NewsSpecial WireFood for thought: why is Iran so intransigent?

Food for thought: why is Iran so intransigent?


Iran Focus – Opinion: Is it ideological? Is it driven by factional infighting? Or may be it’s just suicidal? Whatever its cause, the Iranian leadership’s repeated rejection of Western governments’ offers of compromise has confounded veteran pundits and Iran watchers around the world. No one seems to be sure what the clerical rulers of Iran are up to.
Iran Focus


London, Oct. 30 – Is it ideological? Is it driven by factional infighting? Or may be it’s just suicidal? Whatever its cause, the Iranian leadership’s repeated rejection of Western governments’ offers of compromise has confounded veteran pundits and Iran watchers around the world. No one seems to be sure what the clerical rulers of Iran are up to.

It’s now 14 months since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn into office, and one word is enough to characterize Iran’s foreign policy under the radical Islamist: intransigence. With the full blessing of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Ahmadinejad has been charging ahead at full throttle, raising the nuclear stakes through expansion of the existing programs, stepping up Iran’s meddling in Iraq, and radicalizing Muslim opinion through virulent anti-Israeli rhetoric and by using Tehran’s regional proxies to stoke up trouble in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

In the meantime, Tehran has shown an indomitable desire for inconclusive talks on its nuclear program, while systematically rejecting any compromise.

What lies behind this veneer of invulnerability that gives the Iranian leaders the self-confidence to thumb their nose at the West and defy UN Security Council resolutions with impunity? Whence their intransigence?

To some extent, the answer lies in the division and indecision that have characterized the international community’s response to Iran’s challenges. The Iranian leaders know that they have been successfully gaming the international diplomatic process, stalling while their nuclear program moves inexorably forward.

Iran’s rulers are reassured by the staunch support that they have received so far from Russia and China. They are acutely aware that the United States’ deep entanglement in Iraq has severely limited the military options against Tehran. They also take comfort in a host of political, economic and geopolitical factors that dissuade the West from an escalation of tensions with Iran.

All this tells us why Tehran is not rattled by Western threats of economic sanctions or even military strikes. But why did Iran reject the considerable array of incentives and concessions that Western governments offered it in June, while two years ago (in October 2003) it settled for much less to sign an agreement with the EU-3 and suspend its nuclear program?

The question is important, as it can be answered from two polar viewpoints with significant conclusions emerging from each one. One argues that Khamenei and his allies engineered the rise of Ahmadinejad from a position of strength, consolidating the hard-liners’ grip on power, forging ahead with their radical policies and rejecting Western concessions because they feel the regime is so secure that there is no need for compromise.

The other viewpoint contends that the clerical regime is facing mounting crises at home and abroad and that the mullahs feel vulnerable as they see American forces stationed all around Iran. The hard-liners are in fact “circling the wagons” and digging in to resist the strong waves of change coming from inside and outside the country. Tehran’s intransigence is a reflection of the weakness and fragility of clerical rule, not its strength.

In response to voices within the regime who called for a compromise with the West in return for lucrative concessions earlier this year, Khamenei declared, rather revealingly, “Any backtracking at this juncture would lead us to a an unending cycle of further pressures and further retreat. The path (we have chosen) is a path of no-return.”

Ahmadinejad used a similar reasoning in a recent speech to argue that “taking one step backwards would spell our annihilation”.

Behind this reasoning lies the Iranian leaders’ realization that they lack the stability and strength to compromise with the West. If the clerical regime was stable enough to allow such a compromise, the years following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq represented a golden opportunity for the mullahs. They could have struck a grand bargain with the West, including the Americans, and guaranteed the long-term stability and prosperity of the Islamic Republic. Even short of a comprehensive deal, the slightest flexibility by Tehran would have enabled it to woo the Europeans to its side.

From a broader perspective, the history of the past century suggests that revolutionary states enter the era of détente and stable relations with the outside world once they have achieved stability and consolidated power at home. Without stability and strength on the domestic scene, revolutionary states continue to export crisis and tensions beyond their borders. A clear example: Communist China’s decision in 1972 to welcome U.S. President Richard Nixon and enter a new era with the West.

Iran’s rulers are not blind to the huge potential gains of a grand bargain with the West. But they are too acutely aware that their theocracy lacks the conditions to withstand the consequences of such a move. Hence the repeated warnings by senior Iranian leaders that any “retreat” would lead to the disintegration of the Islamic Republic.

It is a tribute to the political skills of Iran’s leaders that they have been able to mask this inherent weakness and, instead, projected an image of strength through defiance. True, they have been helped in this by America’s woes in Iraq, the escalating Arab-Israeli conflict and the general rise of Islamic radicalism in the Muslim world.

Western governments’ serious error has been to interpret Iran’s moves as a sign of strength and adopt a defensive posture, sending a catastrophically wrong signal to Tehran. By offering concessions after concessions, the West has played into the mullahs’ hands, emboldening the clerics to continue on a path of impunity. The time has come for the West to call the mullahs’ bluff by adopting a firm and decisive position, by firmly drawing the red lines and by letting Tehran know the limits to their patience. This is the only way to avert a nuclear-capable Islamic theocracy imposing its hegemony on the most sensitive region of the world.

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