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The Montreal Review, November 2010


The goal of this essay is to offer an insight in the sources of the modern international conflict and the possible ways of its resolution. In order to reach some general conclusion I will use the particular example of international conflict that is still unresolved and open for interpretations. My analysis and views will not be without flaws: the particular case that I will examine needs deeper, more serious research, yet I hope that these shortcomings will not disqualify the validity of the more general conclusions deduced from the case.

As we know from the political theory, the international system is an "anarchic", non-hierarchical system, where the authority of the state and courts is non-existent. 1 Not all agree with this characterization, but influential neoliberal institutionalists such as Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye accept the basic neo-realist premise that the international system does not function like the domestic systems and the effectiveness of international institutions in organizing the relations between the states is still limited. Moreover, as Raimond Aron noticed in "Peace and War" , an international relations bestseller written in the climax of the Cold War, in international system it is not only difficult to treat a rogue country like an ordinary criminal, it is even hard to classify the acts of aggression. 2 Questions like "Who is the aggressor if a state responds to the subverted actions of enemy state?" Or "Who has the right to judge that a given sovereign state is rogue and deserves punishment?" and "How can one be sure in fairness and the right of intervention of an alliance of civilized and powerful states against an underdeveloped country (which is the case of the war in Afghanistan)?" Usually, history has the last word for these and other similar questions. Thus, I think it is very important to have these questions in mind when we analyse and judge an international conflict, when we search for a means to resolve it.


Presently, we are witnessing the development of the conflict between Iran and the United States, a long-standing conflict that started in 1979 with the Islamic Revolution in Iran and now, on its latest stage, has manifested in the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program. Clearly, parties in this conflict are both countries Iran and the United States, but the character and the significance of the dispute include a range of other players with interests involved and with their own ambitions and goals. These players are Israel, the member states of the United Nations Security Council (Turkey, Brazil, Lebanon are non-permanent members in 2010 and have relations with Iran that differ from the official position and interests of the U.S.) and the states in the Arab world. The conflict over the Iranian nuclear program is a typical international dispute where the stakes in case of an open confrontation may cost many human lives. It is also situated in the most explosive region in the world, the Middle East. The conflict seems even more serious if it is looked at through the bigger prism of the East-West confrontation that has deep roots reaching the post-Ottoman colonial times of the 19 th and the early 20 th century. It is also additionally aggravated by the years of Israeli - Arab confrontation, and cultural factors such as religion and old enmities between Shiite and Sunni within the Islamic community itself.

The formal point of tension today is Iran's ambition to develop a nuclear program in order to "generate electricity" and "provide fuel for medical reactors." The United States, Israel and some European countries such as Britain, France and Germany, suspect that the real goal of Iran is to build nuclear weapons. I say a "formal point of tension," because here we deal with a dispute that is a part and an expression of a conflict between Iran and the West that has been dragging for at least four decades.

Iran's ambitions to develop a nuclear program are not new; the first attempts were under the pro-American regime of Reza Shah in the 1960s. 3 The program was suspended for a while during and after the Islamic, anti-Western Revolution, led by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, and renewed secretly in the 1990s under the government of the moderate President Mohammad Khatami. Under the pressure of the West and the threat of international sanctions, Khatami agreed in 2003 to suspend work on uranium enrichment and allow ground inspections by the International Atomic Energy Association. In 2006, the new hard-line conservative President of Iran Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced that the uranium enrichment work would be resumed, which caused the cessation of the talks with Britain, France and Germany that had began under Khatami's government. Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has the right to enrich uranium, but the International Atomic Energy Association called for the program to be halted until questions about the earlier, secret program were resolved .

