The US Role and Iran in Southwest Asia
by Rachel Kohan
Thu 21st Nov 2013
Déjà vu all over again: US foreign policy has once again arrived at a critical historical crossroad. It is either faced with the prospect of continuing to try to maintain geopolitical stability in the Middle East through its unilateral and preemptive military interventions and the unwavering support of unpopular dictatorial regimes in the region on the one hand, or committing to a multilateral dialogue to achieve strategic security and economic and political objectives in the context of the aspirations of the people in the region for sovereignty, democracy, freedom, equality, justice and peace, on the other. Whereas one might argue that the first option will in the short term lead to a quasi-stability and economic and political concessions by the regimes in the region, it is the latter paradigm that in the long run will ensure the organic acceptance of our leadership in mutually sustainable economic development and trade that benefits all parties concerned.
After spending up to four trillion dollars and losing thousands of precious American lives in Afghanistan and Iraq within the past ten years - never mind the catastrophic miseries inflicted on the locals - the question still remains as to whether such a heavy toll endured by all sides has enhanced our strategic objectives or the daily lives of the indigenous population. The so-called Arab Spring, which led to a degree of reforms in Tunisia and Egypt and the current stalemate in Syria, seems to have subsided. The struggle of the majority Shiite population in Bahrain, governed by the Saudi-transplanted Sunni Al-Khalifa clan, for democracy and equality is quenched with American approval (the US Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain) by heavy-handed Saudi military forces essentially occupying the “pearl” archipelago. Similar to all other Sheikdoms in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain is a new island nation set up by the British in the early 1970s which for the preceding millennium had been an integral province of Iran.
After having no diplomatic relations since 1979, the prospect of a possible rapprochement between the US and Iran seems promising. The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), isolated from the international community for thirty five years, is increasingly faced with some serious dilemmas. Sanctions spearheaded by the US have now impacted every segment of the society, including the acquirement of medicine and food. Overpopulation, unemployment, underemployment, monetary devaluation, corruption, a systematic violation of civil and human rights, a multitude of shadow government organs, pillage and rampage of natural and financial resources, and repressions of dissent and civil society are exacerbated due to sanctions. The IRI government, acting schizophrenic for its very legitimacy, should take the bulk of the blame for such blatant failures. The IRI’s political rhetoric inside and outside Iran has faded away into oblivion and its economic and socio-political agenda has miserably failed. The IRI’s mistrust of the US, especially after having witnessed the fatal demise of the uncooperative regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Egypt, is understood. By the same token, the US animosity toward Iran has only been bolstered by events such as the US embassy takeover and hostage crisis in 1979, which in turn led to western support for Sadaam Hussein's Iraq in a prolonged war against Iran. That war led to the loss of a million lives, involved the extensive use of chemical weapons by Iraq against Iranian civilians, and cost half a trillion dollars for both sides. The Americans should finallyget over the loss of Iran’s Pahlavi monarchy as the closest strategic ally in the region; the Shah stretched the green Islamic belt along the southern Soviet borders and served as the gendarme of the west, preventing the Russia's longing to stretch its feet into the warm waters of the Persian Gulf.
With the election of Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran, and his recent UN address and conversation with President Obama, the question has emerged as to whether the IRI is genuinely interested in joining the international community while allowing civil society and the rule of law to take hold inside the country. If so, what is the future role of the US in the Middle East.
Iran to outsiders in the occident looks like a theocratic monolithic State. Upon closer examination, however, one can discern a broad spectrum of socio-political forces, not only among the grassroots populace, but also among the so-called establishment oligarchs that are in a power struggle with one another. The clergies of the religious minorities: the quarter of a million Armenian and Assyrian Christians, thirty thousand Jewish, fifty thousand Zoroastrians and the nearly ten million Sunnis remain apolitical. Nonetheless, as recognised in the IRI Constitution, they have representatives in the Majles, the Iranian Parliament. Up to a half million followers of the Baha’i faith, founded by the Shirazi merchant Mohammad Ali Bab (Bab means gate to paradise) who claimed to be the last emerging 12th Imam, and his successor Bahau’llah, a Shiite clergyman in Iran in the mid-19th century, are not recognised and are persecuted by the government. Baha’ism coincided with the national movement for modernisation, reformation, and the rule of law and civil society in the mid to latter part of the 19th century. Such progressive movements led to the establishment of the Constitutional Monarchy in 1907, replacing the absolute monarchy 2,500 years in the making. Violation of human and civil rights, imprisonment, torture and execution of political prisoners of conscience remain grave concerns in Iran. Baha’i followers are particularly singled out and more harshly persecuted, discriminated, imprisoned, tortured, exiled and sometimes executed.
Notwithstanding the governments that have come and gone for nearly three millennia in Iran, 75% of its current population, under the age of 35, was born after the 1979 revolution. Iran has the most educated and technologically-savvy population in the region, after Israel. Up to two-third of the nearly three million university students are women. Today’s Iran, which is only at a fraction of its zenith several millennia in the making, has not invaded any other nation in at least two hundred years. The cultural influence of Iran, formerly known to the West as Persia, continues to reverberate through the Indus Valley, Central Asia, the Caucuses and Asia Minor. The contributions of Iranians since antiquity toward humanity is well documented.
As the US cautiously moves forward for direct negotiations with the IRI, we must succinctly articulate our expectations and the expectations of the IRI's role in the region. The prerequisite for such negotiation is mutual reaffirmation to respect the integrity and security of both nations. We should not extend our influence to tap onto and exploit natural and territorial resources of other nations. Whereas the US has not yet got over losing its most strategic ally in the region, the Pahlavis, IRI is only using the nuclear issue as an ace close to its heart to receive security guarantees of not being overthrown. Hence, the sovereignty and security of Iran and the nation’s destiny as decided by the people must be guaranteed. By the same token, the safeguard of the rule of law and civil society, civil liberties and human rights, and equality and transparency in Iran, should remain paramount in reaching any breakthroughs. In two recent independent polls in Iran, up to 90% asked for the normalisation of diplomatic relations with the west, especially with the US. No other nation in Southwest Asia could even come close to that resolve. The nation of Iran must ultimately decide its future direction: the nearly three million Iranians in diaspora can only play an auxiliary and facilitating but not a decisive role. Notwithstanding, one hopes any future government in Iran is anchored on secular and democratic principles, where all religions and ethnicities, including Shiism, are respected, but none becomes the lone dominant political force.