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The Untamable Giant

Written by Ilhan Niaz  •  March 2011 PDF Print E-mail
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In 1979 the Iranian people overthrew the pro-American monarchical police state of the Pehlavi dynasty and replaced with an anti-American theocratic police state dominated by the Shia ulema. Following the change of regime, Iran came under punishing sanctions and was subjected to a long and brutal war of attrition by the then U.S.-backed Iraqi Baathist regime of Saddam Hussain. The combination of economic sanctions and eight years of warfare proved to be a great socioeconomic setback for Iran but, in spite of its alienation from the West, the overall performance of the Iranian economy remains respectable.

With a population of about 70 million in 2010, Iran’s GDP per capita in terms of purchasing power parity was nearly U.S. $ 13,000. The biggest economic problems that the country faces are stubbornly high inflation (15-20% per annum), income inequality with about one in five Iranians living below the poverty line, and sluggish economic growth (2-4% per annum). The Shah’s apologists are quick to point out that in the 1960s and 1970s Iran enjoyed real growth rates in the range of 8-10% per annum with low inflation and high per capita income growth. This line of argument misses a very important point about the Shah’s downfall. The problem with the Shah and his henchmen was that they were perceived to be leaders of a neo-colonial collaborationist regime on a collision course with Iranian nationalist and religious identities. This, in turn, had important ramifications for the domestic politics and foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, both of which the United States of America refuses to recognize as legitimate expressions of Iranian nationalist sentiment and national interest.

The Iranian domestic political context is deeply concerned with the exercise of substantive sovereignty by the state over its territory, people and resources. Due to its strategic location and proven oil reserves Iran came under neo-colonial domination while the rest of the world was being de-colonized. The British and Americans wanted Iran to be a client state that would provide the West with cheap energy and purchase vast quantities of Western military equipment while acting in concert with U.S. regional policies. The Iranian people, however, objected to their country being treated as an oil drum, arms dump, and beat-cop.

The Iranian revolutionaries fused religion and nationalism and turned it against the Shah’s regime and his external supporters. The more these supporters tried to subvert the revolution and isolate and bully Iran, the greater the level of nationalist support for the new regime.  While the U.S. refuses to see the present Iranian regime as legitimate and berates it for its human rights record and suppression of liberal values, at the strategic level Iran has benefited enormously from flawed U.S. policies subsequent to the announcement that an Axis of Evil was threatening U.S. values necessitating preemptive wars and Iran was clearly on the American to-do list for regime change.

One major strategic benefit is that the U.S. has intervened militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq. The fanatically anti-Shia Taliban, with whom Iran had poor relations, were toppled by the Americans and their allies. The secular and determinedly anti-Iranian Baathist regime in Iraq was liquidated by the U.S. in 2003 as a test run for regime change and preemptive war. Unfortunately for the U.S., the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began in earnest after the last American victory had ended. The U.S. was trapped in long-drawn out wars amidst hostile populations having overthrown two of Iran worst enemies. These military interventions cost the U.S. exchequer trillions of dollars and the U.S. and allied militaries thousands of fatalities and tens of thousands of casualties. When the U.S. pulls out of Iraq it looks set to leave behind a vacuum in which the Iranian-backed factions are political kingmakers.

The situation in Afghanistan is more fluid but Tehran cannot but be inwardly satisfied at the sight of the U.S. and NATO forces slogging it out with the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban in a long and perhaps interminable war. In the meanwhile, uncertainty generated by U.S. military interventions pushed oil prices upwards. Iran benefited enormously from this with its oil revenues rising from around $ 60 billion in 2006 to $ 80 billion in 2008. Although the global economic crisis of 2008-9 slowed demand and caused oil prices to fall, they are still more than twice the 2003 levels. The fact is that Iran’s strategic position in the region has improved over the past eight years and as the U.S. scales down its regional commitments, Iran is well positioned to consolidate and expand its sphere of influence.

With reference to South Asia, there is an element of tension in the Iran-Pakistan relationship since the mid-1990s due the divergent perceptions of the two countries on the ideal composition of the regime in Kabul. The Iranians are also not too pleased with the warming of ties between India and the United States although it does not seem practical for New Delhi, which depends on oil imports from Iran, to create too much of a nuisance. U.S. objections on the Iran-Pakistan-India cooperation in the energy sector is also a source of tension and there is little doubt that the Iranians would want the Indian and Pakistani leaders to think about their own burgeoning energy needs rather than scoring diplomatic points with the U.S. by foot-dragging on energy cooperation.

There is, however, one problem that might yet prove Iran’s undoing. That problem is the Iranian nuclear program. Iran claims that its program is peaceful and part of a long-term strategy to improve energy efficiency and reduce environmental degradation. In fact, Iran is one of the world’s most energy-inefficient societies and subsidized prices for petroleum and petroleum products have contributed to the country’s growing environmental problems. Tehran itself is particularly badly affected by this environmental degradation.

The U.S. and its allies say that the Iranian position on nuclear energy is nonsense. Actually, Iran is interested in developing nuclear weapons and wiping Israel off the face of the Earth. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, the argument goes, other regional countries will feel compelled to follow suit sparking a nuclear arms race in West Asia.

The actual problem, leaving the declaratory positions of the rival powers to one side, is that Iranian fear of invasion by the United States and its allies have underscored the need for an Iranian nuclear capability. The Iranian fears are well founded in this regard and certainly U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan coupled with Israeli aggression against Lebanon indicate that given the opportunity, regime change in Tehran is exactly what the U.S. would try and bring about.

From the U.S. perspective, Iranian intentions are presumed hostile and thus denying it the capability to build nuclear weapons is imperative. It doesn’t matter to the U.S. if Iranian intentions are peaceful. All that matters is that Iran be prevented from acquiring the expertise and basic infrastructure needed to develop a nuclear capability. U.S. determination to thwart the Iranian nuclear program and the public posturing involved means that for Iran to actually compromise would involve humiliation before its own people and diminish the domestic legitimacy of the regime.

If the U.S. were a rational actor then it would realize that every attempt to bully Iran and isolate only strengthen the nationalist sentiment in favor of the continuation of the present dispensation. It is unlikely that President Obama could pull off an opening to Iran comparable to Nixon’s opening to China but that is actually what is needed – normalization of relations, cooling down the rhetoric, and high level contacts. At the same time, Iran seems comfortable playing a game of brinkmanship and does not seem to take the threat of U.S. invasion seriously after the experience of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The threat of air strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations is more credible though the U.S. would be sorely mistaken to think that Iran would not react in an escalatory manner elsewhere in the region. Time appears to be on the Iranian side while the Western alliance has made so many costly and strategically debilitating mistakes over the past decade that it is unlikely to launch another preemptive war for sake of regime change.


Ilhan Niaz is the author of ‘The Culture of Power and Governance of Pakistan, 1947-2008’ and ‘An Inquiry into the Culture of Power of the Subcontinent’ He is currently an Assistant Professor of History at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

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