“Iran won’t retreat one iota from its nuclear program” was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s declaration on Iranian national television on the 9th of November 2011. The Iranian President is used to defiant flourishes as evidenced by his repeated promises to ‘finish off’ Israel. To his credit, however, his resolve not to sink in the face of gradually increasing pressure from the West has been steadfast. His country is weathering a deadly sanctions regime that has all but crippled the Iranian economy. Last week, the two sides met in Almaty, Kazakhstan in a desperate attempt to salvage the worsening situation. And as a beaming Mr Ali Baqeri (Iran’s deputy chief negotiator) left the fruitless round of negotiations with the P5+1 (the five permanent Security Council members and Germany), sanction-fanatics in the West were uncomfortably loosening their ties and scratching their moist foreheads. They ought to.
The regime under Ayatollah Khomeini is dispelling a myth that has emerged in mainstream diplomatic spheres over the last decades- that if you use the stick of sanctions hard and often enough, you will eventually obtain what you want from the other side. G. C Hufbauer, J. Scott and K.A. Elliott examined the history of sanctions between 1914 and 1990 and found them to be effective in only one-third of cases. Robert Pape, a Stanford political scientist argues that this figure ought to be brought down to an eighth. I suspect a rotund silhouette somewhere in the north of the Korean peninsula would silently nod in agreement.
In the case of Iran, one need not delve too much into scholarly readings about coercive diplomacy to understand why the model failed. A set of strenuous economic sanctions has caused the Rial to free-fall against the US dollar over the past two years, hurting ordinary Iranians as they pay more for everyday imports. Several humanitarian agencies have been ringing the alarm bells over the dearth of medical supplies coming into Iran, a situation that is threatening many lives. As the country’s relative wealth shrinks, Iranians are more than ever fuming at the West. The regime has cleverly suited the situation to its ends, adopting the Indomitable Gauls narrative with evident success. Iran is showing no signs of ceding ground and the return of diplomats at Almaty is a sign that the rest of the world is waking up to that reality.
There is another, slightly more complex argument to be made for the P5+1 group to redefine its relationship with Tehran, and it involves Damascus. Sunni-Shia tensions in this part of the world have not often been this fragile, as we have seen from the recent bombings in Pakistan. Last Thursay, Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister went so far as warning that an opposition victory for the Sunni majority in Syria would spill-over causing sectarian violence in both his country and Lebanon. He has a point. Iran has consistently backed Bashar Al-Assad’s Alawite (a group akin to Shia Islam) regime and has been accused of arming Hezbollah in the conflict. It is not difficult to see why : The volume of trade between the two countries is just over US $16 billion. In the last 3 years Iran and Syria have agreed a gas pipeline deal worth US $10 billion, a US $5 billion-deal for a Centre for Strategic Research to be opened in Iran and another one for a jointly-owned bank to be opened in Damascus. If, or rather when, Bashar Al-Assad falls, Iran’s influence in the country might fall with him- a disaster for an already limping economy.
Hence, a paper published by Loren White of the Atlantic Council, a think tank, argues that genuine diplomacy might be the most efficient way of approaching the Iran nuclear quandary. Mr Ahmadinejad has hinted at being open to the idea of Syria becoming a mediator in the negotiations over its nuclear disarmament while there is little doubt that he would be anxious to ensure Alawite representation in a transitional Syrian government. These two presents for Persia could just aid the rapprochement effort with Tehran.
Henry Kissinger recently stated at Davos that a war with Iran could happen in “the very foreseeable future.” The deadline for a resolution is set for the day Iran’s uranium enrichment reaches 20% which, according to the International Atomic and Energy Agency would enable it to use its nuclear power for non-civilian purposes. At the current trend, it should be able to reach those levels before the end of 2013. Hasan Danaie-Far, an Iranian ambassador, did little to help temper minds when he declared on the 24th of January that “the only card remaining on the table is war.” Do not be conned, however, as for all the bicep-flexing both sides know that war is a last resort. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps is severely wounded by asset-freezes while neither Europe nor America would rub their hands at the idea of another prolonged intervention in these troubled times. How Israel will respond as we approach the 20% D-day is unknown, though one may guess.
In 53 BCE, Crassus, a Roman famed for his wealth led a 40,000-strong army of centurions into the large empty plains of Carrhae (modern Harran) in Persia certain he would only meet negligible resistance. The Romans confronted 10,000 Parthian horsemen archers. After a few days’ fight, all that remained of the Romans were some 500 captured survivors, while the head of the legendary Crassus was sent to the Parthian King Orodes for some courtly fun and games.
This is a part of the world that has seldom buckled under outside pressure. Though Western diplomats are at pains to make their return to the negotiating table sound as a favour, what transpires is that they are doing it out of necessity and a faint sense of panic. Meanwhile, the Ayatollah’s regime stoically refuses to budge. One would venture making the argument that the country the historian Michael Axworthy calls ‘the Empire of the Mind’ presently just about holds the edge in a fascinating battle of wits. The question is for how long ?