The deal on Iran’s nuclear programme has the potential to break with the tensions of the past. Yet the deal was made on wrongheaded assumptions about Iran. To this day we still view the country through a prism of falsehoods.
1. ‘Iran is developing nuclear weapons’.
Contrary to popular belief, there is evidence which suggests Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons in 2005. It wouldn’t make much sense for Khamenei to issue meaningless fatwas. But it’s not the only evidence.
In 2012 the US defense secretary, Leon Panetta, said US intelligence “does not show that they’ve made the decision to proceed with developing a nuclear weapon.” The International Atomic Energy Agency maintains that Iran’s nuclear programme does not commit uranium to the production of weapons. The quality of Iran’s uranium is low-grade: it looks like Iran wants to develop nuclear energy, but not necessarily weaponry.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this. It was once much less ambiguous. The Shah of Iran was trying to develop nuclear weapons in the 1970s, and had US support and help from Siemens. This was when the Bushehr reactor was first built. It was Ayatollah Khomeini who closed the facilities, but he later changed his mind as Saddam Hussein began to pursue weapons of mass destruction.
2. ‘Iran is unwilling to cooperate or compromise’.
There was a proposal in 2010 to relocate Iran’s nuclear facilities within Turkey. It would have been possible to monitor all production and research – Iran could have pursued nuclear energy, and the west would have the reassurance it apparently wants. Yet Obama opposed the plan and vetoed it. The White House has since spent the last couple of years trying to secure its own terms with Iran.
The new deal shows that Iran is willing to compromise. The Iranian government has accepted US demands for total access to the nuclear sites. The deal will allow Iran to pursue atomic energy, while making it very hard for any deviations to take place. More importantly for Iran, the deal means the lifting of sanctions, which will greatly improve the country’s economy.
3. ‘Iran opposes US foreign policy at every turn’.
Khamenei has been open to restoring relations with the US, so Tehran began to look for ways it could ingratiate itself with Washington. Former president Mohammad Khatami provided intelligence to support the US invasion of Afghanistan; Iran having viewed the Taliban as an enemy since it set about butchering and persecuting Shi’a Muslims (including Iranian diplomats).
On the same grounds, Khatami considered supporting the US invasion of Iraq. These efforts were dropped once George W. Bush placed Iran on the so-called ‘Axis of Evil’. As a result of Bush’s inflexibility, Khatami’s reform agenda was perceived as a failure, so Khamenei allowed the conservatives to regain power.
4. ‘Iran wants to eliminate Israel’.
This has been a continuous trope since former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Israel “should be wiped off the map.” In any case Iran does not have the capability to ‘wipe out’ Israel. Nor is it likely the Iranian government would ever pursue such a mission. For starters, Iran could not win a nuclear war with Israel – the Iranian leadership would be suicidal to fire nukes at Israel. Furthermore, any nuclear strike would annihilate the Palestinians and Islamic holy sites.
Believe it or not, Iran and Israel were once allies. This was the case under the Shah, but it continued even after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In 1981 Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sanctioned the bombing of the Osirak nuclear plant in Iraq in support of Iran, and conducted massive arms sales. The alliance fell apart when Israel invaded and occupied Lebanon in 1982.
5. ‘Iran is in a cold war with Saudi Arabia’.
The Middle East is often framed in terms of the division between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. Yet this picture can be misleading. The Syrian regime is based upon an alliance between the military, which is dominated by Alawite Muslims, and the Sunni elite. Despite this alliance Iran remains a vital partner for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while ISIS is the common enemy.
It wasn’t the Iranians who bankrolled ISIS – that was Saudi Arabia. The US encouraged the Saudis to pump cash and arms into Syria, much of it ending up in the hands of the Islamist forces which would become ISIS. Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in promoting sectarianism; the country has a substantial Shi’a minority living on the northern oil fields. This portion of the country borders with Iraq, where the Shi’a majority predominates.
Iran is dangerous precisely because it presents an independent line for Shi’a Muslims. The possibility of the Shi’a uniting behind Iran would be a major threat. The fear is that the contagion would eventually spread to the northern oil fields.
So you can see why King Salman of Saudi Arabia fears the ongoing Houthi rebellion in neighbouring Yemen. Here the narrative is standard: Iran is backing the Shi’a rebels. Actually Iran plays a minor role in the conflict. The Houthi rebels get the majority of their arms from the black market. Nonetheless, the claim of an Iranian hand in Yemen’s unrest provides an excuse for airstrikes.
6. ‘Iranian society can never be democratic’.
This is entirely false. Iran was a democracy, briefly, in the 1950s. Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was elected democratically in 1951. He was a conservative nationalist, who wanted to put Iran’s oil (which was owned by what is now BP) under public ownership. The British government, with the help of the CIA, set out to destabilise Iran.
By 1953 it was over – Mosaddegh was overthrown in a coup d’etat and the Shah, Mohammad Reza, was reinstalled. He reigned over Iran until the 1979 revolution. The Islamist regime emerged in response to the monarchy, as well as the west, and all competing movements – particularly, the communists – which it easily outmanoeuvred.
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