Iran’s Independence and the Nuclear Dispute

The nuclear dispute between Iran and the United States is heating up.

Iran made its proposal on December 12, having been in negotiation with the US and other powers since October 1.  Iran proposed exchanging 400 kilograms of its 3.5 percent enriched uranium for an equivalent amount of 20 percent enriched uranium to be used in its medical reactor in Tehran.

It would appear that the US officials have dismissed Iran’s proposal and are threatening tougher sanctions against Iran.  The US had expected that Iran would ship out of the country most of its enriched uranium (1,200 kilograms) all at once, not in phases as Iran proposed.  The US had hoped shipping out the bulk of Iran’s enriched uranium would delay its capacity to build nuclear weapons.

The threat of sanctions might undermine an unprecedented opportunity for the two nations to settle all their long-standing disputes of the past thirty years.  The US does not seem to understand that Iran’s insistence on enriching uranium on its soil reflects its centuries-old determination to protect its independence.  It is not simply for ensuring regime survival; it is for national survival.

Behind Iran’s fierce commitment to sovereign independence lies a steely sense of national identity, which evolved, historically, despite repeated foreign intervention, including the Arab invasion in the seventh century, which led in time to the conversion of Iranians from their ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism, to Islam.  As Muslims, however, Iranians have maintained their distinctive national identity in three major ways.

  • Unlike the Egyptians, they rejected Arabization by continuing to use their traditional language, Persian, rather than adopting Arabic.  The 10th-century poet Ferdowsi wrote his epic, The Book of Kings, in Persian, saying, “I revived the Iranian identity through the Persian language.”  Even now, many Iranians can recite Ferdowsi’s poetry from memory.
  • Iranian Muslims are different from most Muslims in two respects.  One, they are Shias, who are a minority in the Muslim world where the majority are Sunni.  Two, Iranians are also distinct from other Shias.  They believe in twelve “infallible” Imams who succeeded the Prophet Mohammad, not four or seven Imams as other Shias believe.  Iranians are known as Twelver Shias.
  • The core tenets of the Shia belief system correspond with those of ancient Zoroastrianism.  This compatibility helped blend the Iranians’ pre-Islamic and Islamic sense of identity.  The followers of both faiths believe in the onenessof God, in the conflict between the forces of Good and Evil, in God as the creator of humanity, in religion as a way of life, in the Day of Judgment, and in the coming of the Messiah.  The Iranians have kept alive the ancient Zoroastrian New Year ritual (Nowruz), which they celebrate every year on March 21.

President Barack Obama attempted to set a new diplomatic tone with Iran by choosing Nowruz as the occasionto greet the Iranian people and government.

“Nowruz is just one part of your great and celebrated culture,” Obama said.  “Over many centuries your art, music, literature and innovation have made the world a better and more beautiful place.”

While this was music to Iranian ears, it could not overcome the Iranians’ historical sense of vulnerability to foreign intervention.  One example of such intervention is the CIA-engineered coup in 1953 that overthrew the democratically-elected government of Mohammad Mussadiq.

The Obama administration must keep this history of struggle for independence in mind when dealing with the country on any issue, including the nuclear dispute.

This history underpins Iran’s insistence on its “inalienable right” to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In contrast, the West, led by the United States, distrusts Iran’s protestations of peaceful intentions.  It suspects that Iran plans to make nuclear bombs under the guise of a civilian nuclear program.

In trying to resolve this dispute through negotiation, the United States should realize that Iranians of all political stripes view outside pressure, sanctions, intimidation and threats of military strikes as foreign aggression.  Such efforts will be resisted in the future as in the past.

The Obama administration needs to think hard about how to deal with Iran’s deep-rooted fear of foreign intervention.  The United States should take measures — unilateral and multilateral — to persuade Iran that its national security as well as political independence would be best served by forswearing the weaponization of nuclear energy.

Above all else, the US should support proposals for regional cooperation in all fields, especially regarding regional security in the Persian Gulf, which Iran has already supported on many occasions.

The challenge for the United States is to strike a realistic balance between its goal of nuclear non-proliferation in Iran and its core value of liberty for humankind.

Iranian citizens have risen bravely and indefatigably for the first time since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to demand the freedom promised by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It is important to understand that to the Iranians freedom has always required protecting national independence first.

Their call for freedom should resonate with a similar call voiced more than 200 years ago by the American colonialists who founded the American Republic.

R.K. Ramazani, widely considered the dean of Iranian foreign policy studies in the United States, is Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia.  This article was first published in Charlottesville Daily Progress; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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