Although the world powers have reached a nuclear deal with Iran, the thorniest dispute between Iran and the United States remains Iran's claim to its right to enrich uranium, which the United States insists does not exist for any country. In order for Western critics to appreciate why Iran insists it has the “absolute and inalienable right” to enrich uranium on its soil under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), perspective on what’s currently driving Iran’s foreign policy behavior is needed.
According to Ruhi Ramazani, professor emeritus of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, the driving force is independence. In his recent book, Independence without Freedom, Ramazani — who is celebrated among US scholars as “the expert’s expert on Iran” and “the dean of Iranian foreign policy” — explores, in his words, “what seems to drive Iranian foreign-policy decisions by trying to place them in the deeper context of what I call Iran’s 'diplomatic culture,' defined as those values, norms, mores, institutions, modes of thinking and way of acting that have developed over centuries as a result of Iran’s diplomatic interaction with other nations, have survived change and continue to shape Iran’s foreign policymaking.”
According to Ramazani, the United States needs to consider the core expectations of Iranian negotiators. Of primary importance is Iran’s expectation that the United States will recognize the way in which Iran’s foreign policy is fundamentally driven by an undeniable commitment to independence — a reality rooted squarely in Iran’s national identity.
The Persian roots of this country have been impossible to sever, even after thousands of years during which Iran has seen invasion and foreign threats. As Ramazani explains, “The invasion of Iran by Alexander of Macedonia and other invasions by such foreign forces as Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Afghans and Iraqis did not deny that sense. Even the Arab invasion did not rob Iran of its Persian identity.” In contrast to nearby Egypt, instead of accepting the Arabization of its national community, Iran came to embrace Shiism, which is more in keeping with Zoroastrianism and thus better suited to the Iranian nationalism that was already in place.
This nationalism is far-reaching, embedded in the identity of not only the most conservative and religious civilians, but also secular and progressive politicians. For proof of this, consider what took place in 1979, when Mehdi Bazargan was appointed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran’s provisional prime minister. Considered a significant democratic and liberal figurehead of the revolution, Bazargan was at odds with the radical religious leaders at the time — including Khomeini himself — throughout the progression of the revolution. However, Bazargan made it a top priority to end the shah regime’s de facto alliance with the United States in order to establish equality between the two countries. This foreign policy principle of equilibrium dates back to the mid-1800s, when it first entered the Iranian foreign policy sphere via Mirza Taqi Khan (better known as Amir Kabir) during his premiership. The opposite of Europe’s balance-of-power principle, equilibrium aims to facilitate Iran’s independence through both nonalignment and impartiality among long-standing imperial rivals such as Britain and Russia.
Through his nonalignment policy, Bazargan believed that Iran’s policy toward these great powers, to use his words, “should be the same as the policy of Mohammed Mossadegh, better known as the policy of 'negative equilibrium.'" In its time, Mossadegh’s nonalignment policy attempted to encourage Iranian independence through the termination of British dominance. In this same vein, Bazargan hoped to quell America’s influence through the dissolution of the US-shah alliance.
These values are no less important today. This could be observed most notably when, in 2009, Iranian Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi stood behind a platform that included an openness to negotiation and an increase of both civil liberties and privatization for Iranian citizens. Alongside this, Mousavi was clear and direct in his refusal to accept the marginalization of Iran’s right to pursue nuclear energy, particularly at a time when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was interested in signing an agreement that would allow for most of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium to be converted to nuclear fuel abroad. Mousavi criticized such a deal, insisting that “the hard work of thousands of scientists would be ruined.” However, Mousavi’s ideas were far from revolutionary. In fact, they closely mirrored Ahmadinejad’s own foreign policy approach and undeniable commitment to independence, rooted deeply within Iran’s national identity.
Therefore, it is wrongly assumed by the international community, particularly in the West, that hard-line politicians are leading the charge in terms of confrontation, whereas moderate leaders are champions of conciliation abroad. According to Independence without Freedom, this is not the case, at least not in terms of Iran’s diplomatic culture. Like elsewhere around the globe, those in the position of determining foreign policy do so in response to what the present situation dictates — without the context of each particular circumstance, it becomes difficult to parse how it’s possible for “today’s moderates [to] become tomorrow’s radicals,” especially where independence is concerned.
Under the international NPT, Iran continues to argue that nuclear enrichment is an inalienable right, and to undermine this right is to cross a red line in regard to its global independence. In blatantly opposing this position, the United States has offended Iran, which of course makes the country’s leaders no more likely to bow to political pressure on this matter than it has in the past. (President Barack Obama did say on Dec. 7, that Iran could be allowed a “modest” enrichment program with strict monitoring.)
Though perhaps outwardly influenced by Western ideals, Iran’s foundation reflects a Persian-Shiite Islamic core. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, during which Khomeini billed independence as a tenet even above Islam, Iranian identity has been grounded in this independence. In the intervening decades, Iran has successfully evaded the intrusion of any other major international power on its political and foreign decision-making process, and that seems unlikely to change any time soon.