New York, openly said that Iran was willing to halt uranium enrichment at 3.5%. This was a strong hint that Iran is willing to return to negotiations, despite the failure of the swap deal. However, the US chose not to listen.
The swap deal is now in the trash bin. Not only that, but the United States continues to slap sanctions on Iran, openly threaten it with force, move warships near the country, fly spy drones over its territory, and accuse the country of trying to murder the Saudi ambassador to the US. Moreover, the US signed a nuclear deal with India in 2008 which would allow India to increase its nuclear yield even though, unlike Iran, India is not a signatory of the NPT. Neither are Pakistan and Israel signatories of the NPT but the US continues to be their protector. Such a lack of consistency and pervasive hypocrisy will not lead to any kind of settlement, especially regarding Israeli nuclear weapons, which Iran rightly sees as a threat to the region. However, the fact that Iran, during its talks with EU-3, agreed to leave aside the issue of nuclear proliferation from these countries, especially Israel, testifies the length to which Iran is willing to go in order to come to a peaceful settlement with the United States. At the same time, it also shows the extent to which the US is unwilling to even consider negotiations.
Parallel to American intransigence is its policy of arming Gulf States against Iran, especially Saudi Arabia. The US and Saudi Arabia recently agreed to a military deal worth $60 billion, which happens to be the biggest arms deal ever made in history between any country. At the same time the US also decided to sell armaments worth more than $30 billion to other Gulf States who are hostile to Iran.
And parallel to arming Gulf States against Iran, the US opts to impose sanctions on the country. These sanctions are imposed on Iran with enormous fanfare, media coverage, and ferocious rhetoric — one should ask what purposes to these sanctions serve. A fact that should be kept in mind is that sanctions on Iran, which are being imposed since the mid-90s, have had zero influence on its nuclear program. They have proven to be an abject failure. The United States isn’t unaware of it either. One can perhaps say that the US doesn’t want to achieve anything with the sanctions. It’s not a secret that most of Iran’s energy exports go to East Asia and not to the West. China, India and Russia are not going to isolate Iran unlike Europe has done recently; Iran isn’t going to be hurt significantly by the oil embargo. If the US wants to weaken the regime, then that has proved to be a failure too, and will remain a failure. Maybe the US just wants to show its muscles and show the world that the country is always around the corner and has “credibility”, even though it has already left Iraq and will soon exit Afghanistan. To see anything beyond that is hard. The only results of the sanctions are the increasing economic difficulties for the Iranian people. Maybe the US just wants to hurt ordinary Iranians. If the US chooses to invade Iran, then certainly the torture for Iranians will increase many folds.
If the present American policy continues, one doesn’t see the hostilities between Iran and the West come to an end in the near future. On the other hand, as the region is being increasingly militarized thanks to the US, any friction between American and Iranian forces can lead to the situation getting out of hand. One also can’t ignore Israel, which is a paranoid state. Although it’s contestable to what extent Israel can go on its own to attack Iran, Israel, under the ultra-nationalist government of Netanyahu, can’t be trusted to keep itself under control. Israel also has around 200 nuclear warheads which can’t be ignored either. On the top of that, Israel’s policy to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists fails to instill confidence in anyone.
Solutions and the future
For this contentious issue to be resolved, the United States will have to come to the negotiation table. Of everything mentioned in the above analysis, reviving the nuclear swap deal presents the best way of making progress on the issue. At the same time, the US will have to accept that it can’t dominate other countries, especially a country like Iran. Iran is a proud country, a country that has an ancient civilization of unparalleled magnificence, and its history is steeped in greatness. Modern Iran wants to be independent; its regime, no matter what its character might be like, doesn’t want to bow to outside powers. Its current leaders will not allow the Shah’s time to come back. And Iran has all the rights to do so.
Iran doesn’t deserve to be treated in this manner by the US, and it doesn’t deserve to be demonized in the media either. The country has not caused any problems to its neighbors or to the West. The last time Iran invaded another country was 200 years ago. By contrast, the United States has invaded, bombed, and dominated one country after another, not to mention that it used nuclear weapons twice on civilian population. While its ally, Israel, only in the past 60 years or so, has succeeded in ethnically cleansing historic Palestine, invading and occupying its neighbors, as well as being on a path of continuous colonial expansion. When one hears in the media that Iran is a threat to world peace, one’s intelligence is badly insulted
But what are the odds that the US will accept Iran as a free country? That depends not on the American government but on its own people, as well as the people of the Middle East. On its own, the US will not cease to be an empire. One has to look at the Arab Spring and the Occupiers at Wall Street because hope comes from what they are trying to achieve.
Jahanzeb Hussain is the editor of Collateral Damage Magazine. He is a 22-year old student based in Vancouver, where he goes to Simon Fraser University. He also represents the Vancouver chapter of Afghans For Peace. His blog can be viewed here.
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