UN sanctions in Iran's post-election era

The post-election crisis in Iran has revolutionised the potential for international pressure and civil action to work in harmony.
Arash Falasiri
13 November 2009

Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power, three UN sanctions have been imposed on Iran as a result of his government’s insistence on continuing its uranium enrichment program. However, the regime continues to claim that Iran’s decision not to halt its enrichment plans is final. In response to the concerns raised by other nations, Ahmadinejad clearly proclaimed several times that the sanctions are just paper work and cannot influence Iran’s determination. Whether this claim is true or not, UN Security Council members need to contemplate the post-election era and the shift that has occurred in Iran's interior situation when proposing probable future sanctions related to the country's nuclear ambitions.

First Picture: pre-election era

Although there may be some economic evidence to show that the three previous UN sanctions on Iran have been effective to some extent, the Islamic republic endeavours to downplay their impact, publicly claiming that they are ineffective. There are both domestic and international factors which have helped the Iranian government to pursue its nuclear policy and to pretend that Iran can cope with the cost of its nuclear strategy. The increase in the price of oil over a three-year period from 2005 to 2008 provided Iran with a unique opportunity to persist with its nuclear policy and ride out UN sanctions. Nonetheless, it is crucial to bear in mind that Ahmadinejad’s insistence on the UN sanctions’ ineffectiveness could not have occurred without the support of sections of the Iranian establisment. Although many experts have suggested that the UN sanctions have imposed a huge cost on the government, the Islamic state leaders steadfastly maintain that their decision vis-a-vis the country's nuclear program has been made and is non-negotiable.

Different views expressed by some UN Security Council members have given Iran a salient opportunity to continue its nuclear policy and to take advantage of these different viewpoints. To some extent, Iran’s reluctance to negotiate with the West over its nuclear case is based on their divergence from Russian and Chinese perspective. Despite the fact that Russia and China are members of the UNSC, and have condemned Iran’s nuclear program, Iran does not consider them an immediate threat to its nuclear ambitions. It is thought that China and Russia have attempted to lessen the UNSC's anti-Iran approach and encourage more moderate treatment of Iran.

Strategy shift: towards the fantasy of a great Persia

The significant support of the Supreme Leader, the huge oil windfall, and the mixed signals emanating from the UNSC have all helped Ahmadinejad to manage the political and economic fallout of the UN sanctions, but it is the government's domestic agenda in sustaining their nuclear push. In fact, the most important way in which Iran justifies its determination to resist world concern regarding its nuclear ambitions may be found in the Iranian leaders' interior strategic shift.

Throughout the last three decades, the Iranian government has categorized all national issues under as an issue 'Islamic values'. Almost every national achievement under the Islamic regime is considered of benefit to the Islamic world.  In contrast, nuclear power is one of few achievements that the government acknowledges as 'national', comparable to the nationalization of oil in Iran in 1953. By linking nuclear power to the Iranian identity, the government aims to delude the Iranian public sphere via the fantasy of re-establishing the bygone glories of the “Great Persia”.

In doing so, as many socio-political thinkers argue, total control of the public sphere is crucial.  This is how the Iranian government tries to isolate its people from reality both through censorship and by spreading propaganda throughout all sections of public life, for example education, leisure, sports, etc., in order to justify the cost and effect of its decision to develop nuclear power.

Freedom of information

One necessity for authoritarian regimes is to isolate their publics from free access to information resources. In the case of Iran, throughout the past three decades, successive Islamic governments have limited Iranians’ free access to information. Iran's Islamic government intrudes into all private spheres, raiding people’s houses, offices, and cars, in a determined bid to control all facets of their behaviour. Revolutionary Guards monitor Iranians’ personal and public communications on their phones and e-mails.  Recently, the police were authorised to stop people to check their text messages and the numbers they communicated with by mobile phone. The public's only endorsed channel of access to the news is via state media. Although there are satellite television networks available in the Persian language, hosted by Iranians outside the country, ownership of satellite dishes or devices is illegal.

The closing down of more than 100 newspapers over the last few years is an example of the Iranian government's intolerance. The Iranian Journalists Syndicate has declared this year to be the hardest ever for journalists; Iran has one of the highest rates of jailed journalists in the world. On the 6 August 2009, immediately after their declaration, the state proclaimed the Journalists Syndicate an illegal organisation. General speaking, the Iranian state prefers its people to be isolated from the world news. Last year, the hardliner minister for culture, when replying to a question regarding the content of the media in Iran, said: 'The gentle souls of Iranians cannot bear the harsh news of the world'.

Persian nationalism

Since the beginning of 2009, Iran’s Supreme Leader has used the word “enemy” more than 300 times in his public speeches. The Iranian state’s propaganda message claims that the West denies the Iranian's their perceived unquestionable right to development. Current president Ahmadinejad repeatedly insists that 'the West challenges us because it is believed that we are reaching the highest levels of technology'. The crucial points here are, first, that the state tends to emphasise that its technological achievements have been accomplished by Iranian scientists, and, second, that the program is based upon rich Iranian cultural values.

The shift from Islamic to Persian values is anticipated at a time when the Iranian hardliner regime is under pressure from the outside world to modify its nuclear program. The state desperately needs the public's support in order to withstand international pressure and UN sanctions. With this firmly in mind, the Islamic regime, for the first time, has declared its nuclear program as being for the benefit of 'the great Persia'. Well aware of the futility of applying the values of Islam to nuclear power, Ahmadinejad emphasises the importance of this technology for reviving 'a glorious Persia', knowing how important this notion is to the Iranian public in general, given that it distinguishes them from Arab Muslims.

