I was hiking on an Iranian hillside, exploring the ruins of a long-abandoned castle, when I met Masumah and her husband Mohammad. Masumah spoke some English and we got to talking. It didn’t take long before the conversation turned political. What do Canadians think of Iran? Is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a dictator? Should Iran have nuclear power?
And, similar to every other conversation I had with Iranians, Masumah critiqued Ahmadinejad. She was embarrassed by the things he said and the way he portrayed Iran to the outside world, and she was frustrated with his handling of the Iranian economy. Masumah, however, strongly believed that Iran’s nuclear ambitions should not be thwarted, that it was unjust of the West to impose sanctions and demand that the nuclear program stop.
Western governments have been quick to condemn Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They fear that it seeks nuclear weaponry rather than nuclear power. And they are probably right. There are powerful military forces within Iran that are likely seeking these weapons, in part due to fear, legitimate or not, that the country will come under attack. Iran, after all, is still living with the legacy of the Iran-Iraq War, in which up to one million Iranians died.
Still, I do not think that sanctions are the answer. Iran demonstrated this week that sanctions will not prevent it from developing nuclear power. Meanwhile, the sanctions ostracize a country that is fundamentally important to the policy aims of western governments in the Middle East. Iran borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, all countries that are central to western foreign policy, and stands to benefit from increased stability in the region. Iran has also become involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, making it an important player in any peace process for the region.
Every Iranian I talked to had a positive impression of the West. Americans I met who had lived in Iran for years said they had never once been treated badly because of their nationality. Despite their “Death to America” image, most Iranians are very receptive to western people and ideas. There is potential for great connections between the West and the Iranian people. Yet Iranians cannot understand why the West wants to hold them back, why they are being punished for seeking modernity. I was asked frequently why Iran did not have the right to nuclear power while all western countries do. In many ways, sanctions have created an enemy that the government can use to rally support and discredit opposition. Members of the Green Movement, those that protested the controversial elections of last year, have identified the sanctions as a key problem. So, rather than hurt the regime, the sanctions actually increase its authority and power.
I was once told a story by an Iranian who was otherwise quite critical of the government. He said that many years ago the Shah of Iran had considered building a subway system in Tehran. The West was against it and prevented him from implementing his plan. The result has been a century of traffic gridlock. This is how this Iranian viewed the issue of nuclear power; Iran wants to diversify from gas, but the West wants to hold it back and prevent it from achieving its natural, modern ambitions.
There are middle paths that can be taken. An agreement this summer negotiated by Brazil and Turkey with Iran — but promptly rejected by Western governments — demonstrates that there are options, that negotiations can take place and that there are opportunities to provide Iran with the nuclear power that it claims to seek while providing safeguards against weapons development.
By no means do I deny the unsavoury nature of many Iranian government policies and actions. But by offering compromise rather than absolutes, I think that the West can create positive change in the Middle East. Developing key relations with the Iranian government will advance other policy objectives. And by building bridges with the Iranian citizenry, rather than isolating and frustrating them, the West will further its objective of creating a more democratic Iran and a long term ally in the Middle East.
Stefan Epp is a Research Associate at the University of Manitoba, who traveled to Iran in the spring of 2009.