International Sanctions and Iranian People’s Resistance

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Behzad Khoshandam
PhD Student in International Relations

Active ImageInternational sanctions adopted against Iran according to the Security Council Resolution 1929 (June 9, 2010) followed by unilateral sanctions imposed by the European Union (July 26, 2010) have been the most unprecedented and toughest sanctions imposed on Iran throughout the whole history of its interactions with international system.

It will take some time before a definite answer could be found to the crucial question as whether international sanctions are able to change behavior of the Iranian government. However, that question can be also answered from another standpoint through a profound historical analysis.

From this angle, understanding operational and conceptual environment of Iran’s developments in the past 500 years as well as correct understanding of the international system by the Iranian people, especially its intelligentsia, are major factors determining the answer.

Iran has been through a complicated history and it will take a lot of time and effort to understand developments which have taken place over the course of thousands of years. Analysts maintain that understanding the Iranian “patriotism,” “self-centered love for the Iranian culture” and “xenophobia” are major elements which should be taken into account when analyzing the Iranian people and their approach to international system. This point has been rightly underlined by the famous American Middle East expert, Graham Fuller, in his book, The Center of the Universe: The Geopolitics of Iran.

Iran has been run over by foreign invaders seven times in  the past 22 centuries, but it has been able to rise out of the ashes and maintain its “identity,” “independence,” and “grandeur” and emerge as a key player in the Middle East power politics. Iran has been undoubtedly able to overcome a host of regional and international obstacles and this is a source of great pride for the Iranian people.

The ongoing confrontation between Iran and contemporary international system which is manifested in the current faceoff between Iran and major international players should be also understood with an eye on the political developments over the past 500 years. Iran started official interactions with the international system from 1501 after Safavid kings swept to power.

Since that time, Iran has been constantly grappling with key international players and this is the “master key” to know why Iran is still resisting against the interests of important international players. That resistance was, of course, interrupted in the historical period from 1921 to 1979 and it is the only juncture of the Iranian history when the country’s interactions with important international players have been based on political “compliments.”

“Independence,” “national sovereignty,” “right to self-determination,” “justice,” and “Islamic-Iranian identity” are important keywords which are frequently encountered in the political literature of Iran with regard to the country’s international interactions in the past few centuries.

Being influenced by fundamental international developments in the past 500 years, the Iranian people and politicians have regularly insisted on the above keywords in their interplay with the international system. Political developments which led to the conclusion of Golestan treaty (1813), Turkmenchai treaty (1828), Darsi contract (1901), 1909 contract between Iran and the Great Britain which was repealed later, friendship agreement between Iran and Russia (1941), internationally orchestrated coup d’état against the popular government of Dr. Mosaddeq (1953), and a military defense agreement between Iran and the United States (1959) have greatly changed the meaning and connotations of the above keywords.

The damage done to the Iranian people’s political culture set the stage for major political developments in the 1970s which culminated in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Due to historical experiences, the Iranian people do not trust international players and it seems that distrust in international players is still a dominant feature of the Iranian political culture.

In conclusion, the key to understanding Iran’s resistance to international sanctions should be sought in the Iranian history of the past five centuries. No wise person in Iran seeks challenge and confrontation with the international system, but “distrust” and “prevailing pessimism” toward the contemporary international system are the most salient features of the political culture and international understanding of the Iranian people.

It is possible that international sanctions would ultimately make the Iranian government review some of its strategic stances, but an important goal of all strategic developments is to deal with the cause rather than the effect. Faced with Iran’s nuclear program, the international community should first find a remedy for the Iranian nation’s “distrust” in the west which dominates its political culture. Otherwise, recourse to any other soft or hard approach will only perpetuate the present “vicious circle” in Iran’s interplay with the international system and vice versa.

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