The appeal of the atomic association was not respected by Iran. This provoked the decision of United Nations Security Council in December 2006 to impose sanctions on the country. The response of the U.S. to the Iranian determination not to conform to the international pressure was somewhat uncertain. At that time, the U.S. was bogged down in the Iraq war and relatively isolated in their Middle Eastern policy. In 2006, the American government was conservative following a "realist" foreign policy and because of that less apt to compromises. Washington had two main strategies in response of Iran's nuclear ambitions - the one favoured by the group around the Vice-President Dick Cheney wanted more aggressive measures, including possible air strikes, the other group led by the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked for more diplomacy. The U.S. President George W. Bush discarded the military option while declaring that the United States would not negotiate directly with Iran until it suspended the nuclear research program. In December 2007, the American intelligence agencies estimated that Iran would probably be able to produce a nuclear weapon between 2010 and 2015, while cautioning that there was no evidence that the Iranian government had decided to do so, contradicting the assessment made in 2005. 4

Meanwhile Israel, also in a long-standing conflict with Iran, made unsuccessful attempts to win the support of the American administration for an air strike on Iran's main nuclear complex at Natanz. The most vocal voices for a military solution of the conflict are still coming from Israel (and behind the stage from Saudi Arabia), perhaps because this state feels most nervous and endangered by a nuclear Iran. The Israelis remember well how the Iranian President Ahmadinejad said famously in a speech "Israel must be wiped off the map," a statement that according to the Iranian government had never been made and that the President did not refer to the nation or land mass of Israel, but to the regime occupying Jerusalem. Actually, the frequent disputes over the translation and the "real" meaning of Ahmadinejad's words are very indicative for the character of the conflict itself. A close observation of U.S. - Iranian relations shows a great deal of misunderstanding between the parties, inability for communication - both sides speak a lot, meanwhile, perhaps blurred by the veil of suspicion, they do not grasp (or at least pretend so) the clear message of their opponent . There is some "loss in translation"; the inability for communication prevents any attempt for a successful diplomatic solution. In nearly every interview with Ahmadinejad made by western journalists, there are always awkward moments of misunderstanding and clarifying of what Ahmadinedjad meant to say with this or that statement. Here, I should say that the poor communication is not a particular feature of this conflict, it is a universal feature of most conflicts.

The current American President Barack Obama declared at the beginning of his mandate that the new administration will seek active diplomacy with Iran. In a Democratic debate in 2007 during the presidential campaign, he said that as President he would be willing to meet without preconditions with Iran's leaders. Three years later, there is neither improvement in diplomatic efforts, nor has a meeting been accomplished. The positions of the American President are becoming increasingly confrontational, while the regime in Iran, hardened by the riots and protests after the presidential elections in 2009, is becoming increasingly relentless to the pressures of the international community. Iran continues to develop its nuclear program, being able to enrich uranium up to 4 percent, enough to run nuclear power plants. In February 2010, Iran's Atomic Energy Organization announced that the Natanz nuclear facility had begun processing uranium to a purity level of 20 percent - enough for production of medical isotopes. The news alarmed Israel and the world and in June United Nations Security Council imposed new sanctions over Iran. Twelve of the 15 nations on the Council voted for the measure, while Turkey and Brazil voted against it and Lebanon abstained. The imposed sanctions are directed against military purchases, trade and financial transactions made by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which virtually controls the government of the state and the nuclear program. If the sanctions are effective is too early to be said.

These are the main features of the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program. But this is the tip of the iceberg. I have omitted many details, some of which important and some of which I will discuss later in the text when I will try to uncover the deeper reasons behind the confrontation. In the next pages, I will touch the history of Iran and its present domestic and international condition. I will say a few words about the character of the political system of Iran and will try to find out what we can expect from Tehran and Washington, and how the political constitution of this country influences the development of the conflict. At the end, I will touch the question of the international environment - how the conflict might influence the positions of both parties in the international system.

The sources of the U.S.-Iranian conflict and the factors that aggravate it merge constantly into one another and it is difficult to make a clear division between sources and factors. So I group them in four general domains: history, culture, domestic political system/stakes, and international system/stakes. The "toolbox" of the possible options for resolving this conflict can be divided in two classical compartments: diplomacy and war. Diplomacy includes bilateral talks, multilateral negotiations, concerted policy through the U.N. institutions, and alternative methods such as mediation. Which of all these methods is realistic and effective is the most important question that needs an answer. The war is also a rational option, but it is not applicable to the present situation. The war will be acceptable, with all related costs, if an already nuclear Iran behaves aggressively. The U. S. should not permit a third party player such as Israel to attack Iran. Such a scenario is the worst possible. It is a defeat of the effort of conflict resolution. The war is an escalation of the conflict, not a resolution. Thus, I exclude the war option as a means for resolving the existing U.S.-Iranian tensions.

