Harry Anastasiou Ph.D.

Harry Anastasiou is Cofounder and Director of the Rotarian Action Group for Peace, and professor of International Peace and Conflict Studies in the Conflict Resolution Program at Portland State University.


A Historic Agreement or Historic Failure

On July 15, 2015, following an extended period of crippling economic sanctions on Iran, a historic agreement was reached in the two-year long negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, China, France, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom, plus Germany and the European Union). The agreement, entitled Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, entails the future of Iran’s controversial nuclear program. According to the substance of accord, in exchange of the lifting of sanctions by the international community, Iran is to reduce its stockpile of low-level enriched uranium by 98 percent, and also reduce its centrifuges by two thirds. On July 20 the UN Security Council endorsed the agreement unanimously.

Throughout the years of negotiations the political leadership and citizenry of the US, Iran and Israel have become polarized between those who support a negotiated agreement and those who oppose it. Since the agreement of July 14, this polarization intensified, especially in the US, in anticipation of the pending decision of Congress to ratify or reject the agreement within sixty days. President Obama, who delivered his arguments on the significance of the agreement, warned that if Congress rejects the agreement he would veto the decision, in which case the rejectionist camp would need two thirds of the votes in Congress to overturn the President’s veto.

The differences in perspective were evident in how spokespersons of each camp described the agreement. While the opponents of the deal characterized the agreement as a historic mistake and a threat to security, supporters of the deal characterized it as a historic agreement and a victory for peace.

The fundamental disagreement over substance hinges on whether or not Iran ought to have a nuclear program at all. The opponents of the agreement argue that Iran should not be permitted to have any nuclear program, and specifically it should not be allowed any uranium enrichment capability. This condition, the rejectionist argue, should be enforced by the US and its allies using all possible means, including military force. Moreover, the perspective of the rejectionist presumes that international law, which permits the civilian use of nuclear power, ought not be a hindrance to America’s unilateral actions against Iran.

By contrast, the supporters of the agreement argue that, while historically sanctions have not deterred Iran from going forward with its nuclear program, the negotiated framework puts a halt to Iran’s nuclear capabilities, preventing it from weaponing, while allowing Iran a restricted and strictly monitored, civilian use of nuclear power, within the framework of international law and the UN Treaty on the non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory. The perspective of the supporters of the agreement, is also underpinned by the idea that the agreement underscores the imperative for, and success of, multilateral diplomacy over war, while it strengthens international law, respects Iranian legitimate rights, and opens a pathway for Iran toward normalized relations with the international community.

However, this battle between the opponents and advocates of the agreement with Iran entails a much deeper divergence that reflects two competing master narratives. In turn, these narratives chart two very dissimilar paths to the future, with far reaching differences regarding the efficacy of war and peace. The narrative of the rejectionists’ side may be identified as more driven by a bellicose nationalist perspective, while the narrative on the supporters’ side may be identified as more driven by a peace and democracy perspective.

In light of the above, the reflections that follow are not focused on the technical details of the Iran agreement, as each narrative contextualizes and understands the technical details quite differently. Rather, the reflections that follow focus on the more neglected factor. That is, the impact of the contrasting narratives and how differently they are likely to shape future developments in the relationship between the international community and Iran, and more importantly between the US and Iran. Which of the two narratives prevails is therefore critical of how the future unfolds, including the future of the Middle East.

Part I of the present inquiry, which immediately follows, centers attention on the narrative of the opponents of the Iran agreement. Part II that will follow in next week’s issue, will center attention on the narrative of the supporters of the Iran agreement.

Part I

The Bellicose Nationalist Narrative and its Real-world Implications

In regard to the negotiated agreement with Iran, the rejectionist nationalist camp is positioned on the assumption that Iran is a rogue, terror supporting state, to be perpetually mistrusted, as it is a state that already has a clandestine program developing a nuclear bomb. The perspective of the rejectionists further demands that Iran fully complies with the unilateral demand to completely dismantle its nuclear program, regardless of whether it is for civilian or military use. Moreover, if it does not do so, it ought to face the invincible fury of the US military. This is in essence the mindset of the bellicose nationalist camp. The policies and actions emanating from this approach entail a high likeliness of charting the following path in regard to the future.

The refusal to engage in sustained bilateral and/or multilateral negotiations with Iran, the zero-sum approach of the rejectionist camp among certain members of the US leadership and their supporters, would inevitably lead to increased economic sanctions on Iran, with further damaging consequences on the country’s economy. This in turn would radicalize and escalate the mistrust and the decades long conflict between the US and Iran, alienating the two countries even further. It would in turn empower and popularize the hardliners among the Iranian leadership, just as the invasion of Iraq and subsequent US-led war within Iraq greatly assisted in the election of bellicose Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president from 2005 to 2013.

As a result, the bellicose nationalist factions among the Iranian leadership and citizenry would reactively seek and implement retaliatory measures, fueling a more radical nationalism, which would catalyze the escalating tension even more. Under such a scenario the moderates among the Iranian leadership and citizenry would be fundamentally disempowered and marginalized, as they were in the years following the invasion of Iraq, while the more bellicose and radical hardline leaders would be on the ascendancy with likely increasing support among Iranian citizens.

