Perils of brinkmanship with Iran are now on open display. As Libyans struggle after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, and the rebellion against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria continues, the campaign of sanctions against Iran has triggered events which echo the 1980s crisis between post-revolution Iran and the West. The recent International Atomic Energy Agency report, a controversial document censoring Iran, Britain’s decision to severe links with Iran’s central banking system and further sanctions by France, Canada and the United States were all too much.
The Iranian parliament retaliated by downgrading relations with the United Kingdom and told the new British ambassador to leave. Soon after, angry protesters stormed two British embassy compounds in Tehran. Property was damaged and documents were reported to have been taken away. What secrets they may contain is a matter of speculation. They are likely to fuel the Iranians’ anger and may cause embarrassment to the British government if revealed.
Aware of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Iranian foreign ministry expressed regret and promised to protect the British diplomatic staff. But Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran’s parliament, said that the student protesters’ action reflected the anti-British sentiment in Iran. Other Iranian MPs expressed similar views. The British government had little choice but to withdraw its staff and order the closure of the Iranian embassy in London within 48 hours.
Britain’s announcement falls short of a complete break, but relations between the two countries have surely sunk to the lowest point in more than three decades. The British Foreign Secretary William Hague says that he wants to remain engaged with Tehran on the nuclear issue and on human rights, an astonishingly hypocritical statement to make.
Iran is no longer the same country as it was just after the overthrow of Shah Reza Pahlavi, America’s close ally and widely detested by his own countrymen. There is not the same religious fervor in Iranian society. The structure that now rules Iran has evolved over three decades. No doubt there are factions and power struggles, but the hierarchy of clerics led by Ayatollah Khamenei and an elected president, parliament and the judiciary, brings some stability in the country.
Violence during and after Iran’s disputed presidential election in 2009 showed that the regime can use considerable force when faced with a serious challenge. Accusations of Western powers backing opposition forces appear to unite the country’s ruling structure. At the same time, Iran has emerged as a major power in a predominantly Sunni region which is led by Saudi Arabia.
Pressures over centuries have made the Iranians rather like the Chinese. They can wait for a long time before giving a typically Persian response. Last month’s IAEA report accusing Tehran of operating a nuclear weapons program began the latest escalation. The timing of the report looked expedient, coming immediately after the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and at a time when the conflict in Syria was intensifying.
More punitive sanctions followed, triggering an ominous chain of events. The French president Nicolas Sarkozy, not to be outdone, called on European governments to stop buying Iranian oil, a self-destructive proposition. Britain, too, pushed for an oil embargo on Iran, but the idea failed to gain wide agreement within the European Union. There were wiser heads than those of Sarkozy and Hague.
As the Middle East threatens to explode and the crisis between Iran and the West escalates, one question which policy makers in London and Washington do not seem to ask themselves is: What lies behind Iran’s deep suspicion of the West? Writing in the Independent, Robert Fisk reminds us of the essential answer. A country humiliated and pushed again and again is a country radicalized and distrustful.
Iranians have been repeatedly humiliated, their resources stolen and they blame the West. In 1941, the British and Soviet armies invaded the country for oil and a supply line to the Allied forces in the Second World War. Then a plot by the British intelligence agency MI6 and the American CIA overthrew Iran’s elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953.
For more than a quarter century thereafter, the West enabled Shah Reza Pahlavi to rule the country with an iron fist. He was finally deposed in the 1979 Islamic revolution. The West then helped Iraq’s Saddam Hussain, who invaded Iran, in a war in which as many as a million Iranians died or were wounded and chemical weapons were used by the Iraqi army on Iranian troops.
More than two decades on, we know where the recent sanctions are coming from. Killings of scientists and academics and mysterious explosions in different parts of Iran are much more difficult to explain. In Britain, the regulators have threatened Iran’s Press TV broadcasts with closure whereas the Chinese and Russian channels operate freely. Iran’s national character has been shaped by many traumatic experiences for which the country holds the West responsible.
Explosive drivers in international relations such as these have a high price tag. Many diplomats seem to know it, politicians do not. The world after the Cold War is driven by crises largely because skilled diplomacy has been sidelined by rough politics. We live in a world where leaders are many, but leadership is scarce. Having spent their moral and material capital, war is an increasingly desperate option for declining powers.
History of savage conflicts follows an all too familiar pattern. Leaders who do not heed what happened before is to guarantee childish decision making.