Crude oil export, which generates 80 percent of Iran’s foreign revenue, has fallen to a twenty year low due to U.S. and U.N. sanctions. Other embargoes have stalled the country’s technological advancement in non-nuclear sectors – its aviation industry regularly experiences life-claiming accidents, small electronics are notoriously unreliable, and food production can’t keep up with a burgeoning population. As industry has slumped, unemployment has risen to over 25 percent. Approximately 60 percent of the population receives monthly cash handouts from the state, but even those fail to cover the 25 to 150 percent jump in prices of sustenance, clothing, housing, utilities, and transportation. So Iran does need a deal, specifically one that removes international sanctions.
Economic and other societal pressures generated by those sanctions have provoked infighting for resources among Iran’s theocratic, executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Yet, intra-regime tensions notwithstanding, Iran’s nuclear activities haven’t slowed down because that nation’s leaders see little benefit to their system of government from acceding to the ultimatums of the U.S. and of American partners.
Iran’s politicians and diplomats routinely claim their nation is being targeted unfairly and punitively for not bending to American and Israeli wills – words that play well both at home and across the Third World. Simultaneously, those same leaders have become masters at dragging out negotiations while their scientists enhance the nuclear program and augment its military capability. The fates of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya loom large for Iran’s hardliners, reminders that negotiating away the nuclear issue won’t ensure their own political endurance. “Special weapons,” as some ayatollahs call nuclear bombs, are viewed as a safeguard and even a right. They also are acutely aware of Iran’s great past, knowing they can write themselves favorably into that nationalistic history by joining the ranks of nuclear powered countries.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Moreover, despite the sufferings of their citizens, Tehran’s officials still believe that “sanctions aren’t a zero-sum game” and they can endure those restrictions until the West needs their country’s crude oil and natural gas just as the People’s Republic of China and India do now. In the long-run sanctions are inadvertently helping them conserve energy resources – the fourth largest proven oil reserves and second largest proven gas reserves – that the world may require once other sources have been depleted.
The bottom line is that the Islamic Republic regards the nuclear issue as far more complex than it is seen by the West, which doesn’t wish a regime so overtly adversarial to have atom bombs. Even in diplomatic terms, Iranian leaders view negotiations over their nuclear program as just one aspect of multifaceted tensions with the U.S. and E.U., seeking to resolve those as a whole and not in a piece meal manner. Unable to obtain a “comprehensive package” at the Baghdad meeting, as happened on previous occasions, Iranian negotiators yielded little to the West and U.N.
So the atomic stalemate and geopolitical status quo continue because, as Chairman of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee Alaeddin Boroujerdi noted, “Iran acts in such a way that its rights are realized and its interests are served.” In the absence of a broader settlement, Iran’s leadership, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, persists in testing other nations’ willingness to force it to scale back the nuclear program – strategically calculating that its resolve and resources will prevail over sanctions and even war by “standing against them like a lion.”
Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian, Islamic, and International studies and a senior fellow of the Center on American and Global Security at Indiana University where he served as director of the Middle Eastern studies program. He also is a member of the US National Council on the Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities. This analysis reflects his own evaluation.