January 15, 2015
Washington, D.C. — Nicola Pedde, director of the Institute for Global Studies in Rome, Italy, was at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington to discuss Iran and assess the future of U.S.-Iran relations.
To put things into context, the Obama administration — led in its efforts by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry — is in negotiations with the Iranian government over Iran’s nuclear program. The West wants Iran to halt its nuclear program, which Iran purports is for peaceful purposes to generate energy for civilian use, but which the West argues shows indications of military applications that can lead to uncontrollable volatility in the Middle East. The most recent round of discussions were held in Geneva, Switzerland, in January 2015.
With recent presidential elections in Iran (2013) and the replacement of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a leader with an extreme anti-West bend) with Hassan Rouhani (a leader open to improving relations with the West), Washington seems to be curious about how its relations with Tehran will evolve over the next few years.
Pedde opened his remarks by providing a nuanced view of Iran’s demography — which he divided into the first, second, and third generation of citizenry — and how it shaped the country’s domestic and foreign policy.
- The first generation reflect the staunch anti-U.S. ideals of the post-1979 revolution.
- For a brief summary, the 1979 revolution in Iran involved the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty. Its leader, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was who Iranians at the time considered heavily influenced by the United States of America. Among other things, the Shah was held in the eyes of his countrymen widely responsible for social injustices, the banishment of Ayatollah Khomeini (Shia Islam’s supreme leader), and the Westernization of Iran. The fall of the Shah, for reasons outlined, led to a dark age in the relationship between Iran and the West, which has continued much to this day.
- This first generation of Iranians, who also enjoy meaningful clout in political and bureaucratic institutions, are opposed to absolutely any negotiation with the West in regard to Iran’s nuclear program.
- This generation enjoys majority political power in modern day Iran.
- They are torn between upholding the ideals of the 1979 revolutionaries and working towards the progress of Iran — which would include settlements with the West in order for Iran to reintegrate into the global trade system.
- To exemplify Iran’s economic isolation, when its presidential Boeing 747 plane needed repairs, The Boeing Company was barred by the U.S. government from providing its services. Interestingly, the West continues to use this one issue as a pawn in its negotiations with Iran.
- However, despite this second generation’s relative openness to open communication channels with the West, this generation deeply mistrusts the U.S., U.K., France, and others.
- A case in point is the treatment leveled by these Western powers on the Muammar Gaddafi, the former dictator of Libya.
- Gaddafi complied with all Western requests (in regards to arms programs, chemicals, oil, U.N. inspections, etc.) during his years as a dictator; yet, when the situation arose, the West was quick to dismember the Gaddafi family’s hold over Libya.
- It is the Western coalition that was responsible for Gaddafi’s gruesome death in 2011.
- If a leader who was always compliant to Western requests was mercilessly obliterated by the West when it was convenient for them, the second generation wonders, why should Iran trust the U.S.-led Western coalition at all?
- Further, Pedde pointed out, the second generation feels that a Shia-majority Iran is the victim of a sectarian war sponsored by its Sunni-dominated neighborhood (which includes member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council) in the Middle East.
- This group of people consists of the vast majority of Iranians, many of whom are young. This generation is also severely underrepresented in government and bureaucracy.
- Within this large group, Pedde conceded, it is hard to singularly label who the reformists are, who the radicalists are, and who the ultra-radicalists are.
- There is significant overlap between these groups. Some reformists share certain radicalist principles; certain ultra-radicalists share some reformist principles, and so on.
Future of relations with the West
- The decades long economic embargo on Iran has created mini economic empires within the country. These empires have their tentacles of influence in government; and any improvement in relations, and the resulting reintegration into global trade, will be against their vested interests.
- Not surprisingly, there are clear attempts from within Iran to block improvements in the U.S.-Iran relationship.
- The Supreme leader Ayatollah’s powers, contrary to popular Western belief, are channeled to maintain the balance of power within political institutions in Iran, rather than to make binary “Yes/No” decisions on policy.
- Ayatollah Khomeini does not want to derail the present ongoing negotiations with the West since that’s what Iranians voted for in the 2013 Presidential elections; although he is skeptical of the emergence any positive outcome from the talks.
- The Islamic State is a Sunni-dominated outfit that makes it the common enemy of Iran and the West.
- Why, therefore, has there been no explicit coalition between Iran and the West on fighting the common enemy?
- The second generation of Iranians believe that the U.S. is responsible for the failure of its nuclear program. Iran does not want to signal comradeship with those who have, in a sense, defeated it.
- The official position of Tehran, therefore, is to deny cooperation with the U.S. on this matter.
- Iran does not perceive ISIS as a direct threat to its existence.
- It quite proudly proclaims that it is the only State to have “boots on the ground” in the mission against ISIS.
- Tehran’s position is that the civil war in Syria is a manufactured crises. External forces have acted upon Shia-dominated Syria to ultimately attack Shia-dominated Iran.