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Iran and the United States: a clash of perceptions

Paul Rogers
3 November 2005

The recent, rapid deterioration in relations between Iran and western European countries is only partly as a result of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's outspoken comments on 26 October about Israel. It also stems from a hardening of the Iranian line on the nuclear issue and, more significantly, the recall of as many as forty key diplomats. The diplomatic purge includes the ambassadors in London, Paris and Berlin, and those at the United Nations in New York and Geneva.

The significance of the decisions made so far is already clear: the people recalled are the very ones who have been involved in the nuclear negotiations, including some regarded as pragmatists more aligned with the president of an earlier era, Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97), than with the man who defeated him in the June election, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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These diplomatic changes come at a time of political uncertainty within the regime, not least with the failure of Ahmadinejad to get a number of ministerial appointees approved by the majlis (parliament). The fact that he has now chosen the notably inexperienced Sadeq Mahsuli for the key post of oil minister may have much to do with Mahsuli's earlier role as a Revolutionary Guard commander; it certainly suggests that the administration being formed is both inward-looking and callow, especially in international affairs.

At the same time, these current developments in Tehran must be seen in the context of the exceedingly sharp differences of outlook between Washington and Tehran. These differences are far more deep-seated than contingent political tensions and – as far as Iran is concerned – stretch beyond the Tehran regime to include large sectors of Iranian public opinion.

The Bush administration persists in regarding Iran as the most significant member of the "axis of evil". The Saddam Hussein regime may have been terminated in Iraq, but Iran was always regarded as the more serious problem for Washington – and for its Israeli ally also. At a conference in Washington a few months after 9/11, when early talk of attacking Iraq was circulating, one member of the Bush transition team spoke for many on the neo-conservative right when he said: "if we get Iraq right, we won't have to worry about Iran."

The logic was plain: to extinguish the Iraqi regime, install a client government and maintain troops in the country would surely have the effect of making Tehran very careful of its actions, thus aiding the United States’s position in the region – to the extent that, whatever regime might govern in Iran, overthrowing it might not even be necessary.

Although Iraq has not gone according to the US’s plan, the Bush administration retains its strongly held view – one that derives from the traumatic 1979-80 period encompassing the downfall of the Shah, the violent convulsions of the Iranian revolution and, in particular, the hostage crisis – that Iran is the real problem. In particular, it is entirely unacceptable for Washington that any regime in Tehran should be allowed to get within reach of even a theoretical nuclear capability.

This emphatic judgment collides with an equally strong belief on the Iranian side, one that crosses most of political boundaries, that the country has every right to develop nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The idea of Iran as one of the world's great states, with more than 4,000 years of civilisation, is embedded in Iranian society. This view is reinforced by more recent developments: Iran has seen regimes to its east (Afghanistan) and west (Iraq) destroyed by a superpower that describes it as "evil", permanent US bases being constructed in these neighbouring states, and its entire coastline effectively dominated by the US fifth fleet.

This fundamental clash of perceptions between Washington and Tehran shows no sign of diminishing. Indeed, the current Iranian rhetoric simply makes it easier for the United States (or Israel) to consider the use of force if diplomacy fails to fix the nuclear issue. The problem for these prospective assailants is that any such action might entail serious and unexpected escalation.

Iran would have several options in the event of a US or Israeli attack: direct Revolutionary Guard involvement across the border in Iraq, making the predicament of US forces almost impossible; encouraging Hizbollah to open a "Lebanon front" with Israel; even the temporary closure of the Straits of Hormuz to create an oil-market panic. The stakes are therefore very high and it will take some extraordinary efforts by diplomats, mediators and others – including the Russians – to encourage the Washington and Tehran administrations to acquire a realistic sense of each other's point of view.

No exit

Meanwhile, George Bush's conduct of his “war on terror” and his sundry domestic problems have encouraged Washington political analysts to suggest that neo-conservatism and the ideal of the New American Century have had their day – and that the logical result must be some serious rethinking of the Iraq imbroglio. The problem with this line of thinking is that the second simply does not follow the first. It is certainly possible that neo-conservatism may be in trouble (though it is far too early to write an obituary), but this in itself would not create space for rethinking on Iraq.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

A collection of Paul Rogers’s Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris (October 2005)

The problem for the United States is that the occupation of Iraq, the permanent military bases and the wished-for client regime in Baghdad are primarily about the wider control of the region's energy resources. It is possible that the US might have secured its influence in the region by other means than war, but the enforced termination of the Saddam Hussein regime has created a profound ratcheting effect. The United States cannot just change the tactics it has committed itself to, for they carry the necessary consequence of using even more force to control their own destructive effects. Jake Lynch, co-author of Peace Journalism, expresses it well: Iraq was all about an entry strategy, but nowhere had an exit strategy as part of the policy.

This is where Iran is so significant. If the US/Iran crisis escalates to the point of military confrontation, the ratchet effect will become even more pronounced. If the United States (or Israel) bombs Iran’s civil nuclear facilities in the next year or so, setting back a putative nuclear-weapons programme by several years, that will provoke a new, violent cycle of confrontation that, as with Iraq, cannot be reversed. Once force is used, it cannot be "unused".

When the United States decided to eradicate the Saddam regime in Iraq, the stakes were high on all sides. The price is now being paid. The potential price is even higher if war is waged on Iran, but that may not stop it happening. Indeed, the current increase in tension, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's comments, makes war more likely.

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