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Iran: from Prince to Pariah

Submitted by on 12 Jul 2012 – 11:33

IranBy Rebecca Lowe, Senior Reporter, International Bar Association

Iran and the West have been sworn enemies since the Islamic Republic came to power in 1979. Now, focus on Iran’s suspected nuclear ambitions mean tensions have never been higher. But are the two sides truly irreconcilable?

Howard Baskerville is revered in Iran.  Schools are named after him; fresh flowers are found permanently on his grave; a bronze bust of him stands in the Constitution House of Tabriz, bearing the plaque: ‘Howard C Baskerville – Patriot and Maker of History’.

Yet Baskerville was no Iranian revolutionary. He was, rather, an American missionary from Princeton University who travelled to Tabriz to teach in 1907, but instead found himself leading 150 nationalist fighters against the despotic Shah. Celebrated as a defender of democracy, the young soldier was killed eight days after his 24th birthday.

‘The only difference between me and these people,’ Baskerville is reported to have said, ‘is my place of birth, and that is not a big difference.’

It is sometimes easy in the West to forget that the current diplomatic impasse with Iran is a modern phenomenon. Since being cast dismissively into a tyrannical triumvirate with North Korea and Iraq in George W. Bush’s 2002 ‘axis of evil’ speech, the country has been reduced to a series of incendiary tabloid bullet points. Yet the US and Iran are far from natural antagonists. Beyond present-day hostilities lies a rich tradition of political and cultural ties, where democratic and Enlightenment ideals, reform and revolution, have flourished.

 

Blood and oil

The current gridlock in relations can be traced back to 1953: the year the US and Britain orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, following his nationalisation of the oil industry. It was an act the Iranians have never forgotten or forgiven – and the perfect act to precipitate revolution. Nationalist sentiment rallied against the authoritarian western puppet, Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī, and in 1979 he was ousted by extremist cleric Ruhollah Khomeini.

The following year, Iran was invaded by Iraq, with US assistance, and forced into a long and costly war. Complaints to the western-dominated UN Security Council achieved a muted response, and it was not until 1991 that Iraq was finally held responsible for the conflict.

Given this history, it is perhaps understandable why Iran’s rulers have been reluctant to ally with the West. Yet why the West has remained so intransigent is a greater mystery. The Shia-dominated country shares many of the West’s concerns about Sunni-led terrorism, such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and the people remain some of the most pro-western in the region. After 9/11, Iran was one of the few Middle Eastern countries to express its solidarity with American victims, with thousands taking to the streets in candlelit vigils.

The period post-9/11 was perhaps Washington’s greatest opportunity to revive relations with Tehran, then led by reformist cleric Mohammad Khātamī.  Instead, the US decided to fashion a nemesis for itself; a Hollywood rogue against which the enlightened ideals of the West could be compared and found superior.

It was not a new idea, of course; Khomeini first referred to the US as the ‘Great Satan’ in 1979. Yet Iran, one could argue, had at least some historical basis for its mistrust, and such an enemy served its political purposes well. ‘The regime has fine-tuned its level of enmity with the US very precisely,’ says Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the Federation of American Scientists. ‘There is enough to serve as the ideological glue that keeps the system together, but not enough to threaten its survival.’

 

Nuclear narrative

Where nuclear weapons are concerned, intelligence agencies in the US and Europe seem agreed: Iran does not have a bomb, is not making a bomb and has not yet decided if it wants to make bomb.

The current hysteria over Iran’s nuclear ambitions could therefore be deemed excessive. Tensions originally arose after Iran failed to report two nuclear sites in the required time frame to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2002 (a charge Iran refutes).  Though at first the Iranians agreed a deal with the EU, whereby it would temporarily suspend enrichment and provide greater access to nuclear sites, in 2006 it withdrew from the agreement – due in part to frustration at American demands that it permanently give up its right to enrich.

Nuclear experts disagree over how obstructive Iran has been since this time. According to IAEA reports, the Agency ‘continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme’, after it uncovered evidence that Iran had carried out activities ‘relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device’.

Yet former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, who led the IAEA from 1981 to 1997, believes that Iran has not been overly obstructive towards the IAEA. ‘They did violate some safeguards, and should have reported things sooner,’ he says, speaking exclusively to IBA Global Insight. ‘But one must bear in mind that there is tremendous activity of sabotage by the US and Israel, and it is possible they were thinking that earlier reporting could have provoked such sabotage.’

Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), ratified by Iran in 1970, members have the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. A nuclear power plant needs around three per cent enriched uranium, a research facility around 20 per cent. From 20 per cent, it is a short leap to the 90 per cent needed for a bomb. Most of Iran’s stockpile is below five per cent, but it recently tripled its production of 20 per cent at its two enrichment sites, Natanz and Fordow – the latter of which it again failed to report in 2009.

David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, was the first non-governmental inspector of Iraq’s nuclear programme in 1992. He is convinced Iran has a weapons programme, and believes former IAEA director-general Mohamed ElBaradei was too cautious in exposing all the evidence against it due to fears of provoking another war.

‘It was an understandable concern, but that was a critical mistake that ElBaradei made, to link Iraq and Iran too much,’ says Albright. ‘He should have trusted the international process to use the information in a way that didn’t lead to war.’

Wyn Bowen, director of the Centre for Science & Security Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, served as a weapons inspector on several UN ballistic missile inspection teams in Iraq in 1997-98. He believes Iran is engaged in a ‘hedging strategy’: attempting to get the capability for a weapon, but not yet a weapon itself. This is why it has opted in and out of agreements over the past ten years, playing for time. ‘The Iranians are playing a canny game,’ he says. ‘I strongly suspect there are military activities Iran is doing that no-one knows about yet because they are keeping them deeply buried.’

Bowen’s suspicions are shared by much of the western intelligence community. Greg Thielmann, senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, served as a top intelligence official at the US State Department until retiring shortly before the Iraq war over accusations the US had cooked its intelligence. According to him, the US believes that Iran had a weapons programme prior to 1979, which was halted by Khomeini when he became Supreme Leader, and then restarted after the Iran-Iraq war. It was later revealed in a 2007 report that the programme had again been stopped in 2003, seemingly due to fears that Iran would be the next Iraq. ‘This was very big news, as we had recently said that Iran had an ongoing nuclear weapons programme,’ says Thielmann. ‘And then this report came out saying Iran had stopped the programme, which I believe actually averted war with Iran in the latter years of the Bush administration.’

For Thielmann, however, the key issue was less that the Iranians had halted the weapons programme in 2003 and more the fact that they had had a secret programme in the first place. ‘The Iranians took the headline and ran with it, ignoring the sub-headline, which was that they had lied to the IAEA for 18 years.’

 

Nuclear apartheid

Iran may be engaging in a ’hedging strategy’, but it is some relief that it is beholden to the terms of the NPT. The treaty gives all states the right to a civil nuclear programme, bans non-nuclear states from building weapons and commits nuclear states to making efforts to disarm. Today, 190 countries have signed; Israel, India and Pakistan, however, have not, declaring the treaty unfairly enshrines a system of global ‘nuclear apartheid’.

The accusation is not without merit. For many, nuclear weapons are little more than a metaphor, significant only for what they symbolise: power, sovereignty, self-determination. To have a nuclear weapon is to have a golden ticket to the top table, and it is clear that few want the nouveau-riche crashing the party.

Indeed, the West has successfully perpetuated the view that the world would be in mortal danger should certain countries get nuclear weapons, while such weapons are perfectly safe in their own hands – hands, it seems sometimes forgotten, which dropped a couple of bombs onto Japan in 1945. Iran, the narrative suggests, is run by megalomaniacal, unstable fiends who could easily allow a weapon to slip into the hands of Hezbollah or fall on Tel Aviv. Yet, whatever you can say about it, the Iranian regime is far from irrational; it knows well that such acts would spell the end of the Republic. Vaez puts it succinctly: ‘The regime may be homicidal to its own population, but it is not suicidal.’

According to Blix, the aggressive rhetoric by the West towards Iran has been unhelpfully ‘supercilious’. To deflect accusations of hypocrisy, he says, nuclear states should focus their attention on disarmament. Though the US and Russia have cut their warhead stockpiles by tens of thousands, they still have around 5,000 operational warheads each.

