Iran and the West

Distrust Hindering Cooperation

The conflict between Iran and the West stretches back to the 19th century and has come to a head in the row over the Iranian nuclear programme. Yet by working together, both sides could profit from Iran's position as a force of order in the region. By Christian Horbach

Iranian and US flag (image: AP Graphics)
What is the right way to read Iran's foreign policy? Previously a pawn in the hands of foreign powers for centuries, the country now distrusts the West, writes Christian Horbach

​​ The row over the Iranian nuclear programme that has been holding the world in thrall since 2002 may be the most obvious aspect of the difficulties between Iran and the West, but it is far from the only one. Up to now, the confrontation has been one of mutual distrust, with formulations such as "the great Satan" or the "axis of evil" doing little to relax the situation.

Yet Western governments have actually long realised the necessity of placing relations with Iran on a constructive basis. After all, the country has become a force to be reckoned with in the Gulf region and will play a key role in international politics in the years to come. The USA has already taken this development into account in its idea of a "Greater Middle East", in which Iran takes on outstanding significance as a link between the Arab and the Central Asian region.

So why then do relations between Iran and the West seem more distanced than ever? Many political analysts pass the buck for the problems entirely to Iran, citing the row over the Iranian nuclear programme, Ahmedinejad's anti-Israeli hate speeches and the Tehran regime's repressive domestic policies.

However, the West makes its own mistakes in this game, all too often revealing a lack of understanding for the Iranian side. In his book Iran – eine politische Herausforderung ("Iran – A Political Challenge") Volker Perthes, Director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), refers to the West's problem with "reading Iran correctly." Yet what is the right way to read Iran?

Iran as a rational player

Although the Iranian elite repeatedly issues apparently radical ideological statements, ideology actually plays only a supporting role in Iran's conception of foreign policy: "The regime is a rational player on the foreign policy front," says the journalist and Iran expert Bahman Nirumand.

photo: AP
Persian realpolitik: "As soon as relations to America prove useful for the Iranian nation, I will be the first to give my approval," said Ayatollah Khamenei in a speech in 2008

​​ Part of this rational policy is Iran's wish for better relations with the West. The Tehran-born sociologist Amir Sheikzadegan sees this desire as based chiefly on economic issues: "Good relations to the West would release the enormous potential of the Iranian economy, which is currently in a desolate state in many areas, particularly the energy sector."

Even the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, hardly known as a great advocate of reconciliation, said in a speech early in 2008 that he "will be the first to give his approval, as soon as relations to America prove useful for the Iranian nation".

Confrontation with the West

Why then does the Iranian leadership keep returning to its confrontational stance against the West – against the will of large sections of the political elite?

Two main factors come into play here. Firstly: Iran feels the West does not acknowledge it as a state and feels potentially threatened. "In Ahmedinejad's world view", according to Bahman Nirumand, "there are only friends and enemies. The Islamic camp, he believes, is encircled by the decadent West."

Former Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh (photo: Wikipedia)
National trauma: The Iranians have not forgotten the overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh, engineered by the American and British secret service

​​ The fact that many Iranians more than understand Ahmedinejad's view is related to the history of Iran's relations with the West. Ever since 1801, when Russia annexed Georgia from the then Persian Empire, Iran has repeatedly been a pawn at the hands of foreign powers and their interests.

Foreign intervention in Iran came to a head in the years 1914 and 1941, when Russia and Britain occupied the country and divided it up between them. After World War II, it was the USA that took on the role of the "colonialist power" in Iran. The CIA-engineered overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister Mossadegh in 1953 has not been forgotten by the Iranians to this day. It was only the 1979 Islamic Revolution that put an end to Western intervention in the country's politics.

For this reason, a desire for strength has been a recurring element in the statements of Iranian leaders since the revolution. "History, and its perception in the present, plays a very large role in the Iranian elite's decision-making," says Bahman Nirumand. "Both radicals and liberals draw similar conclusions from the past – Iran has to be strong so that it is no longer a pawn of foreign powers."

Tired of anti-imperialist rhetoric

Amir Sheikzadegan points out, however, that "when it comes to the Iranian people, there are tangible signs of saturation with the leaders' anti-imperialist rhetoric." The young generation of Iranians has no personal experience of foreign intervention in Iran, which makes it difficult for them – despite all the propaganda – to blame the West for all the evils of the world. Nevertheless, anti-Western sentiments are still likely to arise in the younger generation as soon as the West shows signs of "colonialist behaviour".

US soldier in Baghdad (photo: AP)
US soldiers in Baghdad: Anti-Western sentiments are still likely to arise in the younger generation as soon as the West shows signs of "colonialist behaviour"

​​ And Iran is accusing the USA of just such "colonialist behaviour" at the moment. The Iranian regime feels threatened by the USA: the United States are waging war as an occupier in Afghanistan and Iraq, have stationed soldiers around Iran, and spoke openly under Bush of the need for a "regime change" in the country, also supporting opposition groups such as Jundallah.

This situation has given rise to a paradox: Iran has a genuine interest in finding a balance with the USA, as only such positive relations would offer the security it hopes for. Yet "nobody wants to take the first step and pioneer reconciliation with the USA, as the risk is too great of being immediately denounced as a traitor by rival politicians – tantamount to political suicide," says Sheikhzadegan.

Foreign policy is domestic policy

A second factor behind Tehran's distrust of the West is that foreign policy is still identical with domestic policy. As in all other states in the world, Iran's foreign policy is instrumentalised in the service of domestic policy. On more than one occasion, the Iranian regime has exploited widespread anti-Western sentiments for domestic political purposes.

Ahmedinejad in particular, whose grassroots support has fallen rapidly, has attempted to divert public attention from domestic problems through aggressive foreign policy. The nuclear programme provides an ideal arena, as most Iranians insist the country has a right to use nuclear energy for its own civilian purposes. Ahmedinejad has therefore made good use of the whole range of "us against them" tactics.

Iranian president Mahmud Ahmedinejad (photo: AP)
Populist Ahmedinejad: the president is attempting to distract attention from his failed domestic policy through aggressive rhetoric towards the rest of the world, writes Horbach

​​ Yet that does not mean he rejects approaches to the West on principle, as rapprochement would gain him greater support among the young generation. However, the price he has been demanding is still too high for the West at the moment. And the offers coming from the West to date have not been acceptable in the eyes of Iran.

The greatest hurdle for improved relations, however, is the distrust on both sides. In order to overcome this distrust, it is fundamental to recognise that not only the West, but also Iran has good reasons for its reticence. And as at the beginning of every conciliation process, these reasons have to be mutually acknowledged before the two parties can work together on a common level.

Christian Horbach


Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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