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United-States and Iran: The real power struggle

By Lionel Bobot and Thierry Coville, Professors, Advancia-Negocia (A Business School from the Paris Chamber of Commerce).


The publication of the National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian nuclear program has again put the focus on the Iranian policy of the United States. One of the key findings of this report is that Iran stopped the military side of its nuclear program due to "international pressure". This policy of pressure Iran has also been one of the key objectives of the recent trip in the Middle-East of the US President. The strategy followed consists in isolating and opposing Iran by forming a coalition of Arab States. So, it is may be the time to consider the effectiveness of a policy, which, in the case of the nuclear issue, puts pressure on the "Iranian Devil" without the need to negotiate.


This strategy may seem rational. Research shows that the use of pressure by negotiators creates hostility. And the existence of asymmetric powers can therefore lead to finding alternatives to this same negotiation. In the nuclear crisis between US and Iran, there are four types of asymmetric powers: diplomatic, political, economic and military.


Thierry Coville is the author of "Iran : la revolution invisible", La Découverte, 2007.

Concerning diplomacy, the power struggle appears to be more favourable towards the US, which allowed the United Nations to vote for sanctions against Iran. But this asymmetric power has its limits. The rallying of Europe to the US seems more the result of Ahmadinejad radicalism than from the influence of Washington. It is also clear that China and Russia are still opposed to heavier economic sanctions. Lastly, the diplomatic influence of the US is hampered by a lack of coherence which is reflected in the nuclear agreement made by India, which has not signed the Non Proliferation Treaty.


Another example of asymmetric power: Iran could be seen as politically unstable because of the unpopularity of its regime and its ethnic diversity. Such a situation could drive the US to threaten Iran of regime change rather than to negotiate. In reality, it is difficult, in Iran, to separate the government from the population due to both nationalism and the democratic dimension of the regime, even imperfect. And the ethnic frailty of Iran should not be overestimated. The tensions within communities have diminished since the revolution: the un-going modernization has affected minorities in various ways and has caused an evolution in behaviour, leading to an  homogenization of lifestyles and stronger national unity.


The asymmetric power is also present in the area of economy. There is a great contrast between the world leader economy and the Iranian economy which is totally dependent of its oil revenues (nearly 80 % of its exports) and lacks in competitiveness. Economic sanctions could therefore have an effect. But, then again, this asymmetric power is relative. Iran has large foreign exchange reserves resulting from the increase of the price of oil since 2002. That is to say that sanctions which do not affect Iranian oil exports will have little impact. Then, with a price of oil at around 90 to 100 $ per barrel, the impact of an oil embargo could be disastrous. In the case of strict economic sanctions, the Iranian president would probably try to attribute the economic hardships of his country to the Occident, playing on nationalism. It should not be forgotten that the regime has the means to repress any discontent while continuing to distribute the oil revenues to its political allies. On the other hand, an embargo will only be effective if applied by all.


The American military superiority is also without contest. In 2005, military spending per capita was 1.587 $ in the US against 65 $ in Iran. In this field, there is also an alternative to negotiation: the threat of a US attack. Once again, this asymmetric power is not clear. Bombing nuclear facilities will not cause know-how to disappear. The Iranian government could react by prohibiting access to the Persian Gulf. Tehran could also counter-attack by destabilizing Iraq or through the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Doest-it not also risk provoking a rise in nationalism which would reinforce the Iranian government? An attack against Iran would also lead to a mobilization of the Muslim world against the occident and to a rising terrorism.


Indeed, questioning the effectiveness of American alternatives makes negotiations with the Iranians necessary and a top priority, a negotiation which should include all the subjects of disagreement.


... Payvand News - 01/18/08 ... --

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