The first source that aggravates the conflict is the history and especially the history of the U.S. - Iranian relations. 5 Iran has a glorious ancient history that was revived in the XX century. The Persian past served as a basis for the Iranian national self-determination during the turbulent post-Ottoman period, when British, Russian and American interests were shaping the domestic policy of the country. In his History of Modern Middle East William Cleveland explains that during the first half of the century the Iranian relationships with the Great Powers were characterized with cultural disrespect, economic domination, and imperial manipulation. 6 Iranians have always been aware of the ambitions of the foreign powers in the region. For a long time the British controlled the Iranian oil resources. Russian engineers designed the Iranian construction projects and technological facilities and participated in a subtle way in the politics of the country before and during the Cold War. The Americans advised the army and supported the military base of the post Second World War regime of Reza Shah Pahlavi. In the first half of the 1950s, Muhammad Mossadiq became a Prime Minister and for first time in its modern history, Iran was emancipated to become a really independent state. Mossadiq's government did not last long; it was shaken by internal divisions and opposition, but also by the British embargo that was imposed over the country as a response to the decision of Mossadiq's government to nationalize the Iranian oil industry that, at that time, was in the hands of British Petroleum. The embargo ruined the state economy and discredited the regime. Mossadiq was deposed by a coup, organized by C.I.A. 7 The United States supported the autocratic rule of Reza Shah Pahlavi in the post war period until 1979 when mass protests led by Ayatollah Khomeini overthrown the regime. Between 1979 and 1981 the relations between Iran and the U.S. reached their lowest point, it was the period of the so called "hostage crisis" when 52 US citizens were held hostage by Islamist students and militants. In the 1980s, the relations between these two countries did not normalize. For nearly ten years, Iran was waging a bloody war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq that was covertly supported by the U.S. Since its coming to power, the Iranian Revolutionary government has been explaining the difficulties in economy and development of the country with the undermining actions of the Western powers and their alliance with Iraq. The reaction against the West is one of the basic factors that support the legitimacy of the Islamic regime in Tehran. It would not be an overestimation if we say that the domestic political system of today's Iran rely on the old revolutionary idea of the enemy, the regime gains legitimacy through sowing hatred against an ever existing Orwellian type of enemy. As we see, history, especially history observed through the Iranian perspective, cannot make us optimists for an easy normalizing of the U.S.-Iranian relationships .

Culture is the second factor that stays as an obstacle against a constructive and peaceful coexistence. The Iranian modernization in the twentieth century was imposed by the autocratic regime of the Shah who tried to follow the example of Ataturk's Turkey. The modernization program was not successful because it was imposed forcibly and because for the Iranians it only meant "westernization". People with strong and old traditions, still suffering the effects of the colonial exploitation, enraged by the aggression and lavishness of a servile to the foreign powers government cannot be converted easily. In the recent history of Iran, the conservative powers have been keeping the monopoly over the idea of national culture and independence. The conservative powers that are the religious leaders and movements regard themselves as the true keepers of the Iranian soul. Shia Islam is the religion of the Iranian majority and Shiites are the second largest denomination in the Islamic Ummah. Iran is home, center and leader of the Shiites over the world. Moreover, Islam is not only the cultural, but also the constitutional basis of the state as the very name of Islamic Republic of Iran shows.

