Why the US can't bully Iran
By Shahir Shahidsaless
For better or worse, Iranians are a proud people. This characteristic has roots in Iran's long history, its long-lasting geopolitical influence, and - for a good part of history - its dominance in the region, which could even be considered extreme.
At the same time, Iranian culture is very hospitable towards Westerners, American included. As long as they feel they are not being ridiculed, humiliated or looked down on, Iranians extend royal treatment to foreigners.
The above cultural nuances may seem simple or obvious, yet they
are widely ignored by policymakers and their advisers in the US when dealing with Iran.
Strategic policies towards Iran cannot be developed in an office in Washington, relying on biased defectors, opposition groups or out-of-touch academics as advisers.
Assurances given by advisers like Bernard Lewis, Fouad Ajami and Ahmed Chalabi regarding the reaction of Iraqis to the US invasion undoubtedly encouraged the George W Bush administration to take advantage of the "unresolved conflict with Iraq", as stated by vice president Dick Cheney's Project for the New American Century group, and attack Iraq in 2003.
Those experts, Iraqi opposition groups and individuals all saw the celebrations coming after the fall of Saddam Hussein. What they didn't see (or didn't want the administration to know) was that celebrations would by short-lived and once the party was over, anti-American forces and sentiments would take over.
After 30 years of hostility between Iran and the United States, a tall wall of mistrust separates the two governments. But, the biggest obstacle today in engaging Iran is the US government's persistence on a failed policy of carrot and stick.
The reason why this policy will never work with Iran is twofold. One lies in the mentality of Iranians, which was touched on earlier. The outcome of bullying and showing muscle to Iranians is astonishingly contrary to what Western policymakers think.
By threatening Iranians, seeds of hatred, resistance and determination are planted. In a speech delivered last month, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said,
The biggest mistake made by Mr Bush was the way he and his companions were looking at human society. They were after dominance and superiority over people. When they wanted to talk to people, they were speaking from a position of strength, and they were looking down on others. If this policy is going to change, then the US government should talk in a respectful manner to nations. The real change is to change your tone when talking to other nations. You should talk with respect and humbleness. Otherwise, just using new words but talking with the same tone indicates that no change has occurred.
The other reason why the carrot-and-stick policy is futile is that the Iranian regime believes that sanctions cannot and will not go so far as to threaten their existence.
Yes, the regime is concerned about its survival. However, those in power don't believe that by having the "stick" in their faces, including tougher sanctions, their power will be challenged. And who can bring them down anyway? Currently, there is not a single thinkable alternative for the people of Iran, either inside or outside the country. None.
The editor of Keyhan newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari, a man very close to the center of power in Iran, including the Sepah-e-Pasdaran (Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps), security forces, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, once wrote: " ... if we are made subject to sanctions [obviously serious ones], then, naturally, we can use some leverage, such as closing the Strait of Hormuz ... Of course, there are numerous other leverages that will be discussed later."
Whether Tehran is militarily capable of doing this or not is not the issue. The issue is that, in the minds of Iranians, the West is aware that once Iran is severely threatened it has the potential and capacity to disrupt oil production in the region by attacking oil tankers, pipelines, refineries and production facilities, including those in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman. This would, of course, pose a real threat to the survival of Western economies. With this perspective in mind, the language of threat is not an effective weapon as Iranians believe that it can only go so far.
The message sent by US President Barack Obama for the Iranian new year, Nowrouz, was palpably different in tone from what the Iranians are used to. That was encouraging. Yet, in the same speech, relying on the same old policy, he urges Iranians to avoid supporting "terror" and attempting to build "arms".
Ayatollah Khamenei wasted no time in making a reference to Obama's message: "It is not understandable that Obama congratulates the Iranian new year, but, at the same time, accuses Iran of supporting terrorism and efforts to gain access to nuclear weapons."
If there is any hope for a breakthrough in Iranian-American relations, American policymakers need to get this message at some point: with the Iranians, the policy and language of bullying and threat does not and will not work.
Shahir Shahidsaless is a Canadian-Iranian political analyst writing mainly in Farsi. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering, and has devoted the past 10 years predominantly to researching and writing about the Middle East and international affairs for Farsi-speaking magazines, papers and news websites both inside and outside the country. He has authored a book, which has been published in Iran and Germany.
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