Iran at the Crossroads, Bombs or Butter? – By M. Gill

This article was published in 2015, hence dated. It is reproduced here just for reference. 

At one end of the spectrum are the hardest of the hard-liners, who disparage economic and diplomatic considerations and put Iran’s security concerns ahead of all others. At the opposite end are pragmatists, who believe that fixing Iran’s failing economy must trump all else if the clerical regime is to retain power over the long term. In between these camps waver many of Iran’s most important power brokers, who would prefer not to have to choose between bombs and butter. (Kenneth Pollack and Ray Takeyh, Taking on Tehran, Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2005)

Iran continues to be in the limelight at the international scene, if not for its mullahs and ayatollahs, for its plan for nuclearization. Recently, though, it is mainly for its nuclearization. The drumbeat has been hyped by the U.S. whose prime concern seems to be the security of Israel. The relations between the U.S. and Iran took a nosedive after the Iranian revolution, which brought ayatollahs into power after the deposition of the Shah, Reza Shah Pehlvi; the diplomatic relations between them were severed. The hostage issue underlined the American helplessness in those difficult days when the mullahs’ star rose to unprecedented heights. The powerful religious leader, Imam Ayatollah Rouh-el-Khomeini, who was the heart and soul of the revolution called America ‘the Great Satan’.

The mutual political relations continue to remain sour. In his first state of the union address, President Bush labeled Iran as the axis of evil together with the unsavory North Korea and Iraq. He ratcheted up the denigration of Iran after winning his reelection. He considered his reelection victory as the vindication of his foreign policy in the Middle East, namely, regime change in Iraq, call for democratization of the Middle Eastern and other countries of the world and non-proliferation of the nuclear weapons particularly in the Muslim states of the Middle East. There is pressure on North Korea also for denuclearization although it (North Korea) seems to have bolted the barn. It has declared that it has nuclear bombs and is planning to produce some more. The U.S. doesn’t seem to have any strong cards in its hands against North Korea and, for that reason, is working with other countries to woo the miscreant away from its nuclear ambitions. This verbal pacification however doesn’t seem to work for any advantage to the U.S.

Some critics of the U.S. have cynically pointed to the American hypocrisy for invading Iraq, on the excuse of disarming it when it had become clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction (wmds) in Iraq, and not doing anything concrete against North Korea, which was known to have them. They see a parallel now in regards to Iran, which is within the American crosshairs for armed action if it didn’t put a halt to its nucleaization plans. Iran’s situation is however quite different from that of Iraq. Iraq had been completely isolated; none of any politically prestigious countries openly supported it. Iran, on the other hand, has an agreement with Russia, which binds it to help build Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant.

When the U.S. started beating the drums against Iran at a heightened pitch recently, Russia declared to cement its ties with Iran. Yahoo! News (February 24, 2005) reported, President Vladimir Putin last week cleared the way for the $1 billion Russian-built Bushehr reactor project to go ahead when he said he was sure that Tehran ,branded part of an axis of evil’ by Washington ,had no plans to make atomic arms. His nuclear energy chief, Alexander Rumyantsev, was finally due to visit Iran to sign the deal Saturday, crowning years of tense politicking in which Moscow has defended the lucrative project in the face of strong pressure from Washington. Abandoning the Bushehr project would destroy diplomatic relations with Iran and hurt Russia’s standing in the region.

Although Russia is no longer a superpower that can effectively countenance the U.S., it is still a significant entity in the world. It has its own interests, which it doesn’t want to sacrifice for appeasing a capricious U.S. One Russian diplomat asserted that Bushehr project is a huge economic incentive for Russia. It will raise revenues and create jobs for Russian specialists.

On the other end, President Bush has relented and toned down its unilateralist posture vis-Ã -vis the European Union, which had become the hallmark of his first term foreign policy. During his recent visit to Europe, he announced that nothing could divide Europe and the U.S. He seemed to agree with Britain, France, and Germany to continue negotiations with Iran to dissuade it from its nuclear ambitions. He even agreed to consider giving some incentives to Iran in the form of the proverbial ‘carrots’ and hold its stick in check. According to Yahoo! News, February 24, (Bush to Mull European Idea of Incentives for Iran), ‘Bush said that for the first time he would consider European proposals to offer incentives to Iran in return for scrapping some atomic work.’
Sticks and Carrots

A policy of true ‘carrots and sticks’remains a viable option. In this case, western nations would lay out the same two paths for Iran but would do so as statements of a joint policy, rather than as the goals of bilateral negotiations with Tehran. Officials from the United States, European countries, and Japan ,as well as from any other country willing to participate including China and Russia ,would explicitly define what they expect Iran to do and not do. To each of these actions, the allies would attach positive and negative inducements (carrots and the sticks), so that Tehran could clearly understand the benefits it would gain for ending nuclear and terrorist activities and the penalties it would suffer for refusing to end them. (Kenneth Pollack and Ray Taykeh, Taking on Tehran, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2005)

The sticks and carrots approach seems rational for a country like Iran whose economy is in disarray due to poor planning and mismanagement, and wasting any more substantial financial resources on nuclearization can imperil its economic survival. Iran, though rich in oil resources, is truly in economic straits and the economic restrictions, which were clamped on it by the U.S., are sapping its life. Mending fences with the west is in its best interests. Pollack and Taykeh have made a strong argument in support of the Iranian pragmatists who value economic recovery more than the nuclearization. But if Iran’s paranoia for security, in view of Israel’s unchecked forays in the Middle East and the continued threats from the U.S., exceeded its concern for economic recovery, it might continue on the nuclearization path, no matter what. North Korea and Pakistan are the preceding examples, which went nuclear against heavy odds. Particularly Pakistan, whose Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had declared, ‘if India developed an atomic bomb, Pakistan would follow ‘even if we have to eat grass or leaves or to remain hungry’.’Although Iran is not facing the same kind of hostility that Pakistan faced from India, Israel’s actions in the Middle East are likely to stoke the Iranian fires of paranoia.

Pollack and Taykeh have argued, ‘only if the mullahs recognize that they have a stark choice ,they can have nuclear weapons or a healthy economy, but not both ,might they give up their nuclear dreams.’But if Iran felt driven to the wall without any credible international guarantees of its physical and economic security, it might yet opt for bombs. It might choose to follow Bhutto’s example and give up butter and go hungry rather than give up on deterrence that nuclear weapons could provide.

Kamal Kharrazi, Foreign Minister of Iran, ‘said that Iran was determined to press ahead with uranium enrichment amid western fears it is covertly developing a nuclear weapon plan,'(Iran News daily, February 25, 2005). He also demanded, ‘The Islamic republic of Iran must be assured that Europeans are taking serious steps towards their commitments of transferring technology, investment and maintaining Iran’s security.’Iran’s security is the fundamental issue for it. In this perspective, the U.S. threats and strong arm policy is not helping to resolve the deadlock; it is making Iran more paranoid.

If any sticks and carrots policy is to become credible and viable for Iran, it must include effective and transparent curbs on Israel. Israel is a greater potential and perceivable threat to Iran and its neighbors than the U.S. even though it has attacked Iraq twice. It is Israel with which Iran and its neighbors have to have a physical symbiosis, not the U.S.

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