The dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme was never just about centrifuges or breakout capabilities. It has always been a symptom of a larger geopolitical contest between the West (primarily the United States) and Iran, with roots that predate the 1979 Iranian revolution.
But the West and Iran have very different narratives about their conflict, with the Iranians casting it as their quest for independence and self-sufficiency while fending off Western attempts to subjugate the country. Yet the narrative of the conflict is distinct from that of resolving the conflict – and here, the two sides face even greater obstacles.
The latter narrative is a contest over who determined the terms of the solution – who gave in and who came out on top. This is not a mere Iranian obsession. It is equally important to the US and its allies. After all, if the conflict is rooted in Iran’s challenge to the US’s regional dominance, Washington will reject the narrative of Iran successfully forcing the world’s sole superpower to accommodate Tehran.
Consequently, the language US and European Union officials deploy reveals a near infatuation with establishing the West’s dominance over Iran. It is a language of Western power and control. The West decides the terms of the conversation, as well as the terms of the outcome.
“The Iranians know what they have to do,” is a phrase often aired by Western officials.. Or in the words of US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, “There are steps they need to take to meet their international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, and the ball is in their court.”
The language and attitude trickles into the news media coverage, where reports describe the West debating what Iran will be “permitted” to do and not do, or the extent of a nuclear program it will be “allowed” to maintain. Iran is essentially at the mercy of the West, the narrative suggests.
The language does not depict a negotiation, but rather court proceedings where Iran is the transgressing party and the US and its allies are both the prosecutor and judge.
As such, it is Iran’s obligation to prove its innocence. “What Iran needs to do is prove to the international community that it’s not building a military nuclear program,” EU foreign affairs spokesman Michael Mann said last year at the height of the negotiations. The onus is on Iran, the language signals. It is Iran’s responsibility to “act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over their nuclear program”, Psaki recently stated.
Moreover, in its role as both prosecutor and judge, the West positions itself as the spokesperson for the entire international community. “It is now up to Iran to decide whether they are looking for a way to cooperate with the international community or if they want to remain in isolation,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier commented in July.
This language further accentuates Iran’s isolation and the moral strength of the West, backed by the entire international community. Of course, given that the West’s negotiators are, with China and Russia, representatives of the UN Security Council plus Germany, there is validity to this interpretation. The Iranians, however, counter by pointing to the support they have received from the nonaligned movement, which constitutes a majority of the states in the international community.
Tehran, in turn, is equally obsessed with a narrative that restores Iran’s dignity by displaying its successful defiance against attempts – real or imagined – to dominate it.
The Iranian narrative centers on resistance. When the parties extended the deadline for the negotiations in November, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei defended the decision by casting it as a victory over a Western attempt at forcing Iran to surrender. “In the nuclear issue,” he said, “America and colonial European countries got together and did their best to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees, but they could not do so – and they will not be able to do so.”
Iran’s leaders espouse the idea that the nuclear issue is nothing but a pretext for the West to oppress Iran, subjugate it and prevent it from reaching its full potential. Ayatollah Khamenei often refers to the nuclear issue as an “excuse” to prevent Iranian progress. It is a narrative that builds on long-standing perceptions in Iran about Western intentions based on the country’s experience with European colonial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries.
So according to this narrative, Western pressure is not because of Iranian policies or behavior, but because West desires to dominate Iran. Resisting subjugation, in turn, means restoring Iran’s dignity.
The concept of dignity is central in the narrative of the Iranian revolution as a whole. The revolution was about restoring the Iranian people’s dignity against a repressive monarchical regime imposed by and supported by the US. Throughout his speeches, Khamenei has repeatedly emphasized that upholding the nation’s and the revolution’s dignity is paramount.
“Whenever the Islamic Republic backed down against America and Europe, they grew more insolent, and whenever the Islamic Republic insisted on its revolutionary slogans and principles, the dignity of the Islamic Republic was increased,” Khamenei said in 2011. While many world leaders would measure the success of their country and tenure by focusing on the economy or societal progress, Khamenei habitually offers updates on the state of the Iranian nation’s dignity internationally.
Dignity in turn is restored by resisting pressure and standing up to the “bullying of the West”. Or as Khamenei would put it, “Our problem is with the US government’s bullying and excessive demands.”
The negotiations are a victory for Iran in and of themselves because the West has been forced to come to the negotiating table (the George W Bush administration initially refused to negotiate with Iran).
“European officials are still stuck in the bullying mindset of the colonial 19th century, but they will face many problems in the face of the resistance of the Iranian nation and officials,” he said the day after the European Union toughened sanctions against Iran in 2011.
Furthermore, Tehran harps on the idea that Iran seeks a fair agreement without excessive demands from the Western side. The agreement, according to Tehran, has to be balanced and based on logic. “We accept rational words; we accept fair and sensible agreements. But if there are bullying and excessive demands, no we won’t accept,” Khamenei reiterated after the November round of talks.
The emphasis on logic, fairness and rationality has political significance. A nuclear agreement based on these principles is consequently not based on the power of the negotiating parties. These principles level the playing field for Iran and neutralize the West’s superiority in terms of military and economic power.
By rejecting strength as a basis for the solution, Iran believes it will have achieved what no other Middle East player has thus far: force the West to meet it half-way and deal with it on an equal basis. That’s the win Iran is looking for – one that restores its sense of dignity. If you are in Iran, that’s the narrative you want coming out of the negotiations.
But contrary to Tehran and Washington’s efforts to find a win-win solution, their narratives remain fundamentally win-lose. A narrative celebrating a compromise as a win is yet to emerge on either side. At some point, a compromise on centrifuges and enrichment may be reached. But finding a middle ground between the Iranian and Western narratives on the negotiations may prove a harder nut to crack.
This article was originally published in Middle East Eye.