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Understanding the Iran Question

The latest economic sanctions imposed by the US on Iran are designed to significantly constrain Iran’s ability to connect financially with the international business community. A new US law seeks to isolate Iran’s central and major banks (now ‘blacklisted’ by the US) by penalising any financial institutions around the world that do business with them, or any companies whose transaction routes rely on them (especially for transactions related to Iranian oil), with the effective loss of any such accounts of theirs with the US. There are many countries, including the economic heavyweights India and China, who purchase Iranian oil. These measures are intended to exert further pressure on Iran to stop the advancement of its nuclear development programme, and so (what appears to the West as) the pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.

This development critically advances a longer story of problematic foreign relations between Iran and the West. The underlying issue appears to be the balance of regional power in the Middle East - between the West in alliance with the Arab/Gulf states (an alliance of economic interdependence), and Iran, whose current leadership is connected to the large politicised and militarised anti-Western Islamic networks of Hezbollah and Hamas (regarded as ‘terrorist’ by the West). Each views the other as an existential threat because of conflicting interests: for the West, Iran’s ambition to achieve more power over this region of the world is a threat to Israel and the West’s current economic security dependent on Arab oil; for Iran a nuclear-armed Israel and the West’s strong political presence in alliance with most of the Arab states stands as a check on its ambitions to increase its sovereignty and regional power, if not altogether a threat to its security.

Iran and the rest of the world

Iranians are thoroughly self-aware and proud of their historical legacy - the once globally powerful, culturally influential Persian empire. This was the centre of a world that existed before the modern age brought in by the West; a world governed greatly by Muslims (and so linked to an Islamic identity). Thus all Iranians, today the people of a nation called Iran, are united with this sense of identity. In line with this are their ambitions for their nation to become more politically powerful on the international stage, and certainly within the Middle East region. Thus any political programme in Iran must serve this goal for it to achieve the support of its entire people and be domestically successful.

All Iranians, then, believe it is part of Iran’s sovereign right to have indigenous nuclear enrichment capability for its developmental interests, and it seems the government cannot lose face with its people in this issue by capitulating to Western demands to the contrary. The West is uncomfortable with this development because according to it, nuclear enrichment capability is not needed for a nuclear programme serving purely civilian energy needs – it strongly suggests Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, which would make Iran a real security threat to the West’s position in the Middle East.     

Iran inside

But behind a unanimous sense of national heritage alongside ambitions for increased power, Iran appears to be internally complicated by disunited class and cultural orientations. The right of Iran to advance a nuclear capability for specifically weapons security and not just state development interests appears popularised by the large lower-middle and working classes who support Iran’s clerical establishment, the current governors of Iran. This is since the Iranian revolution of 1979 against Iran’s westernising monarchical ruler the Shah. With the support of these classes (crucial to the national success of any political body), the deeply religious establishment of Shi’a Islamic clerics (led by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini during the revolution) embody Iran’s fundamental cultural orientation against the West through Islam. Their and their supporters’ wish for Iran’s nuclear weapons security is especially given that their fundamentally perceived enemies, Israel and the West, have already achieved such a capability. Yet a large part of Iran made up of the urban youth (under 30 year-olds) - especially politically active and representing nearly half of the electorate - are not fundamentally against a cultural West, and despising the clerics’ essentially undemocratic rule, wish for a truly democratic sovereignty, but one certainly based on an Iranian Muslim identity.  

It can be said that the urban youth’s attitude to the West is more ‘political’ than ‘fundamental’. Like all Iranians, they demand their nation’s sovereign right to pursue self-interests of greater prestige and independence, if particularly aware that in the past such a pursuit by Iran has faced significant setback from an offensive and somewhat improper West. During Iran’s 1979 revolution against the Shah, Iranian youths took American diplomats as hostage partly in retaliation to the earlier trading and abuse of Iran’s sovereignty by a military coup d’etat plotted by the West, which having successively pressurised the Shah for cooperation, overthrew the democratically popular Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh. The coup d’etat was secretly plotted by Britain and the US because Mossadegh had completely transferred the ownership of Iran’s oil industry created by Britain to Iran through its nationalisation. Nationalisation of an industry using Iran’s own natural assets was of course very popular amongst Iranians; it paved the way to Iran’s rightful economic sovereignty (according to Mosaddegh, Iran’s oil revenues would be enough to meet Iran’s state budget) and, in turn, increased international importance. Mosaddegh would later be perceived as Iran’s nationalist saviour from the Shah, who was perceived as a corrupt puppet of Western greed. Unfortunately, a grudging Britain succeeded in strangling the nationalised Iranian oil industry with the help of sanctioning not at all dissimilar in nature to the latest round of measures by the US described in the introduction above. Since the 1979 hostage incident, which was understandably very popular in Iran in light of the above, diplomatic relations between Iran and the West have been greatly reduced, and instead a story of international economic sanctioning by the US has remained the state of affairs.

Therefore, particularly since the 1979 revolution, ‘anti-West’ broadly features in the sentiments of the Iranian electorate, but with different shades put into relief by a domestic dissidence between two majority political elements: a culturally conservative lower-middle and working class upholding an Islamic-orientated elite under clerical rule (the head of which is the Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Khamenei); and a largely young, higher class aspiring to democratic reform. Since Iran’s 2009 elections the former element and its power are now strongly defended by a military force called the Revolutionary Guard, under the current president Ahmadinejad (i.e. they are the guardians of the present Islamic theocracy, and allegedly hold strong ties with the anti-West Islamic networks of Hezbollah and Hamas across the Middle East). Their voting in to power was suspected for having been a rigged affair and, deeply unpopular amongst the Iranian youth, was met with a wide protest movement for political reform that was severely repressed.

