This cogent analysis of the ongoing crisis regarding Iran was published first by CIPS, Center for International and Political Studies, University of Pretoria, South Africa.
As if the impasse in negotiating an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions has not been enough to test the patience of the international community. In what had the potential to be an explosive situation, Iran finally released the fifteen British Royal Navy personnel who it detained some three weeks ago. Iran’s version of the events is that the sailors and marines strayed 0.5 kilometres inside Iranian waters, which can be verified by a set of GPS coordinates, specifying the crew’s exact location when they were “trespassing.” The British version of the events is that the crew was inside Iraqi waters, and that they possess their own GPS evidence to back up their denials. Trivial details such as these appear to be inconsequential now, except perhaps for the Iranian ministry of culture and propaganda who will soon be releasing a film to prove that Iran treated the sailors well and they freely confessed to entering Iranian waters. The crisis at times appeared to play out like a high school model U.N. game, as the sailors read their humorously scripted statements while in detention, and with President Ahmadinejad’s “Easter gift” of returning the sailors so graciously.
There are allegations that Iran fuelled the crisis for political purposes. Was it to take out its frustrations over Zach Snyder’s blockbuster hit 300, which many Iranians claimed cast the Persians in an all-too barbaric light? Probably not, but the current status of Iran can highlight two very important issues. Firstly, Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s antics are not very popular either domestically or internationally, and are merely isolating Iran. Secondly, Iran has experience with isolation, and given its historical tendencies, should not be underestimated. The importance of how Shia Islam is woven into this situation is extremely important to understanding how Iran can deal with adversity, and make negotiations that much more difficult.
Chants of “death to England” by angry mobs outside the British Embassy in Tehran two weeks ago seemed, at first glance, a wee bit overdramatic for such an event. Video news footage showed dump trucks moving slowly through the streets, weighted down with jagged concrete slabs, as protestors reached their meat hooks in to hurl them at the embassy. The police stood by and watched, as the protest was no doubt officially sanctioned by the government. Such anti-Western attitudes, however, is by no means novel to Iran. In an encounter with an Iranian soldier in 1983 during the Iran-Iraq war, British journalist Robert Fisk noted that the soldier greeted him thusly: “Death to England. How are you? Do you want tea?” The British were, after all, actively engaged in the 1953 over-throw of the democratically elected Iranian President Mossadeq, which paved the way for two decades of increasingly repressive rule by the Shah. In addition, the British provided tremendous support for the Shah regime and for Saddam Hussein in his devastating war against Iran in the 1980’s.
That anti-western attitudes are common in Iran should not imply that the overwhelming majority of Iranians; hard-line allies included; support President Ahmadinejad’s belligerence. Criticism of his policies has been coming from the left, from reformists such as former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, from conservatives, and even from hard-line allies. Last year the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni, did not visit with Ahmadinejad for nearly three months, and it is generally accepted that the Ayatollah ordered the release of the sailors, to assuage Ahmadinejad’s pugnacious behaviour. His election promises of creating jobs, curbing inflation and alleviating poverty have gone unfulfilled. More than forty percent of Iranians live below the poverty line, and Iran ranks in the bottom ten countries for inflation, and the bottom fifty for unemployment. Like his Venezuelan mate Hugo Chavez, he has concentrated more on belittling and antagonising other states, to distract Iranians from reality, and his inability to effectively deal with that reality.
Given Iran’s confrontational behaviour and refusal to abide by Security Council resolutions over its nuclear ambitions, both financial sanctions and an arms embargo have been slapped on Iran. This, however, has in no way discouraged its ambitions to become nuclear. Ahmadinejad recently announced, on the joyous occasion of “nuclear technology day,” that Iran can produce nuclear fuel “on an industrial scale.” There is uncertainty as to whether this is factual, as the Russian foreign ministry has asserted incredulously that there is no evidence that Iran has accomplished what it claims it has. Nevertheless, these developments, coupled with the sailor stunt, are Iran flexing its muscles; exhibiting its self-proclaimed might to the international community and more importantly, its complete disregard for it.
