Iran and the end of Deference

Alastair Crooke

Article posted on Middle East Channel,, June 2010

The additional sanctions which the Security Council imposed on Iran earlier this month, and the additional sanctions which the United States Congress passed last Thursday, make no sense in terms of policy coherence. No one really believes sanctions will force a change in Iranian policy; nor will they improve the chances of renewing real negotiations. The dismissive brushing aside of the results of those who had been successful in engaging Iran, such as Turkey and Brazil, leaves little on which to build. On the contrary, it leaves a residue of bitterness and mistrust on all sides.

The single-minded furor to impose these sanctions does however say something. It speaks to us about something other than Iran. In many ways, the rush to sanctions (hurried forward to torpedo the Turkish and Brazilian initiative) speaks to us about rising American fears, about the fraying “international order,” about the evaporation of deference toward American leadership, and the concern about the rise of “the new powers.”

The last occasion on which the “winds of change,” the hollowing out of deference toward Western powers, was blowing so fiercely was also after war: the last World War. Britain surfaced from that conflict – not perhaps as a military casualty, but as an economic casualty. Its currency was overvalued, and it was burdened with huge debt. Life was about to change forever: British leaders grasped at least that the newly emergent states were seeking autonomy, and however poorly Britain managed it, they saw that change was irresistible.

The “winds of change” have returned. “New” powers are not now emerging to independence, but to a new confidence and self-esteem. They have their own opinions now. What the U.N. and congressional Iran sanctions votes tell us is just how difficult it is going to be for the United States to come to terms with this new multipolar world. The bringing forward of sanctions were intended to “stiff” two of these new powers — Brazil and Turkey. As one Washington insider put it, they had gotten under the wheels of the great powers: They needed to be kept “in their lane.”

Former U.S. Ambassador Chas Freeman has noted that the rising influence and independence of the nondeferential powers has inserted dysfunctionality into U.S. policymaking. It seems that coping with the “winds of change” is set to be even harder for the United States than it was for Britain. The leaders of the latter at least understood that earlier war entailed such change.

The United States, by contrast, emerged from the Cold War with the sense of both its military and economic strength apparently confirmed. There is therefore less popular sense of any need for it to change, or of any sense of “defeat within success.” The Iran sanctions vote(s) speaks of the American leadership’s collective need to reassert the leadership and domination of the United States and its close allies over the “international order.” The international community’s “interest” is what “we” say it is, sanctions proclaimed.

Paradoxically, it is because the present administration is a Democratic one that it is likely to feel even more strongly the need to reassert the “old” order. We should recall that it was precisely because the then British cabinet similarly felt so keenly its economic weaknesses that it embarked on the military folly of the Suez campaign in 1956. Suez was intended above all to demonstrate that Britain was “far from weak” despite the signs of weakness all around. Suez achieved the opposite. It set the seal on that weakness.

Having recently returned from Iran, I am acutely aware both of this sense of an international order that is dangerously dysfunctional and of the imminence of an irresistible change unfolding before us. Iran, Turkey, and Brazil are part of this change.

One aspect of this dysfunctionality is the persistent Western misreading of what is happening in Iran. Almost all events seem to be not only misread, but their meaning inverted. To travel from Iran to Europe at this time is akin to passing through Lewis Carroll’s “looking glass.” Everything that I had observed, and was told in Iran, is not at all what it appears, according to Europeans. At the European Hatter’s tea party of Guardian newspaper multiday supplements, lauding the achievements of the “Green Revolution,” everything that was clear in Iran turns out to mean quite the opposite in Europe and America.

“Well, the supreme leader has lost his legitimacy, and the crowds are jeering Imam Khomeini’s grandson at Friday prayers,” one senior European figure told me. Another asked, “What now remains of Iranian foreign policy, now that the U.S. has “achieved the upper hand’ through its success in imposing sanctions?”

In Iran, away from Alice’s tea party and in contrast to the wilful analysis of Europeans and Americans, there is a powerful sense of normality in its everyday life. Away from the “green”supplements in Europe eulogizing the opposition, it is clear to me that there has been a major popular adverse reaction against the opposition. It is clear that the supreme leader (Ayatollah Khamenei) was the focus of support at the huge Friday prayers gathering; and whereas some at Friday prayers were chanting “death to Mousavi” at Imam Khomeini’s grandson, it was clear that this was a part of that reaction against the opposition and a rejoinder to the grandson’s early words of support for the opposition, rather than a further example of dissent. But in Europe and America it is the opposite that is the “truth.”

“Iran,” it seems has become an “objectified” idea for many. It has become a “thing,” an idea-object that has become so solidified and its borders so rigidly delineated, that any contrarian input to this conceptualization of “Iran” must be discarded as evidentially wrong. This rigid conceptualization seems immune to rational argument: “We ‘know’ what we know.”

But the gap between the “Iran” of Iran and the “Iran” of Europe and America is widening almost to the point of these two contrasting “image-objects” being unbridgeable. If Western states cannot accurately “read” what is happening at Friday prayers, but believe the inversion; if such straightforward events are totally misread, what does this conceptualization say about the Western political psyche? It smacks of vulnerability and impotence. Is the “Iran” of the Western fantasy destined to repeat the pattern that “Suez Crisis” played to British and French weakening psyches?

The former Spanish Prime Minister, José María Aznar illustrated these lurking fears suggesting that failure to confront threats posed, inter alia, by Iran would “merely serve to illustrate how far we [the West] have sunk and how inexorable our decline now appears.”

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