The idea of Islamic character of Iran is curiously mixed with the pride of the ancient Persian history. The more educated layers in society are equally attached to the memory of the glorious Persian past and the moderate Islamic values. The ambitious foreign policy of Ahmadinejad's government reflects the cultural exceptionalism that Iranians feel. Obviously the present government dreams for restoration of the Iranian greatness: Iran as a leader of the Muslim world against the West and Israel, and Iran "the world player" as it was in the time of Cyrus the Great. In a report from Iran for The New Yorker magazine Jon Lee Anderson explained the Iranian persistence for nuclear independence with the nationalism, with the memory of the Persian Empire and the humiliations that the Iranians felt during the 20 th century by world powers such as Great Britain, the United States, and Russia. Anderson also mentions the Iranian "deep-seated feelings of cultural superiority over their neighbours." 8

The cultural factor play an important role in Iranian stand to the world. On the other hand, we see a pragmatic America that in its Middle Eastern politics is not concerned with issues as culture and traditions, but with real politics, security, and economic advantages.

The third factor is the domestic political system. After 1979, the Iranian domestic politics is defined by ideological confrontation. The contemporary Iranian institutions have been formed in a revolutionary environment; this means that the idea of existence of an enemy is central despite the successful end of the revolution. The state is governed by elected officials (but a passing glance will discover that the electoral system is open for manipulation because it lacks independent national election commission 9) that are controlled by the religious establishment - the Supreme Leader of Iran and the Council of Guardians. Although the religion is the basis of the Iranian political constitution, Iran is not governed by religious fanatics. The governing elites generally follow very pragmatic policy, but they are not united. The conflicts between the fractions in Iranian religious and political establishment are very often related with disagreements on foreign policy. In the bloody presidential elections in 2009, the defeated candidate for president Mir-Hussein Mousavi offered a foreign policy program that sought normalization of the U.S.- Iranian relations. But normalization of the U.S. - Iranian relations means that the conservative powers lose ground. In an interview for The New Yorker , Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor-in-chief of Kayhan , the daily newspaper that speaks for Iran's clerical establishment, called the protesters after the last Presidential elections "sleeping agents for the West," "subversives" that showed their faces. 10 For him and for the official line the Green Movement, the movement that opposed the election results, was a part of a grand conspiracy conceived by the West, managed, among others, by the usual suspects - George Soros, Michael Ledeen, Richard Haass, Gene Sharp. Thus, how Iran behaves on international stage depends not so much on external pressure, the pressure coming from the international community, but rather on internal factors such as which faction will control the state. It is clear that the present conservative government cannot change its defining and traditional policy of confrontation with the West and Israel without harming its political positions. The development of nuclear capacities is regarded as a trump-card for the conservatives. It is not just capacity for defence; it is an ideological tool for domestic consumption . The general population will see the nuclear capacity as a high achievement. Nuclear Iran, as I already mentioned, means for the majority of Iranians security and independence. This is an obstacle to the resolution of the conflict between the West/Israel and Iran. But it should be noted that the Iranian domestic policy is much more influenced by the U.S. - Iranian relations than the American domestic policy is.

The fourth aggravating factor is the foreign policy and the ambitions of both countries. In an analysis published last March in the Foreign Affairs magazine, James M. Lindsay and Ray Takeyh argue that the nuclear weapons will not make Iran more secure. Quite contrary, the nuclear weapon would actually diminish the Iranian influence in the region. Nuclear weapons are good as a tool for deterrence, with them under hand Iran would not be attacked by foreign power, but they would not improve the positions of Iran in the region as expected. They would perpetuate the American military presence in the peripheries of the region, but would not win the expected support from the Shiite neighbours who are unlikely feel more secure with a dominant, nuclear Iran. The nukes would alienate, argue the authors, both friends and enemies, 11 despite the fact that now, Iran has the sympathies of the Arab world.

Arab world (the population, not the governing elites) seems ready to accept an Iranian leadership. A survey made by the University of Maryland and the Carnegie Corporation indicated that 77 percent of Arabs in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco believe that Iran has a right to its nuclear program and 57 percent see a positive outcome to Iran's developing nuclear weapons. But could this support be sustained after the creation of the weapon? Presently, there is one clear fact: Iran has an ambitious foreign policy agenda . While the global American power is decreasing under the economic crisis and the lost of authority caused by the war in Iraq, Iran's diplomacy and foreign activities are spreading from Sub-Saharan Africa through Tajikistan and Iraq to Venezuela and China.

