The Islamic Republic's Inner Mossaddegh
by ARYA REJAEE in New York
06 Jul 2010 16:54
Early last month, the United Nations Security Council approved its fourth round of sanctions against Iran, and more recently, the United States and the European Union stepped-up their own measures restricting foreign investment in Iran's energy and financial sectors. Even the Islamic Republic's influential allies share the international community's concern over Iran's nuclear program. Though stopping short of adopting unilateral sanctions, China and Russia both voted for Security Council Resolution 1929 and effectively blocked Iran's bid for membership to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization regional security bloc. Russian Prime Minister Valdimir Putin has also promised to freeze the previously-anticipated delivery of missile-defense systems to Iran.
The purpose of these and other coercive measures employed by the world powers is to demonstrate to the regime of "the growing costs that will come with Iranian intransigence," to borrow a phrase from President Barack Obama. This policy, however, has failed because it is premised on the assumption that the Iranian leadership adheres to a materialistic interpretation of cost-benefit logic on the nuclear issue.
While it is true that Iranian policymakers act pragmatically on a variety of foreign policy issues, the calculus changes when powers pressure Iran to abandon a populist policy. When faced with the choice of painful resistance or capitulation, asceticism dominates decision making. By sacrificially subjecting itself to deprivations, Iran rejects the logic of consequences that guides traditional political decision making. In doing so, a new politics is created in which the dignity of individuals as represented by the nation-state is the core issue. To put it succinctly, Iran anoints itself the global representative of the rights of nation-states. As Ahmadinejad said at the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, "the logic and will of the Iranian nation is a reflection of the logic and will of all nations."
This rejection of concrete interests is not limited to the Islamic Republic -- it can be traced to the nationalist era. In the early 1950's, Iranian Prime Minster Mossaddegh outraged the British by unilaterally nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company with popular support. In an attempt to coerce the prime minister into a revenue-sharing agreement, Britain levied sanctions (which effectively became an international restriction on the purchase of Iranian oil), instituted a naval blockade, and initiated domestic subversion. Moreover, nations both strong and weak distanced themselves diplomatically from Iran following British persuasion.
The effects of these actions were substantial. Halfway through the standoff, the treasury was hemorrhaging nearly $4 million a month and nearing bankruptcy, the currency was inflating rapidly with price of meat doubling each month, and civil servants and the army went unpaid. By the end of dispute, Iran had lost $180 million in oil revenues, maintained a $61 million operating deficit in their oilfields, and $30 to $40 million was required for the Abadan refinery -- then the largest in the world -- to return to its full capacity (figures unadjusted for inflation).
Despite these measures, Mossaddegh rejected increasingly reasonable compromise offers. He declared that he would "seal the oil wells with mud" before entering into an agreement with the British and, even as American mediators cautioned Mossaddegh that his actions threatened to undermine the government, the prime minster allegedly rolled his eyes and responded, "Tant pis pour nous" -- "Too bad for us." Other leading politicians echoed the prime minister's sentiment. Muzaffar Baqa'i, an early Mossaddegh supporter, insisted that he would rather see Iran's oil resources destroyed by an atomic bomb than remain under British control.
After two years without results, Britain and America's begrudging patience turned into unrestrained frustration and, on August 19, 1953, the two staged a successful coup ousting the prime minister. Despite the nationalist program's devastating political and economic results, Mossaddegh celebrated the defeat. While hiding in a cellar from his pursuers, a former minister allegedly declared, "How badly it all turned out, how badly!" To which Mossaddegh quipped, "And at the same time how really well it turned out, how really well!" For the prime minister, the issue at the heart of the oil nationalization was not the material benefits it potentially afforded, but its moral purpose of confronting the injustice of resource exploitation in defense of national rights in a post-colonial world.
It is not difficult to draw parallels between the oil dispute and the present standoff. With a defiant and dismissive attitude toward the ramifications of words and actions, the behavior of Ahmadinejad and his powerful supporters are simply a perversion of Mossaddegh's noble asceticism. The persistence of this sacrificial disposition among modern Iranian leaders can be attributed to the rhetorical frame of meaning through which they perceive the world. For centuries tragedy and martyrdom have served as prominent motifs in the nation's cultural discourse, from Imam Hussein's death on the fields of Karbala to the fall of righteous kings in Ferdowsi's epic, the Shahnameh. Within the context of post-colonial nationalism, these narratives incline Iranian leaders to interpret conflicts like the oil nationalization dispute and the controversial nuclear program as Manichean struggles.
The jury is still out on whether the Islamic Republic has military designs for its nuclear program, and it is prudent for the international community to continue pressing for more transparency. Punitive actions, however, likely will not force Iran to capitulate. As with Mossaddegh, sanctions and threats of military action will only strengthen the regime's resolve. The continual emphasis on the materiality of Iran's resistance sends a message to Ahmadinejad and others in the leadership that, contrary to Iran, the United States and its partners are simply acting out of their material self-interests.
In the Art of War, the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu famously wrote, "If you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss." Less well known is Tzu's corollary to the axiom, "If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose" -- and it is in this state of precariousness that the West finds itself concerning Iran's nuclear program. On repeated occasions, the West has acknowledged Iran's right to civilian nuclear energy, but this half-measure fails to accept Iran's right to produce peaceful nuclear materials as enshrined in Article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is first and foremost this right and not the benefits it affords that Iran defends. To break Iran's stubbornness over its nuclear ambitions, the West must craft policies taking into account that not everyone, in every circumstance, interpret costs and benefits through the same lens.
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