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Opinion | Understanding Iranian Defiance

by PARVIN SHIRZAD

21 Jun 2012 20:05Comments

A psyche that doesn't bow to bullying.

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Parvin Shirzad is a pen name for a journalist who travels frequently to Iran. She was recently based in Tehran for a year.
[ opinion ] There is a fundamental reason why Iran does not want to give in to foreign demands regarding its nuclear program: it doesn't have to. This is a fact that the P5+1's nuclear delegation would have done well to remember during the Moscow talks. Unsurprisingly, the talks failed to reach a breakthrough. The next step is back to lower-level technical discussions, with the hope they lead to new proposals and higher-level talks once again.

In Moscow, the Iranians didn't give in, even as they faced the prospect of a military attack and supposed economic ruin via sanctions. The United States and its allies were hoping the "pressure" approach would work. It did not, and has not in more than 30 years. To understand why, one must understand the Iranian psyche. And not just that of the group of people who rule the country or those on the Supreme National Security Council, responsible for nuclear negotiations. One needs to understand the collective and complicated psyche of Iranians as a people. And yes, in this case, the government and its "defiant" attitude to the West reflects the will of its nation.

I have spent most of this year in Tehran. In conversations with people from all over this city of more than eight million people, from the poor to the rich, from people who dislike the government to those who support it, the prevalent attitude is that Tehran should not just give in to the West to end the standoff. In fact, the fiercest defenders of Iran's right to nuclear energy are some of its biggest critics -- the millions of young, educated, and generally pro-Western Iranians. They are also the ones who say they will be the first to fight if foreign troops ever again set foot on Iranian soil, regardless of who the boots belong to.

The funny thing is the dispute could be about anything, say, Iran's right to breed cows. Iranians really didn't care if the country has a nuclear energy program. It was the reaction of the West, of the United States and its European allies, that made people care and rally behind nuclear energy as the nation's right (the nuclear symbol is even proudly displayed on Iran's 50,000-rial note). As Iranians keep saying, "They can't tell us what to do."

The European Union and the United States have approached Tehran with demands, perhaps forgetting that Iran doesn't have to participate in talks. Hardly rational. What the Western powers have offered -- such as spare parts for civilian airliners -- is a pittance compared to what they are demanding, including the suspension of uranium enrichment at 19.75 percent, closure of the Fordow nuclear site, and relinquishment of Iran's stockpile of 19.75 percent-enriched uranium.

Then there is that "pressure." The Western camp hopes economic sanctions and threats of war will destabilize Iran to the point that its leadership capitulates. Belligerent rhetoric is aimed at Iran from nations that paint themselves as the moral champions of nuclear disarmament, even while many of them boast (or conceal) a nuclear arsenal, ignore the Israeli, Pakistani, and Indian nuclear bombs on Iran's doorstep, and impose sanctions that are devastating the lives of ordinary Iranians, particularly the working class and retirees.

Economically, it doesn't look good. As a result of sanctions, it is estimated that Iran's oil exports have fallen by 40 percent since the start of the year (although high oil prices, reaching $128 a barrel, helped Iran recoup some losses, at least in the short term). And things are going to get worse -- the 27-nation E.U. oil ban, eliminating about 18 percent of Iran's oil exports, begins July 1.

But believing this is all going to lead to an Iranian collapse is folly. Iranians, including the country's leaders, have been through much worse. In just the past three decades, Iranians have lived through a bloody revolution, purges, eight years of war, sanctions, and isolation as one of the world's most loathed pariah states. But Iranians have not crumbled, and that's because of how they think.

It may come as a surprise, but many Iranians say they will tolerate, albeit begrudgingly, the harsh economic conditions because they would rather live in a "defiant" country than in one that will roll over to what they widely view as unjustified bullying by the West. The more Iranians perceive that they are being bullied, the more nationalistic they become.

The only reason Iran is negotiating is to avoid more sanctions and war, and at the very least, to buy time. It could be that Iran is building the bomb; defense analysts say it is perhaps the smartest move, given Iran's nuclear-armed neighbors. It is an insurance policy against attack that Iran may have been forced to consider. But still, there is little indication that Iran has any intention to go on the offensive, with or without the bomb.

So if negotiations are to succeed in any way, if war is not a foregone conclusion, the West needs to stop dictating to a nation and its people. Perhaps to define Iranians as vatanparasti (nationalistic) is too simplistic. But the Iranian cultural identity is rooted in thousands of years of history, immersed in stories of national heroes, defiant in the face of injustice. This identity has suffered from the interference and occupation of foreign powers for most of the past 200 years. Iranians say they will never again accept foreigners dictating to them, regardless of the consequences. Yet this is precisely what is happening now. This is why Iranians would rather remain defiant, even if it endangers the nation to do so. It is Iran's right to refuse inspections. It is Iran's right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And it is Iran's right as a sovereign nation to dictate its own security policies, within the confines of international law. An informed mind should not disregard the fact that the best U.S. and Israeli intelligence estimates have not established that Iran has taken any steps toward a nuclear military capability since 2003.

To solve this issue, analysts talk about the need for a new approach. The most obvious one would be for the P5+1 to approach Tehran with respect, recalling that pushing the Iranians has never got anyone anywhere. One of Iran's five key proposals that it took to Moscow is that the P5+1 recognize Iran's right to nuclear enrichment. It is naïve to think that respect alone will work. It absolutely won't. But it is a start. Respect, at the very least, is what every Iranian expects, from the man who refuses to cover his acid-scarred face as he sells tissues to wealthy passersby near trendy Tajrish Square to the woman with the faded chador who vends socks on the metro. Until they get it, Iran and its people will remain defiant and proudly so.

All opinions reflect the author's own views. For different points of view see here.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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