The United States is worried that a nuclear Iran will create new geo-political realities in the Middle East with still unknown consequences. It might encourage the terrorism against the U.S. and Israel, it might raise the risk of escalation of conventional and nuclear war, it might undermine the efforts for stopping the spread of nuclear arms around the world, and all this could be perceived by the world as a huge defeat of the American ambitions and abilities for global leadership.

So what should be the policy of the U.S. toward an ambitious, nuclear Iran? International laws, treaties and institutions cannot alone resolve the conflict, nor stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons if it has such a goal. An anonymous Iranian expert to ld Jon Lee Anderson that Iran wants "nuclear legitimacy." The Iranians want a deal with the U.S. that will accept them as a nuclear power. The U.S. cannot afford such a deal. This means change of the Middle Eastern status quo and defeat of the American engagement as a leader in arms control and nuclear non-proliferation. But the mentioned above factors - history, culture, domestic and foreign policy - show that Ahmadinejad's government will not change its politics under international pressure. Last Friday (October 29, 2010) European Union officials announced that Iran said in a letter that this November it would resume talks with the West about its nuclear program. 12 Given the experience the West has with this government I think this signal cannot be a reason for optimism. Moreover, Iran sees the international situation today as rarely favourable for the advancement of its agenda: the U.S. is in demise that makes middle-size powers like Turkey and Brazil disposed to cooperate with Tehran. Russia is playing double game on the international stage and could be regarded as a possible partner too. The atmosphere in the Middle East is favourable for Iran as never before - Iraq, its greatest enemy, is weakened; there is war in Afghanistan, Al Qaida is undermining the power of the regimes over the Arab world. Tehran uses and will use all these opportunities.

As I mentioned earlier, during the election campaign Barack Obama said that he would be willing to meet without preconditions with Iran's leaders. This did not happen. And the reason for this is the existence of asymmetry between the power and international position of America and the significance of Iran. America cannot sit and talk with a hostile regime that is not relatively equal to her without harming her status of world leader and simultaneously without making this regime more important than it is in reality. Possible unsuccessful talks will harm the United States and embolden Iran. Regarding the behaviour of Tehran, there is no indication that direct talks will finish with success.

Another diplomatic option is mediation. But mediation does not work either because of power asymmetry and the anarchic character of the international system. It is not possible to find mediator between a world hegemon and a regional power with no stable coalition behind his back. The U.S. has been an unsuccessful mediator in the conflict between Israel and Palestine (which is still a half-formed state) because of the fact that sovereign bodies compose the international system; there is no legitimate overseeing power to control their relationships. Coalitions, interdependence, international institutions are possible means for resolution of conflicts, but they cannot evade the sovereign, unrestrained right of the national state to follow its interests and to take its own decisions. If agreements between Israel and Palestine be achieved under the mediating eye of the U.S., but later breached, there is no legitimate power that has the right and the ability to impose justice. The order could be restored through collective efforts as it was in Bosina and Serbia, but it does not make NATO's actions (or any coalition's actions) legal. I am optimistic that the future belongs to the international organizations and the conflicts will be resolved through diplomacy, but now this is not a reality. 13

I am an admirer of the effective waiting (reactive) policy in foreign relations. This opportunistic approach leads to better and long-lasting results. The pre-emptive action is sometimes good, but again, only after an effective waiting policy suggests that it is time for acting. Another element of good policy is the merger of a just cause with the effectiveness. Now, we do not know for sure if Iran really pursues a nuclear weapon. We can guess that the regime will be more secure with it, and perhaps Teheran decision-makers think the same way. But the justice merged with the effectiveness has to stop the U.S. and Israel to act pre-emptively against the supposed Iranian ambitions.

