Ardent Persian nationalism is shared by all segments of the Iranian populace (even the “reformists” or “left”), based in no small part on widespread societal sentiment that Iran has been the frequent, repeated victim of interventions by external powers such as Russia, Britain, and the United States. Such interventions have taken the form of 19th and 20th century British imperial strengthening of neighboring Arab tribes at the expense of what Iran perceives as its centuries-long claims to territory – especially the islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs in the Gulf. There have also been CIA interventions, most notably the 1953 coup that deposed the popular, democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh, itself based on earlier British refusals to give up its stranglehold on Iranian crude, in which popular Iranian sentiment was clearly for nationalization of its own natural assets. And, of course, we can’t forget the case of Russia, which throughout the centuries has knocked on Persia’s door and in the 20th century carried out actual territorial occupation of the entire northeast of Iran, including during World War II.
Why is this societal nationalism important? Because one can and should go further than the ideologized Islamic Republic’s regime and leadership when talking about likely long-term Iranian positions on its nuclear program. The Shah of Iran started the program long before 1979 and was thought by most analysts to be building a latent capability. Even without the intemperate and mercurial Shah in power, given “Persian pride” and widespread societal feelings of chronic weakness at the hands of external powers going back hundreds of years, it’s very unlikely that “regime change” will mean “no enrichment capability on Iranian soil.” Regime change isn’t likely to be a silver bullet solution. Arab-Persian, Israeli-Muslim, and other geopolitical tensions at the local level will continue regardless.
U.S. policy should therefore craft its current strategy with the long-term Iranian political landscape in mind. The current all-or-nothing oil sanctions promise only an ephemeral, short-term boost to U.S. strategic interests and global security in the Persian Gulf.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Another point is that even if these sanctions are effective and enforceable (a rather big “if” given the realities of complex global interdependence), they could make Iran implode. If the regime falls under these harsh circumstances, the Iranian populace will be financially bankrupt and insecure, which could lead to domestic alternatives that are themselves extreme and unstable. Moreover, the regime would fall with maximum hostility toward any domestic actors seen as “consorting with the enemy.” Regime deterioration resulting from Western pressure via oil sanctions would almost certainly be bloody because its supporters would see its demise as being the direct result of external hostile intervention.
That’s why the West should choose instead a contain, engage, and deter strategy, similar to that used toward the Soviets in the Cold War, that lets the regime experience its own domestic evolutions over time. Domestic changes are likely in the medium-term of 5 to 10 years given how the regime’s ideological script is now falling on increasingly deaf and hostile domestic ears. As the détente of Willy Brandt’s West Germany with East Germany showed, starting in the 1960s and continuing to the end of the Cold War, there’s much wisdom in a combined engagement, containment, and deterrence relationship, whereby any domestic change within the national polity of the adversary is incremental, indigenous and peaceful.
In today’s terms, this would possibly mean using what diplomats call “the good offices” of potential mediators among G-20 rising powers such as Turkey, India, or even once-nuclear Brazil and South Africa. Unfortunately, in terms of its effect on the Iranian populace, the new Western oil-sale sanctions approach is the direct opposite of offering a soft landing.
Additionally, there are global concerns such as energy security, and in this regard, current U.S. posture does nothing to improve the country’s or the world’s overall stability and prosperity. As any energy analyst will say, the international oil landscape is ultimately a “spot” oil market, not a “mercantilist” market harkening back to the colonial great power eras prior to 1945. The global economy is far different from what it was before World War II, with value-added supply and production networks strewn across great and middle and minor powers alike. Moreover, fueling all of it is oil, the price of which is still determined on a global supply-and-demand basis despite efforts of single countries to make special bilateral deals. This explains Asian allies’ distaste for U.S. and European actions: Asia is the main manufacturing region for the entire world, with escalating needs for crude, while the traditional West has moved towards banking, advertising, and other “downstream” services that require low amounts of oil consumption relative to production of value-added content.