Recent events signal an increasing risk of war with Iran.
In September 2013, on the fringes of the UN General Assembly, an important telephone conversation took place: presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani talked for 15 minutes when Rouhani was on his way to the airport to leave New York. This was the first time since the 1979 takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran that the US and Iranian heads of state had spoken. This significant quarter-hour was the trigger for a process with the goals of limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and bringing the country out of international isolation. This year, in a kind of déjà vu, there was speculation that during the UN General Assembly there might once again be direct communication between the US and Iranian heads of state, but as I complete this article, recent events in the Middle East have almost ruled out this possibility. Does the logic of relations between Iran and the Western world over recent decades offer any helpful guidelines for understanding the turbulent news of the past few weeks? In what follows I will attempt to find an answer to this question.
At the beginning of the 20th century, British millionaire William Knox D’Arcy established an agreement with the Persian monarch, Mozaffar ad-Din, regarding the use of Iran’s oil reserves. This was the beginning of Western countries’ growing interest in Iran’s energy resources, which promised economic gain while instilling in Persians a lasting suspicion of the West’s intentions. In 1951 the nationalist prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, decided to nationalise Iran’s entire oil industry, but two years later he lost power. US intelligence circles later confirmed their part in the coup. Perhaps these events of 1953 contributed to Iran turning against the West, which became an existential dilemma in the decades that followed, culminating in the 1979 Islamic revolution. In his book Iran Without Borders,1 Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi writes that the rigid paradigm of opposition to the West was oppressive in a society which, during the Persian Empire, had been a cosmopolitan cultural space with room for many ethnically and religiously diverse groups. Even though Shah Reza Pahlavi’s regime became increasingly authoritarian towards the end, Tehran in the 1960s and 1970s was characterised by a lively, international urban culture, intense political debate and relative freedom of thought. The geographical context also played a role: Iran’s other powerful Muslim neighbour, the Ottoman Empire, had become the secular Turkish Republic, and the radical reforms of the visionary Mustafa Kemal Atatürk laid the foundation for a westernised society. The current high standard of Iran’s film and other visual arts did not come out of nowhere, but derives directly from that era. The greater that coercion became in the homeland, the more Iranian cultural figures emigrated. “The World is my home,” wrote Nima Yushij, a representative of the diaspora, who participated in the renewal of contemporary Persian poetry. Society was ever more deeply torn asunder: openness and aspirations for liberalisation on the one side, and the wish to shake off the cultural and economic influence of the West on the other.
Dabashi regards Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution as a kind of stolen revolution. From his perspective, the contingent of those dissatisfied with the Shah’s power initially consisted of a variety of social groups, united by leftist ideology: those opposed to the Vietnam War, supporters of Palestinian statehood, people whose enthusiasm was spurred by the decolonisation of Africa, and friends of Cuba, to mention a few. The Shiite Islamists were only one such group, but their charismatic leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, succeeded in steering the outcome of the revolution in his own favour. Discussions in Tehran academic circles about the constitution of the future republic were ended by Ayatollah Khomeini with the notorious words that have gone down in history: “No westernised intellectual will dictate to us what Iran’s constitution should be!”.
Iran began developing its nuclear capability in the 1950s, and in 1970 the country joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which granted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the right to monitor Iran’s nuclear programme. After the Islamic revolution, international cooperation in this field dwindled, and many specialists emigrated. However, in 2002, when Western Middle East experts’ gaze was fixed on Iraq, and an attack on Baghdad was imminent, ostensibly because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, information began to spread about Iran’s secret nuclear facilities in Arak and Natanz. It became clear that Iraq’s neighbour was moving at alarming speed towards a level of uranium enrichment that would permit making an atomic weapon. In addition, it was feared that the nuclear programme would fall into the hands of terrorist organisations, since there was reason to suspect that Tehran was working with Hizbollah and Hamas. At that time Tehran was politically and militarily stronger than before, since at the beginning of the 21st century it had been liberated from two powerful rivals in its region, Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, a Sunni group in Afghanistan.
In 2006 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1737, which placed sanctions on investments in Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical industry and banned business transactions with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The sanctions also extended to banking, shipping and many other fields. These measures were repeatedly toughened.
Barack Obama, who had become US president in 2009, adopted the position that engaging Iran diplomatically was the only way to prevent a widespread conflict in the Middle East, and for this direct communication was necessary between the highest religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the White House. According to the press this was the beginning of confidential American relations with Iran’s representatives in Muscat, the capital of Oman. Of all the Arab states, Oman was the only one with normal (if not overtly friendly, at least tolerant) relations with both the US and Iran. Indeed, Oman was the first Arab nation with which Washington had concluded a treaty of friendship and navigation, in 1833, as safe navigation through the Strait of Hormuz was already important at that time. During the unrest of the 1970s, the Shah of Iran supported the Sultan of Oman, and Tehran’s military support enabled Sultan Qaboos to become the longest-reigning Arab monarch (he remains on the throne today).
