Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

No One Will Scratch My Back: Iranian Security Perceptions in Historical Context

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

No One Will Scratch My Back: Iranian Security Perceptions in Historical Context

Article excerpt

Iranians support a policy of deterrence because their perception of Iran's security is colored by historical experiences. For Iranians, geopolitical realities together with national psychology define national security. This article attempts to explain the national psychology, and in doing so point to a path of US-Iranian policy convergence. The United States should avoid making the mistake Britain made in 1951, making an oil royalty issue a matter of national pride for Iranians. The current nuclear dispute could turn into an object of Iranian national pride, liberty, and independence. The question whether a nation without access to a nuclear fuel cycle could be anything other than a dependent consumer, has already been posed.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it was reported on August 10, 2004, was convinced that Iran had "a practically complete front end of a nuclear fuel cycle," putting a nuclear bomb within its reach in two years.1 Iran's rulers, in an agreement with several European countries in fall 2003, pledged to refrain from developing fissile material in exchange for technical assistance and good will. Then Iran was accused of cheating when IAEA agents found traces of enriched uranium on some equipment in Iran. Iranians' claim that the equipment must have been contaminated before arriving in Iran was readily dismissed. Iran's theocrats then retaliated by declaring they would no longer abide by the deal negotiated. The United States called for tougher measures, but the Europeans proved reluctant.2 Then the UN nuclear inspectors revealed on August 10, 2004 that the Iranians had been telling the truth and that the Bush Administration faced "diminishing prospects for finding smoking gun evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program."3

There is no doubt that Iran's rulers are interested in nuclear technology in general and nuclear deterrence in particular. What is more troubling is that on that specific issue, most Iranians are supportive of their rulers' policies. Hoping to force Iranians to abandon their nuclear aspirations by shaking threatening sticks at them is wishful thinking. What has brought Iranians to their conviction has a two-pronged explanation. The explanation may be found in (A): Iran's geopolitical realities as viewed by Iranians, and (B): Iranians' national psychology. Of the two, only the former is often discussed although not always correctly understood. The latter, on the other hand, is commonly ignored altogether. This article is an attempt to shed light on both.

A colleague, a professor and former US Ambassador to Jordan, after a frustrating conference once told me, "Nothing screws one up as does history!" he went on to say, "the nations who insist on carrying the heavy burden of history on their backs at all times paralyze themselves. One of the secrets of our [US] success is our short memory - we forget and move on!" My colleague's statement was spoken in jest, but as is the case with most playful statements, it contained a grain of truth. Some nations seem obsessed with their histories perhaps because that is all they have left. When the foundation of a community's entire existence as a nation is based on shared historical experiences, detachment from history equates denouncing one's identity. Such attachment to history, although a source of pride, inspiration and identity, also creates a psychological tint that colors the entire universe of perception.


Iran seeks nuclear technology and the ability to assemble a credible deterrence when necessary. Whether that means Iran's rulers have already decided to build nuclear weapons or not, is an unanswered question. From the Iranian vantage point, the case for a nuclear deterrence is compelling. Iran's size, population, and resources make it a regional superpower. Its vast territory is about one-third the size of the United States. It is bound by Pakistan and Afghanistan to the east; Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia to the north; Turkey and Iraq to the west; and the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the south. …

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