The West’s failure to abide by its disarmament commitments, outlined in the NPT, is a ‘major problem’, according to Peter Weiss, president of the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy. For him, there is no point proposing a nuclear free zone in the Middle East – due to be discussed later this year – until the nuclear powers show themselves willing to comply with the law. ‘If I was Iran, I would say, look at what you are doing with international law obligations. What do you want from us?’

If one was Iran, one may also point the finger at Israel and Pakistan: two nuclear states outside the NPT, but which, as allies of the West, cause far less global consternation. As Thielmann explains, ‘Pakistan is not even able to maintain sovereignty in its territorial areas bordering Afghanistan and Iran.’

 

Illegal warfare

Western hypocrisy is perhaps at its most acute when riding roughshod over the rule of law for the sake of political expediency. In recent discussions over whether to launch a military attack on Iran, according to Blix, ‘an important legal discussion has been missing.’

‘People only say, is it sensible to attack Iran or not?’ he says. ‘And most people say it is not. But for us lawyers, it is significant that actually this would be a terrible setback for the interpretation of the UN Charter.’

Under the UN Charter, the use of force is only permissible in self-defence against an actual or imminent armed attack, or when the Security Council has authorised it. There is no basis in international law for expanding the concept of self-defence to authorise ‘pre-emptive’ strikes against states based on potential WMD threats – a Bush doctrine yet to be squarely renounced by the Obama administration.

‘They attacked Iraq because they thought they might have had WMD and now they are talking of attacking Iran because they think they might have bad intentions,’ Blix says. ‘It is a new category, but not one that exists under the UN Charter.’

There are also legal concerns surrounding nuclear weapons themselves. In a 1996 ruling, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found that ‘the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law’ – though it stopped short of saying nuclear weapons were illegal in every circumstance.

 

Collective punishment

If military action is both illegal and politically unwise, what about sanctions? The US imposed comprehensive sanctions in 1995, and recently they have ratcheted up. Since 2011, foreign financial institutions have been banned from conducting oil transactions with Iran’s central bank, and the categories exposing non-US companies to sanctions have been vastly expanded. The EU has also strengthened its sanctions on the oil industry and central bank, while UN Security Council sanctions, imposed since 2006, target Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

The policy is evidently having an effect. Inflation in Iran is now at 20 per cent and unemployment is soaring. Indeed, Iran made clear at recent nuclear talks in Istanbul that sanctions had strongly impacted their decision to open discussions.

Yet for some the cost is too high. ‘Targeted sanctions are useful, but comprehensive sanctions become tools of collective punishment,’ says Vaez. ‘More than anyone else, they will hit the middle-class in Iran, the ones demanding a better democratic system.’

Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi agrees. Having left Iran in 2009, she is now living in exile due to fear of arrest.  ‘Targeted sanctions that weaken the government are good,’ she says, speaking to IBA Global Insight via a Farsi interpreter. ‘But any sanctions that are detrimental to the people should be avoided.’ For example, the West could target Iran’s 13 foreign language channels, which ‘broadcast its lies around the world’.

For Ebadi, any nuclear talks must act as a stepping stone to address human rights. There are now around 1,000 political prisoners, she estimates, and Iran has banned visits by the UN Human Rights Council since 2005. ‘The West is only focusing on the nuclear problem and neglecting human rights. I believe that in the next round of talks, they should demand that Iran cooperates with the UN and allows the special rapporteur to visit.’

 

From diktat to debate

In March 2009, US President Barack Obama marked the Persian New Year festival of Nowruz with a message to the Iranian people; the US would refrain from ‘threats’ against the country, and instead engage in discussion which was ‘grounded in mutual respect’. It was a speech demonstrating political and cultural sensitivity, and marked a welcome end to the cocksure hyperbole of his predecessor.

Frustratingly little progress has been made since then. However, recent nuclear talks were heralded as ‘constructive’, and some are hopeful they herald a new dawn of compromise. Whatever the future holds – bomb or no bomb, reform or regression – it is clear the West must address perceptions of double-standards, or mutual trust will prove elusive. Hypocrisy begets intransigence, and since 1979 has led to nothing but brick walls and bombast.

‘We need to be open-eyed about our own responsibilities from the past,’ says David Rodin, co-director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. ‘This in no way vindicates some of the really morally pernicious things the Iranian regime has done, but when we look for solutions, we must be aware of the nuances too.’