In June 2013 the reform-minded Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran; his campaign was based on the promise to bring Iran out of international isolation and to resolve the economically draining opposition with the Western world. Rouhani is a contradictory figure: a moderate on Iran’s internal political scale, he is also thought to have a confidential relationship with Ayatollah Khamenei. When Rouhani came to power, Iran’s state budget was deeply in the red; oil exports had almost halved to 1.5 million barrels a day, and consumer goods could only be obtained through barter. The only escape from this situation was to regain the use of oil profits that had been frozen in foreign banks; for this it was necessary to engage in negotiations with the Obama administration.
The US was drawn into the negotiations primarily due to the danger of war in the Middle East. It is hard to say how widely it was feared in Washington that Israel would make the decision to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, but this could not be completely ruled out. Similarly, Iran’s nuclear programme might provoke Sunni rivals to move in the same direction. A Middle East with nuclear armaments would have been—and would continue to be—a serious concern for the entire international community. For the Americans, it seemed to be a positive development that there were far fewer ministers in the Rouhani government connected with the Revolutionary Guard than there had been before, and that the foreign minister was Javad Zarif, previously Iran’s ambassador to the UN, whose winning smile was well known in US diplomatic circles. Thus, the state of affairs on the international chessboard looked hopeful, and now it would be the job of diplomats to establish direct contact between the leaders of the two nations. As mentioned in the introduction, this was achieved in September 2013.
High-level negotiations with Iran involving the US, Russia, France, the UK, Germany and the European Union began in the autumn of 2013 in New York, and the key people were US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif. Iran was in a more favourable position in the talks, because most of its high-level diplomats and politicians had studied at Western universities, mostly in the US. The Iranians therefore had a good understanding of Western lifestyle and temperaments and could predict their opponents’ steps more skilfully than vice versa. The internal affairs of the Islamic republic are unknown territory for westerners. It is difficult for an outsider to sense the boundary where a pragmatic approach based on economic interest collides with emotional expressions of Persian national pride. Similarly, it was unclear to what extent Iran’s highest religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, supported the negotiations, as some of his statements contradicted those of the negotiators. How complicated it could be to understand the Iranians’ disposition and the background to their decisions can be seen in journalist Jay Solomon’s excerpt from a conversation between Jake Sullivan, a leading negotiator for the Western delegation, and Iran’s chief negotiator, Abbas Araghchi. (In the early 2000s, Araghchi had been Iran’s ambassador in Helsinki and also covered Tallinn, which meant that for him Tallinn was something more than a dot on a map). Sullivan claimed that the West did not believe the peaceable intentions of Iran’s nuclear programme, it being a nation with some of the world’s largest energy resources. There could be no economic incentive for the peaceful development of nuclear power. Araghchi reportedly answered: “Sending a man to the Moon was just as pointless for the US, but it greatly boosted your national pride and provided a strong stimulus for the development of science. Our nuclear programme is our Moon mission!”2
The nuclear treaty, with the official title Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was signed on 14 July 2015 in Vienna. The treaty imposed limitations on the number of centrifuges, the level and volume of uranium enrichment, and other elements of Iran’s nuclear programme. In return, the Western governments agreed to gradually withdraw sanctions against Iran. The treaty was seen, and is regarded today, as one of the most significant achievements of diplomacy, not only in the Middle East, but also in the world at large, where resolving crises by diplomatic means is becoming more and more complex.
However, the treaty also had its critics, and in May 2018 the US unilaterally withdrew from the treaty, because in president Trump’s view the JCPOA had not succeeded in putting a leash on Iran’s aggression. The US reintroduced sanctions, and as a countermove Iran stopped complying with some of the JCPOA’s requirements. The re-imposition of sanctions has led to an unprecedented decline in Iran’s oil exports—various sources report that it is now 300,000–400,000 barrels per day instead of the previous 2.5 million, and the International Monetary Fund estimates that in 2019 Iran’s economy will decline by up to 6%. Inflation is very high: Iran’s official statistics show that, compared to the same time in 2018, prices have risen by 48% and food prices by 72%.