Anyone assessing the political system in Iran can see how it is almost impossible for reformative forces to enter; founded on Khomeini’s political ideology of guardianship of an Islamic judiciary (based on Sharia), a ‘Guardian Council’ of clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader holds the power to vet most candidates it sees as unfit for standing before the Iranian electorate for the presidency and parliamentary institutions. This extends the power of the Supreme Leader by proxy, creating an imbalance between the leader and the people. Guarding also against any reform in religious guise, the Leader’s power by proxy in the Guardian Council controls which clerics can run for election by the Iranian people in a body called the ‘Assembly of Experts’ that is supposed to appoint the Leader – thus the democratic connection between the Iranian electorate and a Supreme Leader is really a façade.       

The resulting political stronghold of a conservative religious establishment and its inflexibility towards reform continue to internally destabilise Iranian politics. In the past, president Khatami (one of the leaders of the movement for reform begun after the 2009 elections) had tried to introduce some ideological change to the inflexible religious mindset. An interesting lecture given recently at the LSE by Iranian professor Soroush on critical rationalism in Iran concerned the (modern British) philosophy of empiricism by Popper, which, opposing the classical philosophy of certainty and essentialism behind the Islamic-oriented elite’s faith in the divine or supernatural, critically admits the fallibility of humans’ pursuit of knowledge and introduces the idea of scepticism. During his presidency, this was a point of intellectual faith for Khatami as he urged his cabinet to understand ‘the situation of the century’ (Soroush) and so take Iran forward. Now Popper, unofficially banned, is condemned by the Supreme Leader Khamenei as ‘not a real philosopher’; his philosophy is mostly a mark of ‘liberalism’ and thus a perceived threat to the current Islamic establishment. Such intolerance appears to be developing into an internal paranoia against an un-Islamic ‘West’, with the establishment constantly feeling the pressure to purge out ‘reformist’ elements blamed as ‘agents of the West’. In addition, increasing power tensions within the Islamic-oriented elite itself between the clerical body and (its) military guardians (headed by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad respectively) are furthering internal disunity even more and creating factionalism. A parallel can be drawn with Pakistan, the other major state whose politics are internally destabilised by a fundamental dynamic of Islam vis-à-vis the ‘West’, driving a formidable (though nonetheless turbulent) alliance between a popular religious and a largely-controlling military elite, and making democracy a difficult development.


It is whilst travailing such growing internal political dissension that an Iranian leadership has to nonetheless countenance and resist external pressure from the West in order not to let its own sovereignty be undermined in front of its people. An Iranian government’s raison d’etre in the first place is to answer to its people who instead wish for the nation’s greater sovereignty and international status; this is really regardless of the discourse of how the government politically fashions itself (‘Islamic/anti-West’, ‘Reformist’, etc. concern an internal dialogue of Iranian identity, only further to an undisputed confidence amongst all the people in an Iranian heritage and ambition to re-establish its global status). Thus the incessant sanctioning by the West cannot but seem imprudent and ignorable to this underlying and unchanging domestic reality in Iran. The problem starts with a real conflict between this Iranian reality and the West’s uncompromising securing and protection of its interests. And second, this is made worse by the fact that, as a result of internal Iranian disharmony, currently the face of Iranians’ aspirations to the world is the fundamentally and expressively anti-West, militarised Revolutionary Guard, allied to elements identified as ‘terrorist’ by the West. The West will therefore simply not tolerate Iran developing further nuclear capability with such an Iranian leadership in power.

Does the West hope that increasing international trading sanctions on Iran will eventually lead to enough domestic economic strife in the large middle and working classes of Iran to create either a revolution to overturn the fundamentally anti-West establishment, or enough pressure for this regime to change? Some commentators say that the Iranian people have got used to one form of sanction after another since 1979; continuing such a trajectory is perhaps only cementing the people’s negativity of seeing the West as an enemy to their advancement as a sovereign nation. And even if a new reformist, fully democratic and not fundamentally anti-West government came into power in Iran, will the Iranian people it must inevitably represent still not aspire to increased regional and international power, likely involving the development of nuclear capability? And then would the West be more receptive to this reality, or will it continue to seek to preserve and even expand its status quo in the Middle East, thus seeing such a mightier, nevertheless democratic, Iran as a change harbouring threat instead of opportunity?  It seems to me that all Iranians, not least the forward-thinking youth, are wary of such a narrowly self-interested West since the time of the Shah and the West’s response to the nationalisation of Iran’s oil industry; many of the leaders of the movement for democratic reform opposed to the clerical establishment are principally against co-opting and evening communicating with the US. Thus Western attempts to engage the Iranian public away from the current Iranian leadership (as warned recently by the Supreme Leader Khamenei) appear like a highly wishful and construed campaign. Such a strategy suggests to me that the West is attempting to deal with the problematic reality of the Iranian people’s ambitions by antagonising for a regime change in Iran, because by thus subduing a fundamentally ideological opposition and threat to its interests, it hopes to open up a path of diplomacy with a new, ideologically friendly Iranian government, that would probably enable it greater influence over the governing of Iranian people’s ambitions.  

Varun Verma is currently an intern at the Muslim Institute with an MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.