Ever since it was discovered that Iran was secretly pursuing a nuclear program in 2002, Tehran has insisted its program is for “peaceful purposes” only. Washington, however is not buying it. From the beginning they have steadfastly been against a nuclear-armed Iran. Then as now, Washington believed an Iranian bomb would trigger a whole slew of undesired consequences including but not limited to a nuclear arms race in the broader Middle East. In the over 10 years since the United States has levied a series of progressively harsh economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic aimed at isolating the Iran economically from the international community. At the same time, Washington signaled to Tehran that if they come clean on their nuclear program, they would according to Obama be allowed, “to return to its rightful place among the community of nations.”
Moreover, the United States signaled that if they do so, Iran would have the right to peaceful nuclear technology under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). However, as the global economic pendulum shifts further east, Iran has little reason to believe the United States is the sole gatekeeper to the ‘community of nations’ therefore rendering Washington’s ultimatum to Iran as a false dichotomy.
For the United States, it’s a straightforward proposition. If its nuclear energy Tehran wants it should agree to halt its own indigenous uranium enrichment program in exchange for guaranteed access to nuclear power and a place in the international community. Washington considers this more than a fair deal to Iran which in many ways still considers Iran a rogue state. For over thirty years, the United States has accused Iran of consistently supporting terrorist activities abroad in an effort to expand it’s influence while at the same time clandestinely pursuing a nuclear weapons capability away from the prying eyes of the international community.
Not surprisingly, the view from Tehran is different. Not only does the Islamic Republic not consider the United States the exclusive gatekeeper of the international community but it doesn’t see relations with the United States as playing a crucial or pivotal role in Iran’s future. At least not as long as there are emerging markets in need of Iranian oil–by far Iran’s biggest export. And especially not when Washington itself grants waivers for their sanctions to some of Iran’s largest export partners.
Granted, Iran’s economy is contracting and they are not experiencing a windfall in oil revenue from developing countries now that many of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries are not buying their oil. But there are signs that oil consumption in OECD countries has peaked while consumption in many parts of the developing world are rising. With projections like these in the pipeline, the Islamic Republic sees little reason to make any fundamental changes to their economic model in the foreseeable future or to give up its self-perceived right to enrich uranium in the face of international pressure. Moreover, Tehran has called the United States the ‘Great Satan‘. Iran harbors a deep suspicion of the West, particularly with the United States and Great Britain dating back at least to the 1953 CIA overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister. This deep suspicion over time has contributed to a history of mistrust between the two sides so it’s little wonder Tehran doesn’t always buy what Washington is selling even as Iran’s economy continues to falter.
The accumulation of sanctions has made life not only harder for Iran’s elite but they have made life more difficult for ordinary Iranians as well. Tehran has been under sanctions of one kind or another since 1979. Earlier sanctions mainly targeted individuals and certain industries both inside and outside Iran who were involved in propagating terrorism or contributing to Iran’s nuclear program. The most recent sanctions have hit ordinary Iranians the hardest by specifically targeting Iranian financial institutions as well as any foreign banks doing business on behalf of Iranian banks. The result has been a near complete collapse of the Iranian Rial making some basic essentials prohibitively expensive for ordinary Iranians. This in tandem with general economic mismanagement by the Islamic Republic has slowed the over all Iranian economy to a crawl.
Despite being one of the most sanctioned countries ever, Iran has managed to avoid becoming a failed state. Time and time again, the Islamic Republic has demonstrated its ability to do whatever possible to avoid economic collapse and by extension the regime itself. In the last 34 years Tehran has managed to dodge the worst effects of the sanctions imposed by outside powers by exploiting loopholes, establishing new economic partnerships with other countries such as its growing trade with Iraq as well as enlisting the help of its economic partners for infrastructure projects. What the regime cares about the most above anything else is its own survival and it has repeatedly shown it can weather any external economic shocks outside powers can throw at it.
No doubt the sanctions have inflicted significant pain to all levels of Iranian society. They have succeeded in denying Iran access to certain international markets as well as access to nuclear and advanced military technology. But with a track record of avoiding some of the harshest sanctions ever imposed on a country by another and market demand for oil expected to rise in the developing world, Tehran sees little reason to change its economic trajectory in the foreseeable future. Moreover, if the Islamic Republic can see its way out of it’s most recent economic malaise it will have rendered Washington’s ultimatum of ‘come clean on your nuclear program or face isolation’ as irrelevant.