The political forces in Iran that supported the nuclear treaty are therefore coming under more and more internal pressure. It is not easy to trace the lines of power in the higher echelons of the regime: this calls not for the brisk brush strokes of a painter, but instead the fine sense of touch of an engraver’s fingers. For example, an interesting situation came up in early spring of this year when foreign minister Zarif, a staunch supporter of the nuclear treaty, suddenly announced his resignation on Instagram. President Rouhani did not accept it, and Ayatollah Khamenei also announced that he did not support it. Javad Zarif remains in position to this day, but analysts have not succeeded in fully penetrating the background of his actions. If the resignation announcement was a carefully crafted signal, then to whom was it directed—the West, Iranian public opinion or the country’s political leadership? Or was Zarif’s announcement a serious danger signal, indicating how much internal pressure he is under? It might be speculated that, after his attempt to resign, Zarif’s position in the Iranian hierarchy became stronger, since both the highest religious leader and the president voiced their clear support for his continuation in office. However, this remains conjecture.
Iran’s activities are also difficult to predict due to the unusual dual power the Islamic revolution gave to the highest religious leader and president. In his study of the balance of power in Iran, Raffaele Mauriello, a faculty member at Allameh Tabataba’i University in Tehran, concluded that over the last 30 years the highest religious leader as an institution has steadily become politicised, gradually losing its original religious meaning.3 Ayatollah Khameini continues to have the final word on decisions of national importance, but his influence is not quite on a par with that of his predecessor, Khomeini, who led the Islamic revolution.
Both Tehran and Washington have confirmed that they do not want war. However, as long as Iran and the US do not have a functioning communication channel, the situation could escalate at any moment. In June and July 2019, the international public had to hold its breath on several occasions, but fortunately tensions were reduced. However, on 14 September a cruise missile and drone attack occurred on the Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oilfield in Saudi Arabia, which increased oil prices on the international market by 20% for a short time. Abqaiq is the world’s largest oil refinery complex. Saudi Arabia, the US, Germany, France and the UK claim that Iran was behind the attack. Tehran denies this, and responsibility has been claimed by the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Nevertheless, the world still regards the attack as connected to Iran, because the evidence and logic of events point in that direction. This was the most serious escalation of events since the US withdrew from the nuclear treaty in May. If Iran had, until this attack, raised tensions in the region using indirect methods, this time a painful and precise blow had been dealt directly to Saudi Arabia’s lifeline: oil production. It is hardly possible that this could have happened without Tehran. Up to that time Iran had threatened the Western nations with taking over oil tankers and shooting down drones, but now the message was sent crudely and in direct terms: we have no intention of being satisfied with a situation in which our oil exports have been halted by sanctions, to the profit of Arab countries.
It would be a mistake to associate Iran with religious fanaticism in general: they are very pragmatic, if need be. It is quite possible that the results of the Abqaiq attack have been analysed in Tehran, with the conclusion that the likelihood of a military counterattack by the US or the Saudis is low. The Economist has compared the military budgets of the countries concerned and concluded that Iran’s annual defence spending is, at 13 billion dollars, only one-fifth of Saudi Arabia’s and one-fiftieth of that of the US. Thus, Tehran is not interested in war. It is quite probable that Iran will undertake other such exploits that will irritate Washington and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, but these will not cross certain boundaries. It is most important to abstain from attacking US facilities or property and to avoid killing US military forces stationed in the region. Tehran’s goal is to achieve the restoration of its oil exports without significant concessions on the nuclear question, and to avoid direct military conflict.
It is also significant that parliamentary elections will take place in Iran in February 2020, which will have an important impact on the political landscape prior to the presidential elections in 2021. In analysing the recent escalation, almost no one asks what the Iranian people think of these conflicts; for most of them, the current situation and the rigid limitations it brings is unpleasant, and they are the ones most directly affected by economic pressure. The approaching elections bring to mind the presidential elections of June 2009, when the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, but the opposition accused those in power of manipulating the results. Mass protests followed, and were put down by the Iranian government. This was the largest surge of unrest in Iran since the Islamic revolution, and it is sometimes remembered as the Persian Spring.
The streets of Tehran seemed austere and grey but not depressing in the summer of 2019. People have learned to live with the forces in power—or in spite of them—using even the smallest of chances to provide meaning, taste and value to their lives. Iran’s people are educated and proud of their history, and their national consciousness is high. While they may be drained and fatigued by what has happened, they are certainly not broken. It is quite possible that Iran will again face another crossroads, and no one can predict whether what is coming is spring or some other season of the year.
This article expresses the author’s personal opinions.
1 Hamid Dabashi, Iran Without Borders: Towards a Critique of the Postcolonial Nation. London and New York: Verso, 2016.
2 Jay Solomon, The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals that Reshaped the Middle East. New York: Random House, 2016.
3 Raffaele Mauriello, “La wilāyat al-faqih después de la Revolución : El vali-ye faqih en la Constitución y el nezām de la República islámica de Irán”, Araucaria 21 (41) (January 2019).
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.