Washington DC – The Bush administration’s latest unilateral sanctions on Iran are likely to fail. The debate over whether or not these sanctions will work has so far focused on economic considerations. Psychological and political factors, however, are more important.
Historically, Iranian national sentiment soars in the face of foreign pressure. Like the leaders of the past, the current regime can benefit internally from resisting coercion by foreign powers such as the United States.
In the nineteenth century, the Iranian people rejected imperial Britain’s bid to impose a monopoly on the Iranian tobacco industry. Led by opposition leaders, the public stopped using tobacco, and in 1892 the Qajar monarch, Nasseredin Shah, was forced to cancel the tobacco concession he had granted to the British.
The flame of national awakening thus kindled led to the Iranian Constitutional Movement at the turn of the twentieth century. The movement aimed primarily at ridding Iran of foreign domination. Its nationalist and religious supporters created the first representative government in Iranian history to limit arbitrary powers of the Shah in foreign as well as domestic affairs. The failure of the Qajar monarchs to share power with the religious and political opposition brought their dynasty to an end.
By contrast, Reza Khan, a mere colonel in the Iranian Cossack Brigade, shrewdly exploited the frustrated Iranian national will. He first consolidated his power by successful military campaigns against provinces seeking autonomy, strengthened the central government, and declared himself Shah in 1925.
All criticism of his regime aside, he in fact pursued a rational and realistic foreign policy to free Iran from a century of British and Russian domination, setting the foundation for achieving Iran’s territorial integrity and political independence.
But his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, failed to learn from his father’s example. Instead of seeking the support of religious and nationalist forces, he waged a campaign of political warfare against the supporters of Prime Minister Mohammad Musaddiq. While the British and American covert operations helped overthrow the Musaddiq government in 1953, the Shah’s victory marked his loss of political legitimacy, and eventually sealed his fate.
While Mohammad Reza Shah adamantly refused to share real power even with moderate nationalist opposition forces during the revolutionary crisis in 1978-1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took a different approach, calling on support from nationalist leaders to wrest power from the Shah and establish the Islamic Republic.
Even though Khomeini later suppressed nationalist political forces, still he rode the wave of popular Iranian nationalist feeling in fighting a bloody defensive war against Iraq in 1980-1988, which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iranians-young and old, men and women, religious and secular-who had responded patriotically to the invasion of their country.
In the face of U.S. pressure and threats of force, Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad insist on Iran’s right to continue uranium enrichment for energy on Iranian soil. This does not simply reflect, as so often portrayed, the hard-line stance of Ahmadinejad. Even the moderate and soft-spoken President Mohammad Khatami, who served as Iran’s president from 1997 to 2005, warned America and Israel of Iran’s retaliatory “fire of hell” in response to any military attack on Iran over the nuclear issue.
In reaction to foreign coercion, the Iranian sense of national unity overcomes factional strife. It is a transcendental force inspired by a powerful belief of the Iranian people that their national identity is rooted in the continuity and resilience of their culture and civilization despite over two millennia of foreign pressures and invasions, from Alexander of Macedonia to Saddam of Iraq.
Given such profound Iranian cultural, psychological and political realities, America’s newly expanded unilateral sanctions are likely to fail, as have all previous sanctions since the United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980.
Diplomacy, rather than pressure or military action, remains the most realistic option. American and Iranian ambassadors in Baghdad will soon renew discussions on Iraqi security. Yet to resolve the nuclear standoff between the US and Iran, unconditional and direct negotiations at higher levels are essential to avoid a military collision.
R.K. Ramazani is Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. For over a half century, he has written extensively on Iran, including the prize-winning The Foreign Policy of Iran. The author thanks W. Scott Harrop for assistance with this essay. This article first appeared in the Daily Progress.