A Question of Iranian Leadership

Given all the recent rhetoric about Iran, is it all about nuclear weapons?

Western leaders, particularly in the U.S., have it all wrong.  Last week, representatives from the United States, Russia, France and the United Nations met with Iranian officials at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna to discuss Iran’s nuclear options.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions have become an increasingly hot issue in international politics, particularly since the rise of President Ahmadinejad. Amidst threats to Israel, the United States continues to assert itself as the most prominent opponent of Iran’s nuclear program.

The Europeans, although more tempered, are also misguided.  While the Americans and Israelis publicly maintain the possibility of a military strike against Iran, the EU continues its diplomatic approach, in such efforts as the EU-3, in which Germany, France and the UK have attempted to steer the conflict towards a diplomatic solution.

And while the recent meeting in Vienna and the resulting plan – involving Iran sending its uranium abroad for enrichment – is indeed an important stepping-stone in these important negotiations, it too is wide of the mark.

Where the West is failing is in its conception of the Islamic Republic.  The nuclear issue is vital, no doubt, but the West has failed – and continues to fail – with Iran largely due to an inadequate and superficial understanding of the Iran’s culture and governance.

Iran is not an irrational, rogue state likely to attack Israel at every turn, to borrow Robert Baer’s thesis.  Ahmadinejad’s threats are nothing new – they are no great departure from the rhetoric of Khomeini in the 1980’s or Khamenei and Rafsanjani in the 1990’s.  What Western viewers continue to misunderstand is the duality that exists in Iran – that of a pragmatic polity striving for regional dominance while attempting to maintain its revolutionary credentials through rhetorical means.

Iran is already asserting itself in the region, and the West would do well to acknowledge it and work for better ties.  The Iranians have become a powerhouse, and their cultural and political powers far outweigh any nuclear ambitions.  Iranian society is more pluralist than those of U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and in this new era, many in the region are looking to Tehran for leadership.  Iran has great influence in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, and whether the Americans like it or not, Iran will play a major role in any future conception of Iraq.  Focusing solely on the nuclear issue ignores the massive shifts that are occurring in the Middle East vis-à-vis Iran.

Nuclear power for Iran, as for France, is about prestige – it has been a political currency since the 1950’s. The current situation leaves Iran wondering, “Israel has nukes, Pakistan has nukes, why can’t we?”  Iran has become a regional superpower in every sense, and it wants to be treated as such.

It would do well for the West to acknowledge this and take a more holistic view of Iran and act accordingly. They might find Tehran a little more responsive than their rhetoric lets on.

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