Iran plays the justice card

President Mahmoud AhmadinejadThe Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was treated like a pop celebrity in Indonesia while on his state visit last week. The popularity of Ahmadinejad among the Indonesian public has highlighted the wide appeal of Iran's defiant position in the Muslim world. The logic of Iran's position is simple: if the nuclear technology is good for the United States and other developed states, why not us?
This question taps into a deep sense of resentment at the unjust nature of international relations and the prevalent hypocrisy that characterises US relations with the Muslim world. There is a broad consensus among Muslims of diverse political persuasions that the present global order lacks justice when it comes to them. This is an emotive issue and President Ahmadinejad has shrewdly pegged Iran's nuclear ambitions to it.

The question of justice in Iran's foreign relations goes back to the early days of the Iranian revolution in 1979, and is intricately linked with US-Iranian relations. As a mainstay of the detested Pahlavi Monarchy, the United States was scorned by Iran. Relations between Tehran and Washington went into free fall when Islamist students took US embassy staff hostage, an episode that lasted 444 days. But contrary to conventional wisdom, even at the height of the hostage crisis and certainly after the saga, Iranian foreign policy makers did not reject direct bilateral links between Iran and the United States.
Instead they emphasised their desire to be treated as equals as a pre-condition for any improvements in relations. Tehran’s portrayal of Washington as a bully and domineering power reflected Iran’s vibrant revolutionary domestic setting. This conjured up the image of David versus Goliath with reverberations that affected the Muslim Middle East and beyond. Iran’s revolutionary fervor may have cooled over time as the population became increasingly disillusioned with the promises of the Islamic regime. But the logic of Iranian foreign policy has not.

Under the leadership of former President Muhammad Khatami, policy makers embarked on a serious attempt to revamp Iran's international image. The notion of ‘dialogue among civilisations’ gained international acclaim as the United Nations declared it the theme of global celebration in 2001. The notion of dialogue as a remedy to global tensions between the West and the Muslim world advanced the protagonists towards a constructive resolution of a number of key issues. First among them was the idea of openness to hear and acknowledge the position of the other side. This facilitated the second: empathy and acknowledgment of genuine grievances. The third, and arguably the most important element of Khatami’s notion of dialogue was the parity of interlocutors. Genuine dialogue is only possible between equals. Khatami’s foreign policy initiative, moderate and flexible as it seemed, still contained the core of the Islamic revolutionary ideas that had stirred Islamist hostage takers in 1979.

Islam and the West: Reflections from AustraliaTo the chagrin of Iranian moderates and reformists, Iran's foreign policy doctrine has become more rigid and confrontational with the ascendancy of Ahmadinejad to the presidential office. The diplomatic cul de sac over Iran’s nuclear energy ambitions has brought international tensions to boiling point. But Ahmadinejad’s policies are only different in style to those of his predecessor. They do not represent a qualitative shift in principles. Iranian authorities justify Tehran’s nuclear ambitions as purely civilian-oriented and consistent with the rights reserved for all sovereign states in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy, the argument goes, is a manifestation of its national sovereignty, harking back to the same desire to be treated as an equal among the community of equal states.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions may have a hidden agenda. But what makes it seem justifiable to the Iranian population and other parts of the Muslim world is the powerful reference to the equal claim of all states to nuclear technology and the obvious hypocrisy of the United States in dealing with the issue. Washington has shown itself ready to provide nuclear technology to India, an open nuclear renegade state which openly snubbed the international community to develop nuclear bombs. In relation to Israel’s nuclear program, widely believed to be directed at developing the bomb, Washington has been conspicuously silent. In contrast, the United States went to war in Iraq under the questionable pretext of hidden weapons of mass destruction, and has highlighted the real possibility that Iran may be the next target. These very different policies suggest to the Iranians, and the rest of the Muslim world, that Washington pursues one set of objectives in relation to Muslim states, especially those that are not US allies, and another for the rest of the world. This apparent duplicity feeds the common grievance that the United States, and international agencies that are often dominated by Washington, lack fairness and parity.

Shahram AkbarzadehDr Shahram Akbarzadeh is Senior Lecturer in Global Politics at Monash University. His most recent publication is Islam and the West: Reflections from Australia (University of NSW Press 2005)



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Existing comments

It's difficult to argue with the idea that Washington has two sets of policy objectives, as you say. That being considered, it is still worrying (to say the least) that Ahmadinejad is at the helm of Iran - surely the 21st Century was supposed to be different?

peter anderson | 23 May 2006  

It's difficult to argue with the idea that Washington has two sets of policy objectives, as you say. That being considered, it is still worrying (to say the least) that Ahmadinejad is at the helm of Iran - surely the 21st Century was supposed to be different?

peter anderson | 23 May 2006  

Excellent article. I do wonder if Iran (and the Middle East as a whole, excluding Israel) will ever be able to get along with the US - until all the oil as run dry, I think not.

andrew | 23 May 2006  

This article puts into words what I was starting to think might be the case. But how might Australians (not least Christians) most helpfully encourage 'dialogue among civilizations' in the current context of John Howard's openess to Australia joining the nuclear club? How does this shift change what might be helpful responses to the Iranian nuclear situation?

Charles Sherlock | 12 June 2006  

A very interesting article - it just highlights the enormity of the challenge to reconcile these views with the reservations of the current nuclear 'haves' - ie what has happened to the bit in the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty about reducing the current number of nuclear weapons?

John Magee | 28 July 2006  

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