The underlying problem in the current dispute over Iran’s nuclear program is one of a lack of trust and hostile perceptions.
On the one hand, the West and other countries are fearful of Iranian intentions vis-a-vis its nuclear ambitions. The combination of an Islamic regime with a long history of standing up to US/western hegemony in the Middle East, an increasingly hardline Iranian government, general instability and western policy designs in the region, are a cocktail into which a potential Iranian nuclear weapon is not seen as in any way desirable.
The change a nuclear armed Iran might bring to the regional balance of power and the potential for the projection of Iranian power that it would entail is not seen by the West as potentially stabilizing, but, to the contrary, as even more destabilizing.
On the other hand, Iran has no faith in western designs for the region and itself. First, Iran has never claimed to want nuclear weapons. As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, what Iran says it wants to do– i.e., pursue nuclear power for peaceful purposes only in order to secure the future of its energy supply–is entirely within its right. Whatever its intentions, the almost blanket suspicion that Tehran is really pursuing a nuclear weapons program has left the Iranian regime indignant and crying foul over western double standards.
Further, since Iraq was invaded under what turned out to be the false pretext of an alleged program to develop weapons of mass destruction, and with nuclear powers surrounding it, not to mention a massive US military presence in both its largest neighbors, Iran is feeling highly defensive. The Iranian regime seems convinced that, as in Iraq, whatever it says or does, it is its very existence that is threatening the West.
Both sides have a case. On pure principle, the proliferation of nuclear weapons anywhere is undesirable. As such, the West is right in seeking assurances that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
But the West’s case is considerably weakened by its double standards. Adhering slavishly to the legitimacy of the United Nations when it comes to Iran, but utterly ignoring it when it comes to Israel, leaves it without any moral high ground at all. While this is a point that has been made ad tedium, it is none the less valid for it. It is no surprise that Tehran lashes out in turn, believing that the regime is not involved in a dispute over principle but rather in an existential conflict for its own survival.
Further, calling the Iranian regime undemocratic is now becoming an argument with little validity. As the victory of Hamas in Palestinian legislative elections show, being democratically elected is no guarantee that the West will show any more consistency in its policies. Calling for democracy on the one hand, and then trying to ignore the results on the other, or force whatever leadership is elected to tow a western line, shows one thing and one thing only: the West does not care what kind of system is in place, it cares what kind of policies a country espouses. If a country is friendly to the West, it can engage in an illegal decades-long belligerent military occupation of another people, and have nuclear weapons without being a signatory to the NPT to boot, without being punished.
But Iran is not only standing on principle. Its leverage in Iraq, where its relative balance of power with the US is quite favorable, is also enabling the new hardline regime in Tehran to sound increasingly radical in the belief that, at least for the moment, it is safe from military action. Indeed, it is hard to see the US, already overextended militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, want to conflagrate the situation further by striking Iran.
Nevertheless, that is the direction the current rhetoric is taking us. It would be disastrous and it would reverberate around the region.
The West must take a step back. Before it can credibly confront Iran, on a practical level it must have secured Iraq, preferably by withdrawing under favorable circumstances. Secondly, Islamic political parties are a reality and a force to be reckoned with in the region. The West must learn to deal with them in a rational manner rather than in a manner driven by fear. Engaging the region fully on a socio-economic level and bringing Middle East countries into the global economy has to be the sensible approach to reaching out and assuaging fears here that western designs are just hostile.
Finally, the US in particular needs to be consistent. It has been said a thousand times before, but here we go again. As long as Israel is allowed to continue its occupation of Palestinian land, the West will forever be practicing double standards here. Almost all approaches have been tried to create a stable region, whether by appeasement or by invasion. The only one that hasn’t been tried is the one Arabs and Muslims across the world have proposed for decades: force Israel to end the occupation.
It shouldn’t be too hard.