Iran maintains its nuclear programme is purely peaceful. The West fears it wants to build atomic bombs. Such apprehension is well founded, not only for the West but for Iran’s neighbours. Ahmadinejad has made no secret of his desire to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. A state that preaches the destruction of another, while seeking to develop nuclear technology is making its aims quite clear. Such a state that disregards its neighbours and the international community does not deserve to benefit from it in any way. Unfortunately, sanctions, embargos, and isolation will not deter Iran from pursuing its aims.
Despite Security Council resolutions currently banning trade in nuclear and missile technology, Iran goes ahead with its uranium enrichment anyway. Equally in defiance of a U.N. arms embargo, Iran flies arms exports under the radar to groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iraqi Shia militants such as the Shia Mehdi Army; all of which makes the West, and Iran’s Arab neighbours, quite nervous. This anxiety, just as it did in Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s, stems from the idea that if Iraq and Lebanon were to fall to its Shia population, there could be a Shia state from the Mediterranean to the borders of Afghanistan, dominating the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. This is a possibility that the West did not want to consider in the 1980’s, and equally in 2007 with the possibility of a nuclear Iran.
Understanding how Shia Islam is related to geo-political conflict in the Middle East is crucial. For example, almost all the oil in the Middle East lies beneath lands where Shia Muslims live: in southern Iraq, in the north-east of Saudi Arabia and, of course, in Iran. A “Shia crescent” stretching into Iraq, led by a nuclear Iran, could hold OPEC hostage, and take control of world oil production. This could also encourage Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to actively seek a nuclear deterrent against such a possibility, which would spell disaster for the Middle East.
More important than mere geographical location are the roots of Shi’ism and how they are inextricably tied to Iranian nationalism. Islam expert Edward Mortimer noted that “the starting point of Shi’ism is defeat: the defeat of Ali and his house…Its primary appeal is therefore to the defeated and oppressed. That is why it has so often been the rallying cry for the underdogs in the Muslim world.” Such dogma extends back to the death of the prophet Muhammad. At the time, a dispute arose as to who would succeed him as caliph, or the spiritual and political leader. The majority favoured the election of his successor through a consensus by the elders of the community. Sunna in Arabic means “tradition,” and those who held that view became known as the Sunnis. A minority faction, however, disputed that his successors should be chosen from his own kinship line of descendants. They insisted that Ali; his first cousin and son-in-law; be appointed as caliph. Those who adopted this view became known in Arabic as the Shia, or “partisans” of Ali.
Since the beginning, Shi’ism has withstood adversity and isolation as a minority faction of Islam, and in many ways, Sunni power came to be founded on Shia poverty. Shiites have been one of many groups, such as the Kurds, who have over the years received the short end of the stick in Western support. As a result, the Shia format in Iran has become strongly identified with Iranian nationalism, as it possesses the largest Shia population in the world. For this reason, Iran supports “underdog” militant Shia groups across the Middle East, and fought an eight year war against Saddam who was notorious for his repression of the Shia population, expelling 35,000 of Iranian origin in the 1980s.
There is apprehension about putting too much pressure on Iran; pushing it into a corner from which it must scrap and claw to get out. Iran is an old hand at confrontation and withstanding adversity, as the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis, international isolation, and an intense eight year war with Iraq should demonstrate. More importantly, the history of Shi’ism plays all too well into this, as it has provided a persistence and faith to Iranian soldiers that cannot be matched by any Western army. This stems primarily from its fascination and experience with martyrdom, which creates a veritable threat for any enemy.
An Arab politician once compared Iranian persistence in adversity to the country’s craft of carpet-weaving. “Imagine that one carpet, worked on by scores of people, takes about ten years to complete. A people who spend years in manufacturing just a single carpet will wait many more years to achieve victory in war. Do not take lightly the patience and perseverance of the Iranians.”
There is the possibility that further international isolation, and growing domestic opposition to Ahmadinejad’s approach; especially from the hard-liners; could tame his behaviour, and thus encourage the diplomatic avenue. Until this occurs, Iran’s intransigence has American hawks circling, contemplating military action. How much support would such action receive? Could the U.S. afford a catastrophic war with Iran, given its current quagmire in Iraq? Not likely; but it cannot afford to back down either. What I’m afraid will come of this situation is a stand-off. The question is: who will blink first?
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS) or the University of Pretoria
Alex M Wright is a Research Associate with the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS)
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