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Dr Mercille, who holds the Canadian nationality, is Lecturer at the School of Geography, Planning & Environmental Policy of the University College Dublin. Before receiving his PhD in geography from UCLA (Los Angeles, USA) in 2007, he obtained an MA in geography from the University of Kentucky (USA) and a BA in International Development Studies from McGill University (Montreal, Canada).
“Geopolitical Briefing” is a feature of ExploringGeopolitics which focuses on recent geopolitical trends and events. This interview with dr Julien Mercille addresses his views on US foreign policy towards Iran, an interpretation from a radical geopolitics perspective and his vision on policy changes under Barack Obama.
Questions and Answers
Has the relationship between US and Iran since 1979 been cyclical or structurally bad?
“The current round of sanctions and its nuclear ‘crisis’ pretext should be seen as the latest chapter in American attempts to put Iran in its place.”
In 1953, a US-backed coup removed Iran’s nationalist leader Mohammad Mosaddeq and put the Shah, a US ally, in power, who ruled the country until 1979. The 1979 Islamic revolution, which deposed the Shah, brought to power a theocratic regime that has ruled up to this day. This regime has been openly antagonist and challenging to the US. For example, in 1979-1981 the Iranians held captive Americans for 444 days. The US responded to this defiance by attempting to isolate Iran from 1979 onwards, for instance through sanctions that have been progressively tightened over time. The current round of sanctions and its nuclear ‘crisis’ pretext should be seen as the latest chapter in American attempts to put Iran in its place. The current crisis began in 2002, when claims were made by an Iranian exile group in Washington DC that Iran was not in compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which regulates the use of nuclear energy globally.
“In fact, there is a lot of evidence, available in a number of reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that Iran’s nuclear activities are peaceful.”
However, despite many assertions to the contrary by the mainstream media and in official statements by Western governments, there is no evidence that Iran is working on a military nuclear program today. In fact, there is a lot of evidence, available in a number of reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that Iran’s nuclear activities are peaceful. Is there any chance that Iran is working secretly on a nuclear bomb? Maybe, but that would be surprising since for the moment, there’s no solid evidence supporting that assertion.
1979 was the turning point since which the US has seen Iran as a defying power and has attempted to isolate it. Of course, since 1979, there have been some periods when relations were less bad in relative terms, or when attempts were made to engage Iran, but overall, the pattern is one of antagonism, with a gradual tightening of sanctions since 1979, the current ones under the nuclear crisis being the latest episode in this story. At the moment, there are sanctions applied on Iran through the UN Security Council and also by the US itself.
How would you describe US foreign policy towards Iran from a radical geopolitics perspective?
“From this perspective, two problems with critical geopolitics is that it often fails to ask why certain policies are enacted and not others, and it doesn’t put enough weight on (geo)economics in its analyses.”
Radical geopolitics is an approach that seeks to improve on the critical geopolitics school of thought, which has been very popular since the 1990s. In a nutshell, radical geopolitics attempts to identify the causes of policy -in particular, US foreign policy since World War II- and sees political economy and (geo)economics as the drivers behind US foreign policy. From this perspective, two problems with critical geopolitics is that it often fails to ask why certain policies are enacted and not others, and it doesn’t put enough weight on (geo)economics in its analyses. Many examples could be given to illustrate those points, but perhaps the most relevant here is that critical geopolitics, as far as I’m aware, has addressed only to a very limited extent the role of oil in US policy towards the Middle East, whether we are talking about the 2003 invasion of Iraq or the current Iranian nuclear crisis. Yet, the significance of energy resources in shaping US foreign policy towards the Middle East is enormous.
Radical geopolitics seeks to explain US foreign policy in terms of two main forces, or “logics,” that drive US foreign policy, one geopolitical and the other geoeconomic. The geoeconomic logic refers to the ways in which the expansion of US business worldwide and American interest in controlling the world economy shape policy. The geopolitical logic refers to the need for the US government to resist challenges to its hegemony worldwide through political decisions, or occasionally, through military intervention, as in Vietnam or perhaps Iran. It’s important to eliminate those challenges and send a message to other would-be challengers in the world that they might well suffer harsh consequences if they become too defiant. US officials often refer to this as the need to maintain “credibility,” i.e., they need to show that they truly have the capacity and will to eliminate challenges.
There’s nothing very special about radical geopolitics’ assertions they’ve all been stated explicitly by US policy-makers for at least 60 years or so, as can be seen in their public declarations and the internal record such as declassified national security documents outlining the motivations behind US foreign policy.
