Iran Q&A

Today I had the opportunity to attend an address by Manouchehr Mottaki, the Foreign Minister of Iran. Among other things, I was hoping it would provide something interesting to blog about. Unfortunately, Mr. Mottaki was disappointingly dull and – at least compared to his boss – sane. He didn’t once mention “the Great Satan” or “the Zionist implant”, or express any thinly-disguised wish to turn Tel Aviv into radioactive cinder. In Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, I guess that’s a sign of moderation.

What he did do was use an awful lot of leftist rhetoric and arguments. The main theme in his speech was political and economic power in international relations; his argument, essentially, was that everything wrong with the world can ultimately be traced back to the “irresponsible” use of power by the United States. At times he sounded eerily like Naomi Klein or any other left-wing anti-globalisation theorist. He complained about globalisation causing an “increased discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots”, and talked about a “selfish and irresponsible global economy, separated from local needs”. I was struck by the extent to which politicised Islam has internalised the leftist critique of capitalism.

At times, Mottaki’s attempt to place the United States at the centre of every global calamity caused him to veer into arguments that were flat-out ridiculous. He argued, for example, that all wars in Africa are caused by a struggle for resources (a questionable premise in itself), which in turn is caused by the international economy and the refusal of Western countries to grant debt relief, and that every African war is thus ultimately the fault of “injustice and the use of power [by the United States]”. He discussed Africa extensively, but there was often a degree of inherent hypocrisy in his rhetoric; for example, he lavished praised on African states for their widespread adoption of democracy without pausing to consider the dubious democratic credentials of a country where unelected clerics hold veto over the government.

Eventually, Mottaki got around to talking about the issue everyone wanted hear about: Iran’s nuclear programme. He was predictably unapologetic. The United States, he said, doesn’t really believe that Iran’s nuclear programme is anything more than a peaceful attempt to generate electricity for civilian purposes. America is motivated purely by a desire to keep Iran down, and prevent an uppity third world country from attaining scientific knowledge and technology. The entire international crisis, in this view, can be reduced a question of technology transfer.

I doubt anyone in the audience was swayed by this absurd fiction. It was, I think, rhetoric designed for domestic audiences, which unwittingly slipped into an international speech. In Iran, people really do think this way: the entire population has genuinely bought into the idea that nuclear energy can solve Iran’s numerous economic problems, and that Western opposition to the programme is a sinister attempt to keep Iran poor and underdeveloped. This faith in nuclear energy has been assiduously cultivated by the Iranian government, but it has also taken on a life of its own. Support for the nuclear programme is now so deep that, even if Iran could be persuaded to abandon nuclear enrichment in return for a collection of political and economic rewards, public outrage might make it impossible to actually do so. During question time, I wanted to ask Mottaki whether there was any conceivable scenario in which Iran might peacefully decide to abandon its nuclear programme. Time was cut short, and I didn’t get a chance. In all likelihood though, I already knew the answer.