A Three-Star Hotel: How big powers try to block Iran’s path towards development
By: Mahmoud Sariolghalam
The United States is the country of lobbies. Not only in foreign policy, but in almost every conceivable issue, decision-making could be influenced by lobbies. K Street in Washington D.C. is the host of institutes involved in the lobby industry. Saudi Arabia has announced that it spent $150m on lobbying in US governmental bodies and society only in 2016. Groups with better organization, more money, and a larger number of effective psychological means will gain the potential to influence policy-making.
Iran's is the land of opportunities, attractions, and capabilities. Why then, is the country almost always viewed in a negative way? The foreigner who visits Iran immediately realizes the gap between their perception of the country before the visit and the reality after their visit. But there is a psychological principle in international relations that explains the gap: at the global level, perception is much more important than reality. Where does the mentality against Iran take shape? In Moscow? In Shanghai or Beijing? Or in Riyadh? None. Perhaps 90 percent of the mentality against Iran is shaped in the United States and in its establishment.
Iranians expect others to treat them fairly, an expectation that is inconsistent with global realities which are based on interests. The United States legislative branch, which has passed several bills against Iran, is not the producer but the consumer of the mentality against Iran. There are two powerful lobbies in the US that help shape the anti-Iran mentality. The military lobbies at odds with Iran in the Middle East and the pro-Israel lobby, who considers Iran's behavior against Israel's interests and security. Their commonalities far outweighs their differences. Furthermore and in recent years, a third lobby, namely Saudi Arabia, has infiltrated in the US government. All the three sides follow a central strategy: to differentiate between Iran and the Islamic Republic of Iran. They hail Iran as an ancient country, with a glorious history, outstanding art and literature, and rich human resources. Thus, the country should be supported and kept in touch with. In their view, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a trouble for the interests of the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.
Accelerated since the mid-2000s, their strategy has been based on keeping the Islamic Republic under constant economic and political pressure. In 2003, during Mohammad Khatami's second presidential term, in the US and Israel were published a number of texts arguing that the [Reformist] administration in Iran is only an ‘operator’ in the Islamic Republic and its favorable interpretations in foreign relations have little to do with the political and economic realities in Iran. The texts, discussed, reviewed, and distributed by several research centers, promoted the belief that Iran's presidential elections are aimed to established the status quo and not designed to change or reform policies. On the other hand, Iran's unchanging foreign policy in the recent decades has paved the ground for equally unchanging strategies for the two influential anti-Iran lobbies in the United States. The strategy designed by the two lobbies seems to include: gradual but constant pressure, continued sanctions, restrained access to financial resources, prevention of knowledge transfer, keeping European and Japanese corporations and banks worried, blocked foreign investment, and the political isolation of Iran. To cut a long story short, to keep Iran on a level of survival and far from growth, development, and progress. Interestingly, the two lobby centers differ on an important issue: the political, security, and military sectors of the US do not see the balkanization of the Middle East in the superpower's geopolitical interests, believing it could ultimately end in the interest of Russia, terrorist groups, and China. Middle East’s balkanization reduces the US' influence in the region, increasing the costs to remain in the region. Thus, keeping Iran's territorial integrity is interpreted to be in the economic and geopolitical interest of the US. An absolute majority of the countries in the region, however, would spare no efforts against Iran's territorial integrity if they could.
The second and operational aspect of the strategy against Iran is based on an attrition policy. A comparison would be helpful in understanding the use of the principle. It has been 26 years since the Oslo talks for settling conflict between Israel and Palestine. Negotiations are still continuing mixed with hope or despair, but there has been no tangible result and the situation is vaguer than ever with the de facto coalition of Israel with Arab states of the Persian Gulf. If the US strategy against Iran is seen in such a perspective, political attrition is much more efficient than military measures. There is an observable similar pattern between Iran's nuclear saga and the Palestinian issue: drawn-out talks, asymmetrical players with one side in a hurry to reach an agreement and the other insisting on protraction.
Ancient Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu, noted two essential factors in his memorable book The Art of Warfare. One is to use the enemy's mistake to defeat him and the second is political attrition that may include: confusing the enemy, delaying attacks, teasing the enemy, bringing up new issues, and acting sensibly and legally at the same time. Remember that Iran has been involved in nuclear talks for more than a decade, with the issue still unresolved, postponing the country's progress. At the same time, Saudi Arabia and Israel are pursuing gigantic technological, financial, construction, and military projects. In the $470b arms deal between Saudis and the US, Israel will play a key role in IT sectors. The UAE will also launch several nuclear plants with US technology and South Korea as the contractor.
The differences between Iran and the US encompass a lot more than the nuclear issue and the JCPOA. With or without the deal, they will remain. Our expectations to be treated fairly will also not be realized. Historically, Iranians have wanted fair ties with the three world powers in the past 170 years, most of the times in vain. Today, Iranian diplomatic apparatus' speech therapy does not exert much influence on the calculations and choices of the opposite side. Unfortunately, the global community is not based on a Socratic approach to logic and reasoning. The system and its players act based on power and interests and the job of lobbies is to beautify the logic, reasoning, and media representations of these interests. Every side engages itself in a cold war against opponents over its own interests. At the moment, there is a regional and international coalition seeking to contain Iran’s status at the level of a three-star hotel. With their powerful lobbies in Pentagon, Congress, and the White House, they want to constrain Iran in financial-economic and political-security terms.
To tackle this strategic hindrance, Iran needs to address these questions: How can Iran define itself outside political pressures by world powers? How could Iran continue its growth and development, securing a better future for its citizens?
If Iran failed to act outside the orbit of superpowers due to domestic weaknesses and geopolitical reasons under the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties, it has the potential today to live a sensible life among middle world powers due to the variety of resources for technology, capital, knowledge, and management. To do so, it needs to establish a relation between its goals and capabilities. For forward-looking decision-making, Tehran needs a fresh understanding of the international system. Iran is miserably poor in its perception of economic, financial, technological, and political workings of the world. Security of any given country is rooted in its creation of wealth. If Iran fails to create wealth, the strategy that keeps Iran weak will continue to work. But wealth creation requires a new understanding of the world's political and economic system, which is now becoming politically multipolar. Economically, it has been moving toward multi-polarity in recent decades. Considering Iran's sensitivities, the plural and diverse international system in today's world provides an almost unique opportunity for Iran's progress. The bipolar system existing in the Middle East is detrimental to Iran's economic interests. It aims to keep Iran away from state-of-the-art technology, knowledge, capital, and international management and keep the country alive, but poor. If Tehran can shift its global mentality toward economy, science, and technology, it will be able to create wealth and live in security.
* This piece was originally published on Mahmoud Sariolghalam's personal website. Sariolghalam is former advisor to President Hassan Rouhani and professor of international relations at Shahid Beheshti University.