The Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s assertion that an attack on Iran would be countered with proportionate means was coupled with a plea that Iran be treated with respect. This suggests that diplomacy appears to be working. The threat seems to be mere posturing - given the dichotomy and the huge gulf between the means and capabilities of either country, Iran cannot realistically bring about the ‘same level’ reply which it boasts about. Once decoded, the plea for respect suggests that diplomacy should be sustained and that perhaps, Iran may give up its quest for nukes if a substantive and substantial quid pro quo is offered to it.
The question is what would be the nature of such a quid pro quo or what should be the substance of diplomacy that gives Iran pause and staves off conflict in the region. There are no easy answers to this and the exercise is then inherently speculative. However, given the possibility of the conflict getting out of hand and morphing into an all out war, it stands to reason that the answer be teased out. For this, an assessment of Iran or more accurately contemporary Iran may need to be carried out. It would be safe to infer that after the convolutions of the Iranian revolution of 1979, which crystallized a theocratic power structure to the fore, Iran has gradually and inexorably drifted into a rather ‘normal’ state. That is a state, whose orientation and purpose are the quotidian ones: security and survival. This stands at odds with the revolutionary rhetoric and impulse and is perhaps inevitable given that Iran’s energies were dissipated in its war with Iraq and the structural limits to pan Islamism and spreading the revolution beyond Iran’s shores. The major structural limitation of the revolutionary impulse was and remains the deep and historical shi’ite-sunnite schism and the fact that the centre of gravity of Islam remains Saudi Arabia. This condition obtains from the Saudi regime’s custodianship of Islam’s most holy places-Mecca and Media.
Latching onto the revolutionary impulse of spreading its version of Islam beyond its shores would then have essentially meant an exercise in futility for Iran. The natural corollary, given the mutation of the world order after the end of the Cold war would then be regime consolidation and survival, coupled with operating in/under the ‘normal’ parameters of interstate politics and statecraft. In this respect, Iran has resolved or attempted to resolve its relations with its near abroad, the Central Asian states and hence Russia. It has also deepened its relationship to India, an emerging power. In the process, the major premise of the Revolution, spreading it far and wide, has been quietly dropped. This morphing into a normal state may mean actor rationality. It may also imply that Iran and its leadership, no matter what its ideological propensity, must become amenable to the dictates and constraints of raison d’état and the constraints of the international system. This may ensure, among other things, that, even if things do come such a pass that Iran reaches the nuclear break out stage, it may be amenable to deterrence. The nature, form and shape of such deterrence would naturally be different from the deterrence logic that defined the US-USSR relationship. However, the challenge remains and should thwart Iran’s ambition to attain nukes, bringing it to the negotiating table. What could the ‘magic formula’ that enables the international community to bring Iran seriously to the negotiating table be?
The answer to this question lies in understanding the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are and comprise the ultimate security for a state and also help a state attain hegemonic status. The neocon revolution in the US made regime change the centrepiece of American foreign policy and identified Iran as a prospect for regime change by deeming it a component of the ‘axis of evil’. Structural bipolarity had ended and the US reached the apex of its power, which it utilized to overthrow governments. So regimes such as that in Iran may once have had no choice but to consider the nuclear option.
Secondly, Iran appears to suffer from exaggerated aspirations to greatness and its collective consciousness longs for hegemony in the region. Nuclear weapons would accord this hegemonic status to the country, in the process helping the regime to maintain its longevity and legitimacy. This dual, two-pronged rationale underpinned by a mixture of fear and aspiration, may constitute the real reasons behind Iran’s nuclear quest. And perhaps more importantly, understanding this and then laying these fears to rest and sating Iran’s aspirations may help resolve the imbroglio. Fleshing out and specifying the conditions under which Iran’s fears can be assuaged and its aspirations be satisfied should form the gravamen of diplomacy.
So what can be done? A clear cut security guarantee to Iran should be the first prong of diplomacy. That is, the US and the international community should make it clear that Iran will not be targeted by policies aiming at no less than regime change. Second, Iran’s role and position in the Middle East needs to be acknowledged and some sort of modus vivendi established over Iran’s regional ambitions. The nature of such a modus vivendi may mean that some space is conceded to Iran in the region, provided its quest for regional power does not threaten the gulf statelets and maintains the current alliance system in the region. Or in other words, the goal is to maintain a balance of power in the region that gives Iran some leverage but does not tip the scales of the balance in Iran’s favour. This requires an astute understanding of the region and its politics and deft and delicate diplomacy. It may be difficult but it is not impossible. It is this dual approach that could give short shrift to war in the region. Iran has sent out a signal, albeit a weak one, and the door has been left ajar for diplomacy. It is time that receptivity be shown to the signal and that the scope and remit of diplomacy be deepened. World peace and stability may come to depend on it.