Iran at Crossroads

12 February 2015

Iran is a country with an impressive historical and cultural heritage. It has rich natural resources, a strategic location and a population of 76 million.

Following the ousting of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979, Iran’s principal concern was ensuring the survival of the regime and exporting the Revolution. Turkey was a particular target. This, however, did not close all doors to cooperation. Turkey maintained its political dialogue and economic links with Iran as a neighbor. Ankara followed a policy of “active neutrality” during the eight year Iraq-Iran war gaining the trust of both sides. So much so that, Turkey represented Iraqi diplomatic interests in Tehran and Iranian diplomatic interests in Baghdad.

The West kept hoping for internal reform which never came. There was some optimism when President Muhammad Khatami was first elected in 1997 with nearly 70 percent popular support but the regime as designed did not allow the President to meet expectations. With the election President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, anti-American, anti-Israeli rhetoric reached new peaks. Mr. Ahmadinejad was elected for a second term in 2009 but his last four years in office were marred by election irregularities and repression of the opposition. In the meantime, Western sanctions and resulting economic hardship continued to take their toll.

In the 2012 presidential elections, Hassan Rouhani was elected with a very carefully worded program of change. It still remains to be seen whether President Rouhani’s term will resemble that of President Hatemi or he would be able to move forward with some reform.

Rouhani administration’s first major foreign policy initiative was to display a readiness to resolve the nuclear issue. The President and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif appeared to agree that confrontation with the West over the nuclear program does more harm than good to Iran and that the Obama administration was prepared to engage in serious talk if Iran displayed a readiness to do so.

It is worth remembering in this connection what President Obama said in his landmark Cairo speech on 4 June 2009:
“…This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the Middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but what future it wants to build…”

The message urging dialogue could not be more explicit. It was also the first time that the US openly admitted its role in the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953.

The following is a summary of what happened at the time:
“Mosaddeq became a national hero across most ideological, class and religious boundaries… In the long run, as with British actions in the previous century, the removal of Mosaddeq damaged US interests in a much more serious way than could have been recognized at the time…The events of 1951-1953 also alienated many Iranians from the young Shah, making popular support for him in subsequent decades equivocal at best…”(*)

P5+1 and Iran are expected to reach a comprehensive agreement by the 30 June 2015 deadline. To accomplish this, the parties would need to agree on an outline or a political framework by the end of March. It is said that without such an understanding a further extension would be difficult.

The Iranian leadership has two options:
• Continuing the confrontational course on the nuclear program with its negative political and economic consequences,
• Resolving the nuclear issue under a deal which reduces “break-out capacity”, allows for intrusive inspections and then enjoying the political/diplomatic and economic benefits that such an agreement would yield.

The first would no longer be business as usual. It would mean growing tensions and risks for the region and beyond.

The second will not prevent Iran from pursuing a peaceful nuclear program. It will put an end to the economic sanctions. It will elevate Iran’s status as a regional actor at a defining time for the Middle East. It will surely lead to a huge amount of Western investment. And, no matter how far Iran may be pushed back from the threshold of breakout capacity, such an agreement would still confirm Iran’s status as a “threshold state”.

Iranians have invested a lot in their nuclear program. Perhaps it is now time to cash in and move on. Such a deal may not match the original intention but the profit margin will certainly be higher.

At present the Middle East is in chaos. Iraq, a regional counterweight to Iran is now falling apart thanks to the American invasion. Syria has become a battle ground. Both Baghdad and Damascus value Iranian support for their survival. The Ukraine conflict raises doubts about the level of cohesion among the P5+1 despite assurances. All of this gives Tehran a stronger hand at the nuclear talks and causes the Israeli government concern. PM Netanyahu wishes to have veto power over an eventual agreement. A nuclear deal should of course be solid. This is also in the interest of Turkey. But trying to force Iran into submission is not an option. Pushing Tehran over the brink will lead to unforeseeable turmoil. Israel’s security, like Turkey’s, depends on a stable environment not further havoc.

What would the implications of a nuclear deal with Iran would be for Turkey since this would elevate Tehran’s status as a regional power? That depends on Turkey. Iran, eager to protect the legacy of the 1979 Revolution, has since then displayed a confrontational spirit. It has given priority to hard power. Turkey has put emphasis on its democratic evolution and soft power. In other words, the two countries have chosen different paths to regional/global ascendency. If a nuclear deal were to materialize, we Turks should not desperately start seeking “threshold state status” but give final proof that we are a full-fledged democracy with a sensible foreign policy. Although the prospects look dim, I remain convinced that the latter will give us much more status than the former.

(*)Michael Axworthy, Empire of the Mind, A History of Iran, Basic Books, 2008, New York, pages 237-238.

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About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions he held in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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