A report issued by the Iranian tourism ministry shows that more than 81 percent of Iranians refer to themselves as ‘Persian’ rather than ‘Iranian’ when they are travelling outside of the country. The removal of the name “Arab Gulf” from the National Geographic website, resulting from a petition signed by more than one million Iranians, saw its replacement with its original name of “Persian Gulf”, surely a telling example of this sentiment.

UN Sanctions and the missing link

This picture may make more sense if we consider Iranians’ concerns regarding the UN sanctions. It is arguable that the initial response of Iranian activists was that they believed that the UN sanctions, at least indirectly, have helped the hardliners grow stronger in terms of justifying their disciplinary behaviour towards the public. If their theory of 'protecting' society from the rest of the world is valid, it is undeniable that the UN sanctions have to some extent provided anti-western groups with the opportunity to support Iran, that is, to become more aggressive not only outside of the country, particularly elsewhere in the middle east, but also inside Iran.

This is probably why Iranian activists have always been critical of the lack of consideration of democratic rights evidenced in the application of sanctions. They cling to the notion that the UN sanctions represent Western countries’ concern for the impact of Iran’s nuclear ambitions but that they are not genuinely interested in the fate of the Iranian people. Whether correct or not, it helps explain the disjunction between the two main groups that share concerns about how dangerous the situation could become if fundamentalists gain access to nuclear weapons; namely the international policy community and Iran's civil rights activists.

Undoubtedly, the UN sanctions in this case must target the real source of the problem and at the same time try to strengthen the anti-fundamentalist stance in Iran. However, the impacts of previous sanctions made the situation more complex by giving the government a reason not only to suppress anti-fundamentalist activists but to suppress the country's civil society in general. The isolation of Iran from the world, which has proved one of the crucial results of the sanctions, seems to have affected ordinary Iranians more than the country's decision-making elite.

Moreover, it has helped the state to continue its aim of distinguishing Iran from the rest of the world. Depriving society of access to uncensored information on the one hand has worked in favour of radicalism in Iran. During Ahmadinejad’s first three years, the western media’s coverage of Iran centred on the development of its nuclear program, its conflict with the United States and Israel, and the topic of oil, leaving other issues such as social movements less than two per cent of total coverage. This may explain why Iranian civil society feels that they have been ignored not once but twice: first by the Iranian media, and second by the world's mass media.          

Second Picture: post-election era

While the state’s interior policy to put the cost and pressure of UN sanctions on the people’s shoulders has been successful, the post-election circumstances have the potential to severely undermine this policy. Iran’s social movement and the people’s will to insist on their civilian rights, along with the so called green movement, have put Iranian social issues in the headlines of the Western media. Based on independent reports, this welcome publicity has given some of the Iranian people the confidence to resist their fundamentalist government. As a result of the Supreme Leader's total support for Ahmadinejad, and reformists' ongoing opposition, we are no longer dealing with the 'old' Iran.

It has been said that the important characteristic of a regime such as this is that one can never distinguish between ‘official’ and ‘real’ power due to the obscurity of the system. At this stage in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s history, the real powers, who include the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards, have become visible to the public. For the first time since the 1979 revolution, a religious leader has taken a radical decision against the majority of the people and the clerics’ will. Thus, the political decision-maker has become isolated and visible in the eyes of society.

Target the ‘real’ power

Thus, as a result of the post-election circumstances, Iranians are now faced with many new avenues to render the fundamentalists’ position fragile, in the course of which they may alleviate both the world’s nuclear concerns and aid our society to at last claim its civil rights. Giving activists this opportunity to become visible in the western media – as well as voicing Iranians' human rights concerns – sends a strong message of support that will boost the Iranian public’s will to pursue social reform.

In order to undermine the fundamentalist threat, it is vital that Iranians grasp the fact that Western countries' focus is not exclusively a matter of self-interest. During the first term of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, some activists believed that even if his regime achieves its nuclear weapons goal, it would pose a military threat to its own people. But in the aftermath of the election, after they had witnessed the brutal suppression inflicted by the government, the Iranian public started to realise the real danger of a fundamentalist regime having access to nuclear weapons. Thus, there will be no contradiction if the forthcoming sanctions send a message to the Iranian people that this ongoing split between the people’s will and those in power is open to world scrutiny.

Immediately after the elimination of Iran’s national football team from the last World Cup, Ahmadinejad decided to dismiss Mohammad Dadkan, the president of the football federation. While FIFA rules decree that a national football federation should remain autonomous from the government, Ahmadinejad said 'this is our territory and I am the person who is in charge of matters'. FIFA issued an ultimatum to Iran, and when the deadline to respond arrived on 23 November 2006, the federation was suspended by FIFA due to government interference in football matters. The government duly rescinded its decision in less than few hours. Ahmadinejad and his advisers accepted FIFA's rules overnight. As a result of the domination of the public sphere and the monitoring of public life by the Islamic state and the prohibition of many social activities, football is more than simply a sport to Iranians. Many politicians feared that the people would cry out against the government’s decision and that the consequences might be unbearable. That is why the Iranian government was forced to accept the FIFA ultimatum.

In terms of new UN sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program, Western countries need to consider two major points. First, as a result of the post-election events, and based on the ever growing split between the government and society, we are facing a different situation from that prior to the election. Second, to alleviate the world’s concerns about the Islamic state’s possible nuclear threat, it will be necessary for both Western countries and Iranian civil society to target the core structures of the fundamentalist government. FIFA’s success was based on the fact that its impact was felt not by the people but by the Iranian bureaucracy, and that a government decision was clearly highlighted as the impediment to progress.

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