No matter who's in power
Iran's national interests
By Hamid Zangeneh
July 25, 2001
One thing that we all must do in the wake of the eighth presidential
election in Iran is to collectively identify and discuss Iran's national
interests and carefully and methodically prioritize them. This would create
a by-partisan consensus and understanding that all politics would end at
the "Persian Gulf water edges" and only Iran's interests are the
driving forces behind any Iranian policy.
Iranian people and other governments would know that the differences
between Khatamis, Khameneis, and Rafsanjanis of Iran would be mostly stylistic.
Something similar to the U.S., Britain, Japan, etc., where governments come
and go, but policies, for the most part, remain in place, which reflects
the stability of the system in these countries.
For example, during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton the
candidate, excruciated George Bush (the father) for his China policy. However,
after he became the president, he endorsed the same one China policy and
business as usual. Similarly, George W. Bush was critical of Clinton's Kosovo
policy but after the election, they are following the same path.
National interests of any country could be listed to include political
and economic sovereignty. The question is, therefore, what do they mean
by political and economic security in this increasingly interdependent world?
Throughout history, the world has been divided between those who frequently,
through war and subjugation, set the path for interdependence, cooperation,
and progress and those who insisted on sitting aside and trying to be "independent",
for one or another reason.
If for the sake of argument, we do not become absorbed in the discussion
of imperialism and colonialism and their gory implementations and consequences,
and concentrate on the post-Wold War II period, we could see that Western
market-economy democracies enunciated explicit policies of inclusion, cooperation,
and economic as well as political interdependence (globalization) as one
of their national interests. They established institutions such as the United
Nations, International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank as well as multinational
and transnational corporations to fulfill their intentions through private
and public channels and relentlessly pursued these explicitly stated goals
Pursuit of these objectives has been vilified by many for a number of
reasons. We have the Marxist-Leninist denunciation of these objectives as
the evils of imperialism and in the last couple of decades, the Islamic
Republic has replaced it with similar slogans to express a same sentiment.
A relatively similar episode of radicalism that came to exist for a short
period in the 60s was the failed Arab nationalism led by Naser of Egypt.
They preached intolerance and Arab superiority rather than universal interdependence
and cooperation as well.
Even though Islamic Republic's analysis and means of achieving their
objectives are different, they are designed and destined to achieve a similar
end, i.e., isolation and slow but certain destitution relative to their
Western brethren in the long run, if Iranian citizens allow them to continue
on this path.
Regardless of whether or not the Islamic regime survives in its current
form and constitution, there are national interests that are and must be
independent of the form, shape, and ideological tendencies of the current
and/or any future government. These vital issues determine the long run
fate and welfare of the country. These are what we call Iran's national
If I were to prepare a list of these national interest issues, the re-establishment
of U.S. -Iran relations would be on the top of my agenda because of the
importance of the U.S. in many national-interest issues of Iran, such as
energy, WTO membership, trade, and defense needs. A cursory look at the
balance sheet shows that the two countries' national interests would be
served more by bilateral cooperation and normal relations than by disengagement.
On the American side of the ledger we need to pay more attention to the
following direct and indirect effects of disengagement and sanctions:
1-- It undermines the essence of free-trade policies that the U.S. has
always relentlessly promoted.
2-- Iran is a large supplier of oil and gas, vital to industrial world
3-- Iran has a large (60+ million) sophisticated and relatively young
population, which is potentially, a profitable market for the U.S. exports
and, more importantly, U.S. foreign direct investment.
4-- Iran holds a strategic key to the oil and gas of the Caspian Sea
5-- Since they are not multilateral and "leak proof", they
will not succeed even if they are imposed by they most powerful nation on
earth. They will just increase the marginal cost of doing business.
6-- They deny international business the ability to extend American style
democracy and capitalism
7-- By denying dialogue and exchange with those who engage in international
activities, a vital channel thorough which evolutionary changes are transmitted
is blocked. Therefore, a valuable and influential channel and impetus for
policy change is forsaken for the sake of immediate gratification.
On the Iranian side of the ledger, if nothing else mattered, Iran needs
to enter the WTO and since its rules require "unanimous consent"
for accepting new members, there is no way that Iran could enter the organization
without the U.S. acquiescence, or at least her tacit approval. Besides,
assuming that Iran did manage to enter the organization without U.S. consent,
the U.S. does not have to allow trade between the two countries and U.S.-Iran
trade would stay at its current minimal level.
And we all know too well that the U.S. market is indispensable for any
credible export-led growth and development strategy, something that Iran
needs if she is going to get out of her current economic rut. One cannot
find any prosperous economy without a very good political or at least economic
link to the U.S. today. So, from the Iranian point of view, ignoring all
other potential benefits, acceptance in the WTO would worth the cost, if
Fortunately, during the presidential election in Iran, the candidates
briefly discussed the subject. The discussions were not, however, deep and
all encompassing but enough to break the so-called taboo barrier. They were
good for a starter and they need to be continued until they come up with
a concrete set of priorities on this issue to take to the negotiating table.
Other national security issues on my list would be the relevancy and
cost of Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Iran, security of both the Persian
Gulf and the Caspian sea, and defense capabilities that must be highly competitive
with Turkey and Arab states in the immediate region.
Given the realities of the world, it must now be obvious to everyone
in the IRI regime that there is no way that Iran could supplant Israel in
the U.S. for many national interest reasons. A common misunderstanding is
that the Washington's Middle East policy is based on the Jewish and Israeli
lobbies' interests. Therefore, if one could out-organize, out-spend, and
discredit them politically, we could "eliminate the competition"
and Iran could establish cordial and mutually beneficial relationship with
This interpretation which is, unfortunately, the basis of many Iranian
decisions, ignores a very important dynamic. The strength of Jewish and
Israeli lobbies and their presence in the U.S. are all important and indisputable
only as long as they advocate and enunciate what is in the national interests
of the United States, not the other way around. That is, the U.S. national
interests are not shaped and molded to enhance Jewish and Israeli's welfare
and national interests. It is the national interests of the United States
in the region that gives these lobbies the strength that they enjoy for
the time being. If and when these national interests change, their strengths
will wither on the vine as well. This is a one way street. Jews are successful
only because they are beating the U.S. national interest drums.
On the economic side of the ledger, I would include Iran's future water
and energy needs (gas and oil but more importantly, renewable hydroelectric,
solar, wind, and nuclear sources) on the top my priority list. Next would
be membership in the WTO, and Iran's future economic role in the world trade.
All of these could be more facilitated and made easier to achieve by re-establishing
relations with the U.S.
Hamid Zangeneh is professor economics at Widener University, Chester,
Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of