By Jonathan Power
Iran will find it easier to kill the nuclear bomb deal than will the Republicans in Congress. Why? Because the Republicans need some Democratic senators on their side to override a veto by President Barack Obama of a vote to bury the accord, whereas in Iran all that is needed is the decision of one man, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran is not a dictatorship – voters, parliament and president carry enormous weight but when it comes to the very big decisions it is Khamenei who decides. He has already said there is “no guarantee” of a final deal with the world powers, the US, the EU, Russia and China, who agreed the deal. President Hassan Rouhani, a liberally minded man, has also said that Iran would not sign up unless sanctions were lifted “on the first day” of implementation.
There is enough evidence around to suggest that Khamenei is unhappy with the Americans. Soon after the accord was publicized after the marathon negotiations in Lausanne, he tweeted, “Hours after the talks the Americans offered a fact sheet (of explanation of the terms of the agreement) – most of it was contrary to what was agreed. They always deceive and breach promises.”
To understand where Khamenei is coming from we have to separate the question whether Iran really has been trying to build a bomb from the tactics after decades of American and EU hostility and misinformation.
Khamenei would make the same noises if the issue and the negotiations were about, for example, the role of the militias it supports – Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and its support of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. What the Iranians are negotiating about is not so much the bomb – to be or not to be – but about their pride and their position in the world and their right to become a thriving economic and political power inured from sanctions or military threats. (Sanctions were imposed before the nuclear issue came to the fore.)
The nuclear program has been first and foremost about creating leverage so that Iran can regain the sort of respect that the offspring of the Persian Empire once was given. Second, it has been about making sure that Iran is not found short when its oil reserves start to shrink. (Iran also has heavily invested in solar energy.)
For Iran, negotiations have been a suggestive game of hide and seek, played in front of all-angled, reflecting mirrors. It has not been about actually building a bomb or, as we used to say in Pakistan’s pre-bomb days, of being “a screwdriver away from completing a bomb”.
I don’t actually believe that Iran’s intention is to build a nuclear bomb. It is to frighten the West. It is to forestall what it believes is the Americans attempt at “regime change”.
In February 2013, Khamenei told a visiting delegation, “We do not want to make nuclear weapons. Not because America is upset over this, but because it’s our own belief. We believe that nuclear weapons are a crime against humanity and must not be produced.”
Khamenei has spoken a number of times about how nuclear weapons go against the principles of Islam. Islam is a language of love and brotherhood, not of a nuclear holocaust.
I believe him, not out of naivety, but because I know Iran is a deeply religious society and that the ayatollahs take Islamic teaching earnestly. Children are brought up to take values seriously, to love not hate, and to take care of the poor and widowed.
Iran doesn’t go easily to war. Saddam Hussein inflicted war on Iran for no good reason, other than to demonstrate the muscle of a dictator. Iran had never sought to build up a deterrent against Iraq. (The US and the UK supported Saddam and provided him with weapons.) Akbar Ganji, an Iranian journalist and dissident wrote in Foreign Affairs that Khamenei “is not a crazy, irrational or reckless zealot searching for an opportunity for aggression”.
Khamenei considers science and progress to be “Western civilization’s truth”. He is a great reader of Western novels and considers Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” “to be the best novel that has been written in history”.
He is an intellectual who enjoys the company of other intellectuals including secular opposition ones. Unfortunately, he was also attracted as a young man to the writings of the Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb, whose severe Islamic thinking inspired Osama bin Laden. He has since moderated his opinions.
So listen carefully to Khamenei. His belief that sanctions should be immediately lifted once an accord is signed is correct. He has made it clear that if the final negotiations go well and the deal is made Iran could “use the experience” and negotiate over other differences. This would be a major step to clearing up the mess of the Middle East.
Copyright: Jonathan Power