Postmodernism and Iran's Nuclear Program

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

As the self-imposed deadline for a comprehensive nuclear agreement approaches amid marathon multilateral negotiations, postmodern political theory may have a constructive role in sifting through the on-going debates, contrasting interpretations and the diverse norms and assumptions that underpin the predominant discourses about Iran's nuclear program. Far from a mere academic exercise, the intervention of postmodern political theory can potentially have salutary effects on the policy level, by raising new awareness of the shifting paradigms and changing perceptions of the subject matter that may not have been fully integrated at the policy level, i.e., a certain cognitive gap that needs to be fleshed out at the epistemological level. With the intersubjective nature of global politics as a given in postmodernist thinking, Iran's nuclear program is the cause of certain 'Cartesian anxiety' since the central tenets of Iran's image as a "proliferation aspirant" so prevalent in the West have been contested by a stream of empirical information that pose themselves as 'anomalies' with respect to this image and its underlying (mis) perceptions. 

Case in point, in addition to Iran's consent to unprecedented intrusive inspections as well as set limits to its nuclear activities under the November 2013 "Joint Plan of Action," the issue of Supreme Leader's religious decree, fatwa, against nuclear weapons serves as an essential reminder of the need for a more diversified weltanschauung given the history of Iran nuclear crisis as the site of the interplay for binary Western discourses. These discourses often evince the characteristics of dualistic, binary assumptions, what Derrida calls logocentrism, namely, the tendency to construct artificial dualities, such as 'inside/outside' or 'rule-abiding/rogue', and imposing a hierarchy between the opposing terms. 

Following Derrida's insights, the Western rhetoric on Iran's nuclear program is predominantly logocentric, featuring exclusive boundary of binary images, with little or no room for a "gray zone." The restricted logic of nuclear logocentrism can indeed be found aplenty both in the mainstream media as well as in the official and diplomatic "speech-acts" that articulate a (semi) rogue image of Iran as "proliferation prone" and the like. 

At the policy level, the impact of nuclear logocentrism can be seen in, among others, the Western insistence on a lengthy period of "confidence-building" whereby Iran would prove to the outside world its benign nuclear intentions. This is based on the firm conviction, adopted as an article of faith in the West, that Iran's past nuclear activities have breached the international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of the program and, therefore, any final agreement must provide for a sufficient lengthy timeline in order to restore confidence in Iran's nuclear program. 

Although on the surface this stereotypical Western approach toward Iran appears to be logical and rational, there are several problems associated with it that can be discerned by employing the insights and critical methodologies of postmodern approaches in international relations. This is a fairly extensive subject and suffice to say here the following:  

   - The problematization of the Western discourse by the Supreme Leader's edict, fatwa, against nuclear weapons:  this has re-inserted the ethical element in the global proliferation discourses and, from postmodern Western perspective, can be analyzed through the prism of Habermasian discourse ethics;

   - The deconstruction of nuclear logocentrism by the history of Western infringement on Iran's nuclear rights:  using (Michel) Foucaultian epistemology, a 'genealogical analysis' of Western rights-abusive behavior toward Iran can be established, both empirically and theoretically, such as by highlighting the long list of "norm-violating" behavior, such as reneging on perfectly legal contracts, e.g., delivering fuel to Iran's medical reactor or completing the power reactor in Bushehr or honoring Iran's share at French Eurodif, etc., as a result of which the above-mentioned binary image is deconstructed;

   - Linguistic turn in the rhetoric on "confidence-building": the employment of postmodernist tools in analyzing the current nuclear 'crisis' raises new questions about the self-righteous Western (logocentric) mode of thinking that essentially views "confidence-building" as a one-way process, by virtue of overlooking the West's role in causing an Iranian "confidence-deficit" that is traceable to the above-mentioned history of Western nuclear rights-abusive behavior that culminated in Iran's legal status as an "injured party." From the stand point of international law, an injured party has certain rights to take remedial actions to protect itself, such as Iran's decision to be rather discrete about its legal program prior to 2003 in light of the illegal attempts to deprive it of access to peaceful nuclear technology;

   - Agent-structure problematic in nuclear negotiations: the postmodern international relations theory can shed much light on this particular issue that forms one of the core complexities of the negotiations, highlighted by the intricate US domestic politics and the overt signs of an emerging split between agent (White House) and structure (legislative system) on a potential deal with Iran;

   - Securitization of the nuclear talks: again the postmodern insights on 'securitization' are helpful in deepening our understanding of the multi-layered nature of the talks and their contextualization by rising regional insecurities and the role of non-state actors that have ramifications for these talks and the broader discussions on regional (non) proliferation.

Of course, this is only a cursory outline of a much more extensive narrative that needs to be fleshed out, the purpose here is first and foremost to focus attention on the basic flaws and defective Western approaches toward Iran, by drawing on the postmodernist reservoir. The gaps between political theory and policy-making have almost always been rather formidable and, yet, in thinking theoretically about the current nuclear negotiations and the Western rhetoric and rationalization of "excess demands" on Iran, there is little doubt about the protean value of narrowing these gaps and thus articulating fresh perspectives on Iran -- that are not infected by the restrictions of nuclear logocentrism.

*Kaveh Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

Key Words: Iran's Nuclear Program, Postmodernism, Cartesian Anxiety, Joint Plan of Action, Supreme Leader's Religious Decree, Fatwa, Logocentrism, Artificial Dualities, Period of Confidence-Building, Deconstruction of Nuclear Logocentrism, Deconstruction of Nuclear Logocentrism, Afrasiabi

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