Such a trend would freeze any further dialogue between the US and Iran, curtailing any further diplomatic engagement. It would in turn block the possibility of any other inter-state agreements or civil society engagements from going forward, on not only controversial issues but even on issues that are none controversial, such as humanitarian, educational and others. In this context, the prospects for low-level politics, a constructive incremental process of conflict resolution and peacebuilding, would dissipate.

Business contacts would naturally subside and trade between the US and Iran would dwindle to none existence. Any vestiges of travel and tourism between America and Iran would all but disappear, as a climate of uncertainty and insecurity would overwhelm opinion among the citizenry of the two countries. In this context, the opportunities for civil society engagements would whither away, while the full separation and thus alienation between the citizens of the two countries would ensue.

With American and western powers escalating sanctions on Iran, economic warfare, cyber wars and espionage, would also come into play in a more aggressive and radical manner, rendering erosive and clandestine approaches to international relations more prevalent and consequently further removed from democratic oversight and transparency.

Under these conditions, Iran would not only resist rolling back any aspect of its nuclear program, but rather it would intensify and accelerate it, while possibly justifying the building of nuclear bombs as necessary for its defense against superpower USA and its Middle East ally Israel, both of whom are armed with nuclear weapons.

In this context, the media of mass communication in the respective counties would start shifting toward an increasingly adversarial perspective, with more negative enemy images of the other, leading to mutually alienating stereotypes that would erode any prospects for meaningful communication. The media in each country would thereby become engaged less and less in constructive dialogue with the other, resorting instead to esoteric monologues and dark propaganda against the enemy country. With these conditions prevailing, no American voices would be heard meaningfully addressing and engaging Iranians on Iranian media, and no Iranian voices would be heard meaningfully addressing and engaging Americans on American media. A regression to past animosity and stereotypes would thus be very likely, with American political culture branding Iran anew as one of “the Axis of Evil” and Iranian political culture branding anew America as “the Great Satan”.

Iran’s relationship to nationalist militant groups like Hamas in Gaza and Shi’a Hezbollah in Lebanon would be inevitably consolidated and move toward a more bellicose, anti-American, anti-Israeli direction, just as American’s relationship to Israeli and militant Jewish nationalist factions would be consolidated and move toward a more bellicose anti-Muslim, anti-Iranian direction. Meanwhile, as regional conflicts and militancy escalate in the region, moderates among Israelis and Palestinians would become delegitimized and consequently marginalized. It is also likely that the Sunni Arab-Shi’a Iranian divide become exacerbated, as the rift between Sunni-leading, American ally Saudi Arabia and Shi’a-leading Iran deepens.

As the axes of conflicts intensify and multiply, they are likely to become increasingly unmanageable. In such a conflict-complex environment, the hope of today’s hardliners in the US and Israel, that a persistently aggressive and adversarial American approach to Iran would consolidate an anti-Iranian Israeli-Arab alliance reflects a fundamental lack of realism about the nature of war and conflict.

Any bellicose historical dynamic between the US and Iran would inevitably impact negatively the outstanding conflicts in the Middle East, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the enormous challenges posed by the rising influence of ISIS, the sectarian Shia-Sunni divide throughout the region, and the conflict-driven instability in various Middle East countries, ranging from Syria, to Iraq, to Libya, to Egypt and others. Rising conflict between the US and Iran would thus impact destructively an already volatile and unpredictable Middle East, as it would add to the region another heavy layer of conflict, complicating even further an already complex and dangerous nexus of deadly rivalries.

Projected into the next five to ten years, such conditions would drive governments, as well as movements in the Middle East and North Africa, toward increasing radicalization, with rising militancy in proliferating religious or secular nationalisms, and rising terrorist militancy in transnational, apocalyptic jihadistism.

Trends toward militant radicalization would inevitably lead to multilevel, regional arms races, which would involve not only conventional weapons but also weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, with possibly Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, among others, joining the nuclear club of Iran and Israel. This would result in furthering the proliferation of both conversional weapons and weapons of mass destruction in the wider Middle East, rendering the security challenges of the region more unmanageable and dangerous. As ill-conceived visions of end-of-days Armageddon have always appealed to religious nationalist and religious jihadists, the readiness to deploy nuclear weapons would rise, as such groups would identify the annihilation of their enemy as the unleashing of God’s apocalyptic wrath on the “dark and evil forces” of the world.

With these conditions persisting, the prospect of a war erupting at some point in time, with the US, Israel and their allies on one side and Iran and its allies on the other, would be a very likely possibility. It could start by a political decision or by accident, given the high level of volatility. Either way, the outcome would be devastating for all concerned. One would see a protracted all-out war intertwined with an unprecedented expansion of terrorism that no one would be able to manage. Military as well as civilian casualties would rise, American and Israeli citizens and interests would be targeted worldwide, enormous suffering would be inflicted on Iranian society, and the security of America, Israel and Iran would be irreparably eroded. The Middle East would thus sink into further darkness and disarray. Violence and extremism would become the new regime of the region and hope would disappear from the human horizon.


Part II of this article will follow in next week’s issue, which will center attention on the narrative of the supporters of the Iran agreement.

Read Part II here.