Friday, May 1, 2009

Understanding Iran IV - Mutual Respect

We have put forward the possibility that relations with Iran are handicapped by narrow perceptions of that country, and that Iran's behaviour, including some of its excesses, can be explained through its search to have its 'intangible' needs met in the face of considerable international barriers. This is especially the case in a country with a powerful sense of status and entitlement driven by millenia of sophisticated culture and political history.

We believe there are two basic approaches to deal with Iran. Either we use what Ornstein calls our "old brain", rely on its caricatures and act on that basis and continue to deprive Iran of its needs, or we derive a new more nuanced and realistic approach to the matter, unfamiliar as it may seem.

As we have indicated, we have in our minds only slim pictures of a fuller reality, including that of another society like Iran. All can appear terribly simplified through the words of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or, indeed, of George Bush. It is also plain that not only the USA suffers from this problem; Iran has the same simplistic understandings of the USA (and of Israel) that Americans have of it. This is a two-way street where a sense of moral superiority, a black and white world of right and wrong, drives both sides.

Iran is a country seeking basic, if intangible, needs of legitimacy and respect. Many of the policies that have been under consideration do not sufficiently consider this. Iran will neither be bribed into a deal, nor threatened out of its ambitions. This is a cold reality. Therefore, the whole diplomatic approach of "carrots and sticks" that has marked American diplomacy will not work here. Furthermore, limited and cartoon perceptions not only limit our views of another society, they can cause misjudgments regarding the consequences of our actions:

  • Sanctions on Iran, even very heavy sanctions, will not likely make it bend nor stop it from enriching uranium. In fact, it will likely only strengthen the Iranian hardliners and radicals making them pursue uranium enrichment at an even faster pace, which, theoretically, is counterproductive to the international community's goals.
  • A military attack on Iran will not likely destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities nor its desire to pursuit it, but it will certainly destroy a country in the process. Hatred for the USA and Israel will be beyond the pale after such an attack with many currently incalculable consequences. Furthermore, in response, Iran can unleash a mixture of terror and missiles at Israel, American targets and other strategic sights in the Gulf, wreaking havoc in an already heavily destabilized Middle East.
Therefore, military strikes and sanctions cannot assure that Iran will not go nuclear; but they can assure that Iran will strike back, and that the atmosphere between the USA, Israel and Muslim countries will be deeply poisoned.

The reality is that this mindset may still, sadly, prevail. Both sides still feel the need to punish the other for past misdeeds, and expectations of threat can easily morph into an uncontrolled spiral of violence.

The key to avoiding this human disaster is to engage Iran on the basis of mutual respect and equality, which meets Iran's needs and may yield positive results for all concerned. Negotiating while threatening sanctions does not meet this criterion.

Although this second approach may be may be difficult and counterintuitive because of understandable aversions to the Iranian government's policies, especially over human rights, or Ahmadinejad's rhetoric about Israel, it may only be this reality that can move matters forward constructively.

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