The nuclear question can be resolved without effort with a change of the regime in Tehran. And this is the only possible way for resolving this conflict. Thus, America now must start preparing the soil for constructive, peaceful relations with the future Iranian government. It should not stop to insist that a nuclear Iran does not necessarily mean more security and influence. It should not negotiate with the repressive forces in the country, but it should demonstrate its good will to the moderate elites and to the people of Iran. The population should not be harmed by economic embargo and the West should be ready with business proposals once the power in Tehran softens its positions. The U.S. should abstain from influencing and meddling in domestic policy of Iran. It seems that Obama's Administration has exactly this approach to Tehran; the bloody elections in 2009, for example, did not echo in loud anti-autocratic rhetoric in Washington. The sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council in June do not aim to harm the population of Iran. The reactive and generally quiet policy 14 of the West toward Iran could be the beginning of the restoration of the confidence of Iranians in Europe and America. Meanwhile, the West should watch closely every step of the regime and be prepared for a response to any aggression. In their analysis, Lindsay and Takeyh offer a similar approach: imposition of careful chosen sanctions; concerted diplomatic pressure; improvement of the U.S. relationships with the regimes in the Middle East; restraining from increasing the number of the American troops in the region and showing that the U.S. are always open for cooperation and compromise in case that Iran changes its policy. The authors argue that an Islamic Republic that "abandoned its nuclear ambitions, accepted prevailing international norms, and respected the sovereignty of its neighbours would discover that the United States is willing to work with, rather than against, Iran's legitimate national aspirations." 15

I agree with Lindsay and Takeyh's opinion. Even if Iran does succeed in acquiring nuclear weapons, this does not mean a necessarily more dangerous world. My closing remark is that one of the main causes that make the world dangerous today and perpetuates the international conflicts is the open or subversive violation or disrespect of national sovereignty. History shows that dictatorial regimes do not last forever and the offenders are always requited.

-- T.S.Tsonchev




By Adam C. Seitz and Anthony H. Cordesman

May, 2011

The Islamic Republic of Iran presents a wide range of challenges in a region that is already plagued by insecurity and conflict. As long standing regimes are threatened by the wave of anti-government protests rolling across the Middle East, Tehran continues to advance...


1 Kenneth N. Walz, "The Anarchic Structure of World Politics" in International Politics. Enduring Concepts and Contemporary Issues, edited by Robert J. Art and Robert Jervis (Pearson Education, Inc. 2009)

2 Raymond Aron, "Peace and War. A Theory of International Relations" (Doubleday & Company Inc., Garden City, New York. 1966)

3 David Albright and Mark Hibbs, "Spotlight shifts to Iran" (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 1992), pp.9-11 (Accessed through Google Books)

4 For better summary see The New York Times' "Topic" article "Iran's Nuclear Program"

5 The information below is based on my personal knowledge of Iranian history, political system, and events.

6 William L. Cleveland, A History the Modern Middle East, (Westview Press, 2004)

7 CIA declassified document at http://www.nytimes.com/library/world/mideast/041600iran-cia-index.html

8 Jon Lee Anderson, " After the Crackdown " ( The New Yorker , August 16&23, 2010)

9 See Mehdi Khalaji and Robert Pastor, " How Ahmadinejad stole an election-And how he can fix it " (Foreign Policy Magazine, August 19, 2009)

10 Jon Lee Anderson, "After the Crackdown" (The New Yorker, August 16&23, 2010)

11 James M. Lindsay and Ray Takeyh "After Iran Gets the Bomb. Containment and Its Complications." (Foreign Affairs, March-April 2010)

12 See Stephen Castle, "Iran Says It's Ready to Return to Nuclear Talks" (The New York Times, October 29, 2010)

13 I think that the international system is transitioning slowly from a system of "destructive" conflicts to a system of "constructive" conflicts. (See Morton Deutsch, The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes, Yale Press, 1973)

14 In which I include also the "quiet diplomacy" - the active work behind the scenes through the channels of international organizations and other informal methods.

15 James M. Lindsay and Ray Takeyh "After Iran Gets the Bomb. Containment and Its Complications." (Foreign Affairs, March-April 2010)



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