COMMENT For Iran, respect above all else
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
With the issue, or rather gesture, of respect slowly emerging as a potent
variable in the current Iran nuclear negotiations, the crisis may need to be
tackled on the emotional, psychological and cognitive levels first before the
riddle of its seemingly blind knot can be fully unwrapped.
This much is clear in all the emphasis that Iranian leaders, including
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, have
placed on the importance of respect displayed by the representatives of the
"Iran Six", in marked contrast to their past behavior.
Thus, while Mottaki has praised the "respectful behavior" of the European
Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, in his recent Tehran visit,
Ahmadinejad has praised the respect shown by the
United States' point man at the recent talks in Geneva, Under Secretary of
State William Burns. Burns limited himself to a few sentences at the meeting,
reiterating the US's demand that Iran stop its uranium-enrichment program.
This raises the issue of the real significance of this variable in the context
of the ongoing nuclear talks marked with "dual-track diplomacy" that,
simultaneously, pushes the stick of sanctions and other punitive measures
The answer is rooted in history and the modern Iranian collective identity,
bruised by multiple inflictions of foreign intervention and violations of
Iran's sovereign rights, going back to 19th-century European imperial
manipulations of the Iranian political landscape, then referred to obliquely as
the "Persian question". It stretched into the next century, with the US
replacing the old hegemons, the British, after World War II, and part
engineering the 1953 coup that overthrew the democratic government of Mohammad
Mossadegh and replacing it with a one-man dictatorship for a quarter of
century. The volcanic eruption of the Islamic revolution in 1979 then burst
apart the chains of the ancient regime and set up a new Islamic polity that
mixes the elements of republicanism and theocracy and, 30 years later, still
has fresh laboratory-like qualities about.
Still, the US in particular has not fully come to grips with Iran's new
political realities and still hopes for a political reversal that would
resurrect a puppet, that is, a client regime in Tehran instead of the present
anti-hegemonic order that has wreaked havoc on the US's, and its allies',
designs for the region, including their grand "remaking of the Middle East".
Thus the roots of the US's disrespect toward Iran that continues to bedevil
Washington's policy, often reflected in US lawmakers' pejorative use of the
term "mullahs" for Iran's ruling clergy. The negative effect of such
downgrading and disrespectful semantics plays an important role in the
poisonous environment between the US and Iran. (Iran's use of the "Great Satan"
in reference to the US is also pejorative, although it keeps a level of awe
In light of the recent incentive package presented to Iran that pledges respect
for Iran's sovereignty, the US must now suppress its imperial desire and settle
with a compromise not entirely in tune with its post September 11, 2001, Middle
East interventionism. That is, reckoning with the reality of the Islamic
republic and doing the best it can to steer the post-revolutionary system in
the direction of compliance with the global order.
There is a structural limit to the latter, given the revisionist elan of the
Islamic revolution with regard to the Western-dominated global hierarchy. That
means the ideal of perfect harmony between the US and Iran is just that, the
clashing interests of the Western superpower and the assertive regional power
are not reconcilable, no matter what their shared interests.
On paper, the incentive package promises Iran the opportunity to play a
"constructive role" in international affairs. This, again, is a core "respect
issue" that must translate into tangible steps, such as inviting Iran to Middle
East peace conferences, just as Iran has been an integral part of various
conferences on Iraq.
Unfortunately, a number of US pundits continue to ignore the importance of
respect and related variables, such as "dignity", shaping Iran's foreign
policy, often talking of Iranian "emotionalism" and even "xenophobia". (See
The Persian puzzle, or the CIA's? Asia Times Online, Dec 3, 2004.) Such
biased analyses of the Iranian national character must be corrected if the West
wants to get a handle on the subtleties of Iran's diplomatic behavior, as a
prerequisite for successful nuclear diplomacy.
In light of Iran's "nuclear populism", Western respect displayed at the
negotiation table goes a long way in paving the ground for a more flexible
Iranian attitude, which would ensure that the political costs of a compromise
on the nuclear front would not turn be too exorbitant and thus risk the
Speaking of legitimacy, the most important value of respect is conferring
legitimacy on an administration labeled as part of the "axis of evil", along
with Iraq and North Korea, or as a "rogue regime" or "the leading sponsor of
international terrorism", to cite the US State Department's annual designation
of Iran. Such legitimacy-denying pejoratives need to stop if the US is serious
about the terms of the incentive package that it has signed onto, along with
the letter of the "Iran Six" foreign ministers, also signed by US Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice, that begins by praising Iran as an ancient nation. The
other countries are Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.
"Even an orchestra has one leader," wrote Karl Marx, and, in terms of regional
geopolitics, Iran is, as a result of a unique combination of geo-economic and
geopolitical variables, increasingly stepping in the void of regional
leadership that encompasses parts of Central Asia as well as the old Middle
Instead of using the bifurcated lens of a "new cold war", Israel conceivably
has the option of adopting an entirely different perspective that demands
respectful deference to other bigger players, such as Egypt and Iran, which
have the weight of history on their side.
To do so, Israel would have to recognize Iran's foreign policy possibilities,
whereby, to give an example, the Palestinian Authority's Mahmoud Abbas would be
invited to Tehran in the near future and Iran would re-warm to the idea of a
An important prerequisite for such important adjustments on Iran's part rests
in Israel, which has recently shown new initiatives by taking part in the
French-led Mediterranean process, and by pushing the arch of compromise with
its traditional foes - in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. There is no logical reason
why this cannot now be extended toward Iran, which lacks a common border with
Israel and has more immediate geostrategic concerns to worry about in its
vicinity, rather than "out-of-area" Israel.
A good beginning would be for Israeli leaders to publicly denounce the
incendiary notion of a nuclear strike against Iran, by pledging no first use of
nuclear weapons, following in the footsteps of China. Such a pledge would go a
long way toward the lofty objective of regional non-proliferation.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of
"Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume
XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping
Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction. For his
Wikipedia entry, click here.