“In the case of US policy towards Iran, radical geopolitics argues that US attempts to isolate Iran through the nuclear crisis are products of two main factors: American interest in controlling its energy resources (the ‘geoeconomic logic’), and the need to maintain credibility by punishing the defiant mullahs (the ‘geopolitical logic’).”
In the case of US policy towards Iran, radical geopolitics argues that US attempts to isolate Iran through the nuclear crisis are products of two main factors: American interest in controlling its energy resources (the ‘geoeconomic logic’), and the need to maintain credibility by punishing the defiant mullahs (the ‘geopolitical logic’).
The Middle East accounts for approximately two-thirds of world energy reserves, and Iran holds the world’s second largest reserves of gas and third largest of oil. Simplifying an obviously complex reality, American postwar policy towards the Middle East has been consistent over time and its main objective has been to allocate the region’s energy resources to allies like Japan and Germany and deny them to rivals like the Soviet bloc. The US can also exert some leverage over the economies of allies if it controls their sources of energy. For instance, the US intervened in the Middle East in the early Cold War period to ensure that its oil would be diverted to Western Europe and Japan to fuel their recoveries along capitalist lines and to prevent the Soviet bloc from accessing the resources.
Again this is nothing new. For example, in 1951, in the face of rising Iranian nationalism under Mosaddeq, the US National Security Council stated that “The loss of Iran by default or by Soviet intervention would… deny the free world access to Iranian oil… These developments would seriously affect Western economic and military interests in peace or war in view of the great dependence on Western Europe on Iranian oil”. Planning documents outlining the thinking of the current Bush administration have not been declassified, but the parallels are readily apparent, as noted by many analysts such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Michael Klare. Middle East oil now needs to be preserved for the Western world and denied to Eurasian powers such as China and Russia. Furthermore, Americans rely increasingly on Middle Eastern oil and this dependence is projected to rise in the future, which adds to political interest in Iranian oil resources.
But there’s also a second important factor to consider, the ‘geopolitical logic’ and the need to show Iran and other countries that its challenge of US hegemony will not be tolerated. Again, this is not new. For instance, in the early 1950s, Britain and the US backed a coup that removed Mosaddeq and brought the Shah back to power, who then proceeded with an agreement leaving effective control of oil in the hands of Western oil companies. The New York Times then editorialized (6 August 1954) that “Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism.” In 1979, the Islamic Revolution removed the US-supported Shah and has constituted since then a clear challenge to the United States. As such, American officials have applied sanctions on Tehran and attempted to isolate the clerical regime internationally. The nuclear crisis is the latest pretext used to ‘justify’ this policy.
What changes are likely in US policy towards Iran after Barack Obama becomes president?
“Will Obama change his policy and state clearly that the military option is ‘off the table’? Perhaps, but my guess would be that this won’t happen unless there is an important development in Iran, such as a new government which would be more pro-West.”
The Obama administration will be less conservative than Bush’s, but we should not expect a strong anti-war, progressive team on the foreign policy front, as can be seen from Obama’s appointments so far. One important issue in the case of policy towards Iran is the military option, which Bush has chosen to “keep on the table”, just like Obama. Will Obama change his policy and state clearly that the military option is ‘off the table’? Perhaps, but my guess would be that this won’t happen unless there is an important development in Iran, such as a new government which would be more pro-West. Presidential elections are scheduled for June 2009 in Iran so there could be a change in the attitude of the new government.
Also, there is the issue of negotiations. Bush has insisted that for serious negotiations to take place, Iran first needs to suspend its enrichment of uranium. Again, we can only speculate as to what Obama will do, and he has shown signs of more flexibility on that front. The goal would be to engage in serious negotiations without first asking Iran to stop its enrichment of uranium.
“Indeed, most governments of the world are rather supportive of Iran’s nuclear program, as long as it remains civilian. (…) So if Obama pretends to be more in line with the world and against Bush’s unilateralism, he should drop sanctions and military threats immediately.”
Finally, will sanctions remain in place? Most probably yes. But it’s important to know that on that count, the US and Western governments who push for sanctions are going against the international consensus on the question. Indeed, most governments of the world are rather supportive of Iran’s nuclear program, as long as it remains civilian. For instance, the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which comprise around two-thirds of the UN’s member countries and 55% of the world population, have been supportive of Iran since the beginning of the crisis. Also, the BBC had a big opinion poll about a year ago that found that the world population is clearly in favor of diplomatic negotiations with Iran to resolve the nuclear crisis (57% of the 30,000 respondents favored that approach), whereas only 26% favor economic sanctions and 8% favor military strikes. So if Obama pretends to be more in line with the world and against Bush’s unilateralism, he should drop sanctions and military threats immediately.