Sanctioning Iran: a bad game

Achieving the internal agreement was no less significant or difficult than negotiations with the Western powers

Rasul Bakhsh Rais November 07, 2018
The writer is a professor of political science at LUMS, Lahore. His recent book is Imagining Pakistan: Modernism, State and the Politics of Islamic Revival (Lexington Books, 2017)

As of today, the United States has imposed comprehensive sanctions against Iran, after pulling out of the Iran Nuclear deal. It took years to assiduously craft the nuclear agreement by the then US administration of president Barak Obama. The major countries of the European Union, including Britain and Russia had a role to play in getting the two sides — Washington and Tehran — to reach the historic deal. If the objective was to prevent Iran from going nuclear, it was achieved to the satisfaction of all the parties, including the nuclear watchdog, International Atomic Energy Agency.

Iran came a long way, after many bouts of struggle within its ruling groups, to accept the nuclear agreement. It was a great compromise within the Iranian power structure. The clerical establishment in Iran, that has the real power, and its allies within the state structure and outside, wanted Iran to retain its capacity to exercise its nuclear option, if need be. For that reason, they invested heavily in scientific research, nuclear technology, fissile material enrichment and capacity. They had in a way set a path for nuclear Iran in the Middle East that would, if ever the ambition is realised, change the entire security dynamics and the power equation in the region. It was not that easy to change that course.

What changed the Iranian decision were changes within Iran — the rise of neo-reformist moderate leadership though within the political umbrella of clerical power. Never have the two functioned as two political opposites or in conflict; rather with remarkable unity and consensus. The change was that neo-reformist argument and agenda gained popular support and wider acceptance that was reflected in the election of President Hassan Rouhani. He picked up from where president Seyyed Mohammad Khatami had left. His election was reconfirmation of neo-reformism as a popular drive but that needed to be negotiated with and blessed by the other stakeholders in the system. Achieving the internal agreement was no less significant or difficult than negotiations with the Western powers.

In my opinion, Iran made a big concession in giving up its nuclear option. A close reading of the nuclear agreement suggests that Iran accepted strict limits on its nuclear programme in return for lifting of decade-long sanctions on its economy. Actually, what might have forced Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions were the crippling effects on its economy. Iran pursued a pragmatic path by retaining its research and development capacity in the nuclear field while accepting limitations. The idea was to get the economy back on track and re-integrate with the world economy. It is a simple logic of history and politics that when people get hurt economically, no matter what the character of a regime in power is, it loses legitimacy.

Beyond limiting Iran’s nuclear capacity, the Americans have another project in mind — the regime change. The rise of the new right in American politics, and its power manifested in the election of President Donald Trump, Washington’s outlook towards the Middle East has changed. It was above and over the objections of allies in the region that the Obama administration signed the deal with Iran. Unsurprisingly, Israel and some Arab states are overjoyed by the American decision to slam sanctions on Iran.

The region is highly polarised. We are witnessing multiple conflicts raging along ethnic, sectarian and ideological lines. The power politics, struggle for domination and military alliances have contributed to them. The American policies have just added a new dimension to the polarisation, put weight behind anti-Iran powers. That is what the purpose of American withdrawal from the agreement and imposition of sanctions against Iran is. This will not serve the ends of peace, stability or order in the region.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2018.

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