Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the lightning rod of Iranian politics for the past eight years, is finally gone. At least his days in office are now numbered, with the Iranian presidency soon to be occupied by the centrist Hassan Rouhani.
Thanks largely to his vitriolic rhetoric and a deliberately crafted revolutionary image, harking back to the early days of the Islamic Republic, the Iranian president fanned the flames of a polarised narrative emanating from western capitals concerning Iran and its destabilising political system. The narrative was simple and straightforward, produced by a global array of western politicians and diplomats and their regional allies, echoed by television commentators and talking heads, journalists and even academics, all warning of the ever-present and imminent dangers of “the Iranian threat”.
For his part, Ahmadinejad played into the narrative perfectly. He revelled in his image of a radical, anti-western idol-smasher. He gave rousing speeches calling for global justice and liberation, struggle against imperialism and the destruction of enemies.
According to the narrative that emerged in the process, Iran was the world’s undisputed pariah, a major source of global terrorism, and the primary cause of instability in places close and far. That the country’s leaders were after nuclear weapons was taken as an article of faith, their frightening access to which was impending and immediate. Ever so often, in fact, the world was warned of Iran’s imminent acquisition of doomsday weapons, with which it would wipe out Israel and anyone else who stood in its way to regional hegemony.
The narrative’s chief remedy for the Iranian menace was sanctions, more and more sanctions in fact, meant to increasingly tighten the noose around the country’s archaic dictators. Short of military actions, sanctions were presented as the most effective means of curtaining Iran’s impulse for regional destruction and global instability.
The sanctions first targeted the country’s trade in sensitive technologies, the definition for which became steadily more inclusive, encompassing everything from spare parts for airplanes and factories to computers and cell phones. Next came the petroleum sector, the country’s economic lifeline and its chief source of revenues. The sanctions then moved on to the banking and financial sectors, bringing about the speedy devaluation of the currency, the riyal, and the dramatic slowing down of the economy.
The narrative blamed Iran itself for its predicament, pointing to its intransigence in the ongoing negotiations with the European Union and the US over its nuclear programme as the primary cause of increasingly tougher sanctions. And as the sanctions tightened, western diplomats and politicians congratulated themselves for their determined resolve and for “standing shoulder-to-shoulder” against the menacing Iranians.
While simplified here, these basic parameters of the Iran narrative were never critically thought-through. Seldom were its main premises questioned or even analytically examined.
Now, with the polarising figure of Ahmadinejad finally on the way out, with his wings clipped and his rhetoric extinguished, perhaps the time has come to reexamine some of the core assumptions of the prevailing narrative on Iran. At the very least, the narrative ought to be nuanced and balanced.
The first question to ask is whether sanctions work, in the first place? Do sanctions really work to achieve their goals of inducing a population to revolt, or a regime to collapse, or a set of leaders to change their behaviour?
On this score, the results are at best mixed. Decades of sanctions have neither dislodged communism in Cuba nor did they bring down Saddam Hussain in Iraq — all the meanwhile decimating the middle classes in each country and greatly reducing their mobilisational potential and organising abilities.
Sanctions may have worked in South Africa and Myanmar. But there the jury is still out as to exactly what motivated the politicians in each case to make the fateful decisions they did.
Also missing from the narrative is the deleterious effects of the sanctions on the lives of ordinary people, especially those in the lower and the middle classes, for whom price rises are the most difficult to cope with. Trade sanctions mean restrictions on exports and imports and, consequently, steady price hikes in consumer goods. Civil servants and government employees on fixed incomes — who, in a country like Iran make up the bulk of the urban middle class — and merchants and traders are the first ones to suffer, as are those in the lowest echelons of society, for whom there are few safety nets of any sort.
Even more problematic, indeed pernicious, are unsafe air travel and shortages of critical medical equipment and pharmaceuticals due to sanctions on airplane spare parts and international banking transactions.
One of the familiar refrains for legitimising the sanctions regime is the Iranian government’s routine violation of the human rights of its citizens. What is not questioned is how making the lives of ordinary Iranians difficult, in fact dangerous, brings them any closer to human rights.
Rouhani has yet to prove himself in office. And, given the nature and structure of the Iranian polity, the substance of Iranian politics and foreign policy may continue to remain largely the same as it has been for the last eight years. But Ahmadinejad’s departure ought to present an opportunity for a more nuanced understanding of Iran, its politics, and, most importantly, its people and their aspirations.
Mehran Kamrava is professor and Director of the Centre for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar.