Unlocking Iran’s rich peaceful potential
Almost a millennium ago, one of the most renowned Persians in history, Omar Khayyam, was born in the city of Nishapur in present-day Iran. In the West, Khayyam is known mainly as a poet, owing to the translation of his most important works into English in the nineteenth century. But, in his time, he forged his reputation mostly in mathematics and astronomy. In fact, the practice of representing the unknown in an equation with an “x” is thought to derive from Khayyam himself. He referred to unknowns as shay (“thing” in Arabic), a term that in old Spanish was transcribed as “xay”, from which supposedly emerged the now universally used “x”.
Humankind owes innumerable advances to Persian thinkers, who for centuries distinguished themselves by their extraordinary scientific sophistication. Today, Iran ranks fifth in the world for the number of recent graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), behind only China, India, the US, and Russia. In this regard, Iran is well ahead of technological powerhouses such as Japan—which has, moreover, a population that is around 50% larger.
Nevertheless, scientific progress can be a double-edged sword. That was true, for example, of Iran’s clandestine nuclear programme, which came to light in 2002. Although Iran’s leaders insisted that the programme’s aims were peaceful and fully compatible with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international community reacted with caution. Thus, as the European Union’s high representative, I was tasked with reaching a diplomatic understanding with Iran, whose first negotiator was Hassan Rouhani, the national security adviser at the time. After many ups and downs, the circle finally closed in 2015, when the main global powers and Iran —where Rouhani had become president—reached a truly historic nuclear agreement: the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA).
Diplomacy is never a bed of roses, and there are no shortcuts for those who practise it. Rouhani was indeed a tough negotiator, as I had expected, but I always appreciated his open and receptive approach. In 2013, after I had left active politics, Rouhani was kind enough to invite me to attend his first inauguration as president. After he explained his plans to me in detail during my visit, I had no doubt that Iran’s new president was fully determined to leave behind the dark period of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Building anything always requires tenacity and imagination, and Rouhani had both. Destroying something, on the other hand, requires little more than ambition. Unfortunately, US President Donald Trump has a surfeit of that. In May 2018, he withdrew the US from the JCPOA, and set out to crush the hard-won fruits of those slow and painstaking diplomatic efforts.
Despite Trump’s incessant contradictions, we can deduce his current objective regarding Iran, because he has used a similar modus operandi in several other situations. His strategy of “maximum pressure” seeks to cause economic mayhem in Iran, so that its leaders will have no option but to negotiate again from a weaker position.
Yet, although US sanctions have seriously bruised Iran’s economy, the Iranian regime is no closer to the abyss—or to negotiating again. Sticks won’t work without carrots: Iran’s leaders lack any incentive to negotiate if the Trump administration does not first offer some kind of concession. In fact, the US economic offensive has strengthened Iran’s less moderate political forces. The chief beneficiary has been the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a semi-autonomous arm of the Iranian military that has protected the integrity of the regime since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The IRGC has recently shored up its domestic popularity by adopting a tone that is more nationalist than religious, and many Iranians consider the US designation of the group as a foreign terrorist organization to be a national affront. Moreover, by hampering global commerce with Iran, the US sanctions have helped to enrich the IRGC, which is filling the gaps left by foreign multinational firms and also controls the channels of contraband.
There is no doubt about the IRGC’s highly problematic influence elsewhere in the Middle East. Its so-called Quds Force, under the command of the charismatic General Qassem Soleimani, is responsible for extraterritorial operations and has proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, among other countries. In 2016, the IRGC reportedly established a “Shia Liberation Army” under the aegis of the Quds Force, to be composed largely of foreign combatants. Such activities badly damage Iran’s international image. Approaching Iran’s leaders would be much easier if they made it clear that they were content to head a conventional state, rather than an expansionist liberation movement.
At the same time, Iran’s footprint in the Middle East would be much fainter had countries like the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia not made so many unforced errors. These blunders, which range from the war in Iraq to the war in Yemen, have brought Iran significant geopolitical gains at a very low cost.
Ideally, the major regional powers would start to smooth over their differences by working to end the war in Yemen, where the bombing campaign instigated by Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has led to a humanitarian tragedy. The current fragility of the pro-Saudi coalition—in which the United Arab Emirates has recently assumed a lower profile—could yet ease the path toward a negotiated solution. Although there are plenty of reasons to mistrust Iran, no diplomatic initiative can succeed if the only item on the table is resentment. To avoid getting lost in a spiral of accusations, any diplomat worth their salt must be able to empathize with others, which is not the same as defending them.
In the case of Iran, that requires recognizing the factors that feed its leaders’ sense of insecurity. We should not forget that Shia Muslims are a clear minority in the region, and that, unlike other religious groups, they have no nuclear weapons. Furthermore, America’s deplorable record of changing foreign regimes in times of peace began in Iran, with the 1953 overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected prime minister.
All of these factors are deeply embedded in Iran’s popular consciousness and are reflected in the Islamic Republic’s official narrative. Rouhani was nonetheless able to overcome the rancour, together with the other JCPOA signatories. But, just when the clouds were beginning to clear, America has summoned a downpour. By withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposing fresh extraterritorial sanctions on third countries, the Trump administration has presented governments and businesses around the world with an intolerable dilemma: either they lose access to the US financial system, or they again condemn Iran to sterile isolation.
The US-generated storm threatens to demolish all Western bridges with Iran, including in sectors, like science, that have clear liberal tendencies. Even Iranian scientists engaged in incontrovertibly benign activities are feeling the effects of US sanctions. As long as the US ultimatum lasts, Iran’s enormous scientific potential—not only for generating knowledge, but also for promoting international cooperation—will remain unfulfilled. The same applies to the overall well-being of Iranians, who have long suffered the consequences of both domestic and international political outrages.
To add to the complexity, electoral cycles in Iran and America are synchronized. The US presidential and congressional elections in November 2020 will be sandwiched between Iran’s parliamentary election in February and its presidential contest, scheduled for 2021 (in which Rouhani will be ineligible, having completed his second consecutive term). This imminent electoral whirlwind makes it even harder for Iran to soften its stance: the regime’s more conservative wing, which hopes to capitalize on US policy fluctuations at the polls, is putting heavy pressure on the moderates.
Victories for the extremes in both countries would likely deepen the unproductive mutual hostility that has marked US-Iranian relations for most of the past 40 years. But should more moderate voices prevail, there will still be a chance to unlock Iran’s rich peaceful potential.
Javier Solana was EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, secretary-general of Nato, and foreign minister of Spain. He is currently president of the Esade Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics and a distinguished fellow at Brookings Institution.