Trump has made clear he intends to end the historic Iran nuclear deal struck by Obama two years ago. Whether he will do this executively, as he claims he has the authority to, or by pressing demands that Iran cannot agree to is unclear. It is a deeply worrying statement for anyone committed to peace in the Middle East, or the world. The predictable conclusion is precisely what Trump claims he wishes to avoid. It is a path to more violence, authoritarianism, terror and the problematic realty of Iran’s nuclear breakout.
There is a battle raging within Iran’s institutions. It is an ideological battle that has engulfed the Arab world for centuries. On one side is Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khomeni and his hardliners, on the other President Rouhani and his reformists. Mr Rouhani’s promised to improve Iran’s economy, extend individual and political rights, internet access and gender equality. He has had limited success on most of these fronts since his 2013 election win. As Rouhani said himself there are ‘no overnight solutions’ given Iran’s political institutions. However the parliament’s recent and repeated rejections of a number of Khomeini’s selected appointees show that democracy is strengthening.
Rouhani’s greatest success is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which has lifted the imminent threat of war with America. In return for the de-escalation of nuclear ambitions the UN has lifted economic sanctions that had cost Iran $160 billion in oil revenue in just four years. The deal also led to the release of a number of frozen foreign assets. All of this i demonstrates the opportunities and benefits of a more outward-looking, democratically orientated, Iran to the electorate.
Mr Rouhani’s election is an important challenge to a self-fulfilling conception of the Arab world. In this model the trend towards authoritarianism in Islamic countries is a result of a populace demanding, or at least not sufficiently resisting, despotism. The failure of democratic ideals spreading in the Arab world is all too real. The belief that ‘the obstacle(s) to development are overwhelmingly internal and have not changed during the 1400 years of Islamic history,’ is an orientalist falsehood. The core of this belief is colonial and post-colonial racism building on the notion that Arabs are ethnically, or culturally deficient in the desire for democracy. This is an important justification for colonial and imperial practices. Western countries seeing themselves as governors and liberators of an inherently backward world.
This ignores the huge diversity of Islamic philosophy. Many Islamists, such as Al-Farabi have challenged autocratic control using Islamic doctrine centred on the Quranic ideals of shura (consultation) and hurriyah (freedom). A huge wealth of historical resistance belies the falsehood of Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Most recently one can look at the events of the Arab spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Kuwait and Lebanon. Mr Rouhani is yet another hope for a democratic Middle East, and proof that the obstacles are not ‘overwhelmingly internal.’
Modern authoritarianism is the shadow of imperialism. Trump’s aim to unilaterally reimpose harsher economic sanctions on Iran reflects a troubling return to American imperialism. It also demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of why the landmark 2015 deal was possible. Trump seems to believe that the burden of economic sanctions brought Iran to the negotiation table. Did they? Syed Hussein Mousarian, one of Iran’s nuclear negotiators, disagrees. Before the sanctions Iran had 3,000 centrifuges, a few kilograms of enriched uranium and an enrichment capacity of 5%. Whilst under sanctions this rose to 19,000 centrifuges, 8000 kilograms of enriched uranium and an enrichment capacity of over 20%. An embattled, economically crippled, Iran flooded its money and resources into nuclear activity.
President Emeritus, a US diplomat in the Middle East believes that in fact Iran’s nuclear capabilities brought America, absent from similar talks in 2005, to the table. They diminished the military inferiority of Iran. This fused with, or possibly fueled by, Obama’s new attitude led to a change in rhetoric. The American foreign policy euphemism ‘all options are on the table,’ was no longer leveled at Iran. This phrase, so commonly aimed at Iran by the Bush administration characterised diplomatic and economic interaction between the countries. The reference to possible force, premised all other interaction as a continuation of war through non-military means.
The less hostile rhetoric from the White house preceded the election of reformist Hassan Rouhani in 2013. Without an imperialist foil to justify Khameni and Ahmadinejad’s ‘death to America’ platform, the people of Iran voted for a different future. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had denied the holocaust and vowed to wipe Israel from the map, was the shadow of an imperialist Bush. A belligerent retort from a country under a real threat of nuclear destruction from Israel’s often unmentioned nuclear capabilities. Rouhani and Obama were evidence of the viability of a different relationship between not just America and Iran, but Israel and its neighbors, and of East and West.
Decolonising and Deproliferation
As Payam Fazlinujad explains ‘Within the intellectual constellation of the Islamic revolution we [Iran] cannot imagine any relation with America but war.’ Iranian authoritarianism and violence is emboldened, deepened, strengthened, justified and expanded by American imperialism. It is the root of their internal legitimacy and centrifugal unity. It is important to remember that the Khomeni lineage rose to power in the revolutionary ouster of American-backed dictator Mohammod Reza Shah. Within this framework economic sanctions are a demonstration of domination. The massive paradigm shift underlying the success of 2015 was a move from a relationship of imperialism to one of parity.
The 2015 deal was reached through international organisations and multilateral negotiation. The agreement was made between Iran and the US, UK, Russia, France, China, Germany and the EU. The diverse signatories diminished the feeling of Western exerted control of the region. Under the JCAP Iran would no longer pursue nuclear technologies for military purposes. In practice this meant a cap on Uranium enrichment at 3.67%, far short of the 90% required for weaponised Uranium. Iran scaled back centrifuge building, halted production of advanced nuclear facilities, curbed Plutonium production and reduced uranium stockpiles by 98%.
Partnership not Plutonium
The deal places Iran under the eyes of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA is importantly an international not an American watchdog, providing “extraordinary and robust monitoring, verification, and inspection.’ As a result Iran’s break-out time is estimated to have been increased from 3 months to over a year. However, unlike previous deals championed by America, the JCAP recognised Iran’s right to enrichment for civilian energy production in accordance with the terms of the UN’s Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Iran was asked to comply with international law and the international community, not American demands. The fact that being pictured talking and laughing with John Kerry, has not ended Rouhani’s career is evidence that the Iranian people see a difference in the power dynamic. It shows that a huge step had been taken in decoupling modernist, democratic reform from a fear of subordination to America and the West. Trump’s imperial attitude, characterised by his unilateralism, will feed Khameni’s hardliners. This makes it even more worrying that Trump is claiming Iran have not met the terms of their agreement despite the IAEA’s report that there have been ‘no violations of any of the commitments made in the agreement.’ Representatives of other signatories such as Frederica Moghherini, the EU foreign policy chief, were quick to denounce Trump’s innacuracies.
America’s attempts to bully Iran into extending and deepening the deal have not and will not be successful. Larbi Sadiki, an academic from Qatar University wrote in The Search for Arab Democracy (2004); ‘Political Islam has been caricatured into a monolith, a Caliphate, under centralised authority, sharing a univocal discourse and resources headed by Osama Bin Laden.’ This lack of sophistication not only serves to turn Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ into a self-fulfilling prophecy, but also denies space to Islamist democrats.’
Over the past thirteen years the head of the projected serpent has been re-identified. Trump has now cast Iran. Rouhani will soon be swallowed as Iranian’s fear of American domination becomes an ever clearer reality. Trump will find himself fighting the shadows he has cast. Worryingly this may be exactly what he wants. Fear of a Muslim ‘other’ was a defining part of his domestic campaign.
Trump’s popularity depends on the continuation of Islamic terrorism. This will no doubt worsen as Iran’s hardliners strengthen their position and find new support for their proxies, such as Hezbollah. Thus granting Trump a license to act as he wishes abroad against a perceived essentialist threat to America. He is then able to select authoritarians, such as Saudi Arabia, to suit his tactical ends without fear of democratic ideals getting in the way of their ability to exert power and influence in the region.