The Unites States and the West have spared no hard measures in pushing for Iran’s compliance in various issues since its Islamic revolution in 1979. But little evidence indicates that these measures have made any differences. Rationalism can explain many of the behaviors of Iran as a nation-state, but non-rational factors are always adding complicated implications to its decision-making.
Iran has become a rather modern state with regular interaction and connection with other parts of the modern world. However, like those of other countries with a long history, its behavior in many ways is a reflection of its past. Though usually the sources of wrong analogies, history still implicitly but deeply affects the way that Iran’s decision-makers perceive their nation and the world.
Iran’s history of thousands of years can be categorized into two kinds. Its glorious history can be dated back to the period of the great Persian Empire. As early as the sixth century B.C., Persians, the ancestors of today’s Iranians, had established for the first time in human history an empire covering parts of all the three neighboring continents of Asia, Europe and Africa. During its peak period, the Persian Empire ruled more than seventy ethnic groups.
Remote as it is from modern times, the glorious history of the Persian Empire is still the source of Iran’s “great power” mentality, mainly characterized as over estimating its own strength while underestimating the power of others, and the ambition to be a major global or at least regional power as well.
Compared with its rather short glory, the rest of Iran’s history is marked by trauma. Since the 7th century, it has been consecutively conquered and humiliated by Arabs, Mongols and Turks. In the 19th century, it was colonized by Russia and Britain. In modern times, it became the victim of hegemony and power politics. The U.S.’s economic sanctions, military threats and diplomatic isolation after the Islamic revolution in particular caused anger and created fear in the national Iranian psyche.
The psychological outcomes of these traumatic experiences are the cognitive model of overestimating external threats or, to put it another way, extreme suspicion as well as sensitivity about the intentions of the external world. Academics would have it as victim mentality.
Gone as it is, history is also reflected in reality. Volker Perthes, Director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and also a leading international scholar on Iran issues, rightly argues that Iran’s foreign policy is actually framed out of both ambition and fear.
Iran’s intransigence in nuclear issues, if what the West argues is right, offers a typical example. As mentioned, the greatness of the ancient Persian Empire is still the historic factor inspiring Iran’s great power ambition and affecting the way it perceives itself and the world.
Iran might really hold that members of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) should have the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy and the capability to produce fuel. But it is more reasonable to believe Iran thinks that a nation like itself, with both an ancient civilization and regional importance, really deserves to have control of any advanced modern technologies, including nuclear.
Iran also proudly regards itself as a representative fighting for the legal rights of those without nuclear technology, instead of as an isolated member guilty of some illegitimate breaches. Just as Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, told foreign diplomats during their visits to its nuclear facilities in January 2011, what today the Islamic republic of Iran does in defending its nuclear rights is a defense of the rights of all NPT members.
Iran’s reluctance to cooperate can also be attributed to its suspicion of the outside world, the West in particular. Iran is strongly concerned about a stable supply of fuel from its nuclear power plants. It openly argues that without independent fuel productivity, any disruption of fuel supply as a result of political pressure could neutralize the peaceful use of its facilities for nuclear energy. Iran’s resistance on nuclear issues is actually commensurate with its suspicion of the external world, in particular the West.
Its policy toward Israel is another example on how its “great power” mentality has worked on its foreign policy. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad frequently delivers speeches indicating that the state of Israel should be wiped off the map. His over confidence and psychological superiority, which Arab countries, Israel’s other major regional opponents, do not display, actually originated from the ancient interactions between the Jewish and Persian peoples, or the benevolence that Persians had for Jews. It was the Persian Empire that set free the Jewish refugees captured and obliged to work for Babylonians more than 2,000 years ago.
Such history-based mentality can be found in almost every aspect of Iran’s foreign policy. Its challenging position regarding the international system is more out of its suspicion of the outside world than its rogue state nature; its efforts to seek regional leadership are manifestations of its ambition to reassert the influence that its ancestors had.
All in all, Iran’s perplexing diplomacy is of a historic genesis, as are its incompatible relations with the West. It is unfair to just simply label Iran as a rogue state, and it also makes no sense to just blame Iran for its non-cooperation. The right way to change Iran’s behavior finally depends on the change of its ways of self-perception, which will surely be an extremely long process.
It is up to Iran to change the way to perceive itself and the world more objectively through closer communications with other parts of the world. However, the international community, as part of Iran’s external environment, also has a responsibility to create favorable conditions for such a change.
Unfortunately, the powers dominating international systems have contrasting and wrongful approaches toward various Iran issues. The West would like to employ punitive measures to pressure Iran for as long as possible.The measures, including economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and military threats, have had little effect in changing Iran’s behavior. Instead, these cost-benefit rationalist punishments have created in Iranians’ minds even deeper suspicion against the West. As a result, the division between Iran and the world has been broadened rather than narrowed in past decades.
The conflicts between Iran and the West might lie in the competition for interest in specific areas, but more in that Iranians cannot accept the ways the West deals with itself. Being respected might be the common expectation of all nations, big or small, and Iran, as a nation with both a glorious and traumatic history, especially aspires for esteem.
The international community, especially the West, should have more respect and adopt less punitive measures to address Iran related issues. It should not be expected that benign measures can produce results immediately, but they would stop, or reverse, the down-spiraling of mutual trust between Iran and the West.
It is not reasonable to expect the West to show enough patience to resolve the Iran nuclear issue only after Iran has changed its self perception. But strengthened inspection from the IAEA can prevent Iran from diverting its nuclear capacity to military use.
Iran is a state with cultural, economic and political influence, and its relations with the West are crucial for global governance. Showing respect and building trust can never be more than enough.
Jin Liangxiang is research fellow with Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.