Guest Commentary: Iran & America – Is the nuclear deal really about nuclear weapons?

In this week’s guest commentary, author and friend of TRF Navid Zarrinnal reflects on the so-called Iranian nuclear deal and the prospect of detente between Iran and the United States. The “Iranian threat” was never about nukes, he argues, but rather, the country’s independence from the Western powers. Those looking to explain the recent cooling of tensions should instead turn their eyes to the neoliberal leanings of the new Rouhani administration.

– KS

For over a decade now, the American media, government, public intellectuals and the public at large have been anxious over Iran’s nuclear program. Government officials, media outlets and public experts have insisted that once Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it may target Israel, America’s Arab allies, or even the United States itself; this necessitates, they claim, economic sanctions or a preemptive military strike on Iran.

International English-language media, in covering Iran’s nuclear program, has failed to assuage these anxieties. Daily news, including reports on the most recent negotiations between Iran and P5+1, give the impression that the anxiety over Iran’s nuclear program really turns on a potential weapon that would threaten global security. Perhaps this is inevitable, because daily news and reports from the ground are intended to provide descriptive, factual information on current global affairs.

However, analysts and public experts who are supposed to dig deeper have failed, with some exceptions, to provide a sufficiently critical voice on the nuclear debate. They too analyze Iran and the “international community” dispute as if it is fundamentally over the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons.

The “Iranian threat” however is not about nuclear weapons; it is about something else entirely: Iran’s independence from the dominant political-economic order sought by the U.S. and its closest allies.

The threat Iranian independence poses is not new, and neither are economic sanctions. The conflict between Iran and the “international community”—a misnomer for the U.S. and allied countries—dates back to the 1950’s. Situated in the broader global movement towards decolonization, Iranians under the leadership of Mohammad Mossadeq attempted to establish a constitutional democracy and reclaim their oil from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now British Petroleum or BP); British-led economic sanctions and a CIA-assisted coup followed.

Again in 1979, the Iranian revolution became a major event in the history of decolonization and Third World sovereignty, resulting in the establishment of an Islamic government, which stubbornly resisted American political and economic domination even at great cost to its own stability. And with this stubborn resistance came economic sanctions and indirect military intervention via America’s old ally—turned foe—Saddam Hussein. In the 1990’s and 2000’s, the Islamic Republic continued its refusal to be subsumed under a U.S.-dominated world order; the September 11 attacks, though having no connection to the Islamic Republic, coupled with Iran’s nuclear program and the Ahmadinejad government’s foreign policy, intensified the threat of the “military option” and “crippling” economic sanctions.

Economic and political measures were thus employed historically—during Mossadeq’s premiership and the Islamic Republic’s rule—to thwart Iranian independence.

This is not to underestimate the so-called nuclear issue as the primary source of global anxiety, however; with enough attention devoted to the nuclear issue, the real threat—Iranian independence—is substituted by an imaginary threat, Iran’s nonexistent nuclear weapons.

As an example, we can look at the world of high politics. State officials like Benjamin Netanyahu, who lie irresponsibly to gain public support for their misguided policies on Iran, begin to believe in their own lies. These officials resemble, rather imperfectly, Eric Cartman in the South Park episode “Jewpacabra.” Cartman knowingly lies about the existence of a dangerous creature, Jewpacabra, that attacks Christian children on Easter, and with enough public anxieties generated around his lie, he begins to believe in the made-up creature himself and fears it immensely. Netanyahu and his devotees in the U.S. government too appear to fear an Iranpacabra of their own making.

Netanyahu and his devotees are becoming increasingly isolated on the international stage, however. The Rouhani administration with its astute foreign policy is putting great pressure on the Obama government to pursue constructive negotiations and push the military option off the table.

Additionally, the economic and political problems that face the U.S. government domestically and internationally are of sufficient magnitude to make negotiations with Iran attractive. The “War on Terror” has exhausted the American military, while the U.S. economy is under great distress. Add to that Iran’s growing strength as a regional power that may prove helpful in resolving political crisis in neighboring states like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, though not necessarily to the benefit of local populations.

Economically too, the Rouhani administration seems to have a greater degree of openness to pursuing neoliberal policies; this economic position makes negotiations with world powers, including the United States, even more attractive but not necessarily to the benefit of the Iranian working class.

The closed-door negotiations in Geneva were concluded on November 24, 2013, and a textual agreement was reached. The agreement places restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, but retains their right to uranium enrichment, in exchange for limited sanction relief. However, the nuclear deal is a distraction from more crucial political and economic issues to be negotiated, like the neoliberalization of Iran and limited U.S.-Iranian political cooperation in the Middle East.

Claims to the future state of U.S.-Iran relations remain speculative. But one observation can be made with reasonable certainty: the old animus between Iran and the United States—34 years of combative politics rooted in post-World War II history—has come to a closure.

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