Persian Atoms: Enriching Facts, Diverting Fiction

“I don’t think the issue of enrichment right now, emotional as it is, is urgent. . . . So, we have ample time to negotiate a settlement by which, as I said, Iran’s need for nuclear power is assured and the concern of the international community is also put to rest.”

“We have done our inspection works.  No diversion has been found and Iran has the right to enjoy nuclear energy.”

These two statements by the Director of the IAEA Mohamed ElBaradei, made during his visit to Iran after Tehran’s announcement that it has mastered the full nuclear fuel cycle, translate into two clear warnings: first, from the perspective of the IAEA, Iran’s nuclear energy program continues to be legitimate under the statues of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT); and second, the country’s nuclear energy program, including its decision to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, does not constitute a threat to international security.  What explains ElBaradei’s unusual forthrightness about his conclusions about Iran’s nuclear activities?

The answer is the warning of leading investigative journalists such as Seymour Hersh: the Bush administration is planning a military attack on Iran, irrespective of the outcome of current diplomatic negotiations over the country.  Reports leaked to the Sunday Times even alluded to British contingencies: “under the American plans Britain would be expected to play a supporting role, perhaps by sending surveillance aircraft or ships and submarines to the Gulf or by allowing the Americans to fly from Diego Garcia.”  Only a few weeks ago, Iran was mentioned sixteen times in the new National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States, a wartime document that uses such emotionally charged phrases as a “tyrannical” regime, an “ally of terror” that “harbor[s] terrorists,” and an “enemy of freedom, justice, and peace” to describe the Islamic Republic.  Western European governments use an even more sensationalist language.  Angela Merkel, leader of the “grosse Koalition” between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany, likened Iran to the “Third Reich” in its early days.  “Looking back to German history in the early 1930s when National Socialism [Nazism] was on the rise, there were many outside Germany who said ‘It’s only rhetoric — don’t get excited’,” Merkel told policy makers at the Munich security conference, forgetting that in previous years Iranian delegates were invited to the conference by her predecessor Gerhard Schröder in order to foster international dialogue.  “There were times when people could have reacted differently and, in my view, Germany is obliged to do something at the early stages. . . .We want to, we must prevent Iran from developing its nuclear program,” added Merkel.  France in turn stepped up its rhetoric.  All this happened during the negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program and amidst allegations of Iranian intransigence to yield to the demands of the “international community.”

Iran, once again, has been turned into a phenomenon of monstrous proportions.  It is not that the distorted image of Iran in the West has nothing to do with the international conduct of the Ahmadinejad administration.  As serious critics of the administration argue, Ahmadinejad’s attempt to identify himself with the reactionary outgrowths of the Islamic revolution is intellectually unfulfilling and politically opportunistic.  However, it must be noted that, in many ways, Ahmadinejad is operating within a political episteme that is constituted by Iran’s grand strategic preferences and transnational interests which set the boundaries of the international conduct of the Iranian state.  These are encapsulated in at least five ideal types:

  • economic autarky (socialist, state-centered economics, aspiring to self-sufficiency);
  • pro-Palestinian policies (e.g. support for HAMAS and Islamic Jihad);
  • anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism (e.g. support for Hezbollah, opposition to US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan primarily in the United Nations and also through the Non-Aligned Movement);
  • Islamic communitarianism (strengthening of pan-Islamic cooperation primarily through the Organization of the Islamic Conference);
  • and leftist third-worldism (recently highlighted by Iran’s close relationship with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Fidel Castro in Cuba, and Evo Morales in Bolivia).

Moreover, reducing Iran to the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad or the party manifestos of his main institutional backers, the neo-conservative Abadgaran and Isargaran parties, ignores other competing views that do exist in contemporary Iran: the human rights campaign of Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi; the intellectual paradigms of Mohsen Kadivar, Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, Hashem Aghajari, Akbar Ganji, and Abdolkarim Soroush; the critical, post-modern Iranian cinema nouveau; and the thousands of Persian weblogs which have created an alternative, virtual space for cultural and social activism.  The political culture of contemporary Iran is not “tuned” to a consensual frequency.  At any time, alternative, and even directly oppositional, ideas exist as significant challenges to the government.

By ignoring the pluralistic political reality in post-revolutionary Iran, the governments and the media in the West, as well as pundits who serve them, promulgate an implicit assumption: the political process in Iran is “irrational,” i.e., there is no regulative context in which Ahmadinejad and others operate.  Such manipulation helps produce the image of Iran as a “rogue” international actor, which serves the important function of legitimating diplomatic and, potentially, military action against the country, furthering the regime change strategy pursued by the Bush administration.

To that end, despite a 1981 treaty of non-interference in Iranian affairs, the NSS spells out a policy of subversion against the Iranian government, as a means to “protect our national and economic security against the adverse effects of their bad conduct.”  This policy led to the establishment of an “Iran desk” within the State Department, “Iran watch units” in Dubai as well as US embassies in the vicinity of Iran, and a US$75 million program aimed at “expanding broadcasting into the country, funding nongovernmental organizations and promoting cultural exchanges.”

At the heart of this strategy vis-à-vis Iran lies the premise that an Islamic, antisystemic country does not have the right to resist the “Western” international order, that it needs to be educated to “obey the international system” as Condoleeza Rice put it recently.  In other words, the root problem for Washington is Iran’s insistence on independence, political and economic.  The point of the nuclear issue is to prevent independent Iran from enjoying the same technological advancements that subservient Pakistan and acquiescent India do.  Washington’s Iran policy is part of its global strategy driven by its faith in “unipolarity,” i.e. the governing idea that the US is destined to lead the post-Cold War world order on its terms unilaterally, aggressively, “unashamedly” as Charles Krauthammer has put it.  This disposition, in turn, clashes with Iran’s history of resistance to external interference and its self-perception as the vanguard for third-world emancipation.  The “Tobacco Revolts” of 1891 against the concession of exclusive Tobacco rights to Major Gerald Talbot (a British citizen), the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in early 1951 initiated by Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, and the Islamic revolution of 1979 in the name of the mostazafan (or the “wretched of the earth” to employ Frantz Fanon‘s phrase) show that opposition to real and perceived imperialism is a central institution of Iran’s political culture: hence the Iranian insistence on mastering the full nuclear fuel cycle, hence the success of nuclear populism amongst both the Left and the Right in Iran (and the Diaspora for that matter).

One hopes that, when the historical record of Washington’s conduct vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program is fully revealed, the public will not be “shocked, shocked” again to “discover” what they must already partly suspect: that the Bush administration resisted and subverted mediation in favor of regime change; that nuclear diplomacy was thwarted in favor of nuclear sabotage as advocated by Patrick Clawson, the Deputy Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; that the beleaguered neoconservative coterie decided to conquer Persia in order to divert attention away from the destruction of Babylon.  When one hears Bush and Rice proclaim that Iran constitutes “the main national security threat” to the United States, one can only count on the rational majority, the forces of peace that resist another abomination in the Muslim worlds.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is the author of The International Politics of the Persian Gulf: A Cultural Genealogy , published by Routledge as a part of the Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Politics series in early 2006. Three of his major research articles will be published by Third World Quarterly (UK), Middle East Report (US), and the International Studies Journal (Iran) during this summer. The recipient of many academic awards for research excellence, Adib-Moghaddam teaches International Relations at Oxford University.