Iranicum has conducted an interview with the Iranian political analyst, Shirin Shafaie, on the recent EU sanctions and international coercive policies against Iran and the ongoing nuclear dispute between Iran and the West. Miss Shafaie is a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London and the President of the SOAS Research Students’ Society. There, she is pursuing her PhD at the Department of Politics and International Studies; her PhD working title is “Contemporary Iranian War Narratives: A Dialectical Discourse Analysis”.
Iranicum: Miss Shafaie, the EU-Council recently added the EIH Bank in Hamburg to their sanctions list, although the German finance authorities BaFin and the Bundesbank never assessed any violation of the EIH against existing sanctions. What was your first impression of this decision by Brussels?
Shafaie: I was of course saddened but by no means surprised to hear about this. Certain members of the EU seem to have acted in a predictable way once again to punish Iran, and by extension innocent Iranian and EU citizens, for a crime that has not yet been committed, based on the false pretext that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weaponisation program. Moreover, there has never been any evidence supporting such allegations against Iran's nuclear program, most importantly by the US (under the pressure of Israel), the UK, France and Germany. The power, right and responsibility to assess the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program lies only with the IAEA; and IAEA has confirmed time and again that Iran is enriching uranium only to the levels it has stated and more importantly that no declared nuclear material has ever been diverted to military use in Iran. This very important fact has been most recently stated (and admitted to) by six former European ambassadors to Iran namely Dalton (UK), Hohwü-Christensen (Sweden), Von Maltzahn (Germany), Metten (Belgium), Nicoullaud (France) and Toscano (Italy) in their collective piece called "Iran is not in breach of international law".
The EU decision to sanction yet another Iranian-related business within its borders has added one more chapter to the whole demonisation discourse which has been going on against Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, eight years through the Iran-Iraq War and direct support of certain European countries to Saddam Hussein's war crimes (including transfer of technology and material for chemical weapons) to the 21st Century under the banner of sanctions and coercive diplomacy which is only short of a military attack in its name. It is very sad to see that the most prominent approach that the EU has decided to take vis-a-vis Iran is a confrontational one which is bound to be destructive by its nature. However, the particular case of EU sanctions against EIH Bank in Hamburg is not surprising because the nature of Western allegations against Iran and Iranian-related businesses has always been intertwined with fabrications and hypocrisy.
Iranicum: You claim that the demonisation of Iran is as old as the Islamic Revolution of Iran itself. In addition to the known economic sanctions and indirect military pressure, what other punitive instruments does the West use against Iran?
Shafaie: Well, these measures are diverse and proactively confrontational. Coercive diplomatic measures were originally designed to discourage their recipient from continuing certain behaviour or activities by the threat to use force or through use of limited force. Now, the spectrum is quite colourful in the case of Iran: in addition to economic sanctions, there are also threat of a nuclear attack (simply articulated in the infamous phrase “all options are on the table”), political sanctions against individuals, freezing of Iranian assets including some 10 billion dollars of national Iranian assets which is irrelevant to the nuclear issue; moreover there has been detrimental cyber attacks against Iranian (declared and legal) nuclear facilities, diplomatic and financial support for acts of terrorism inside Iran (most recently through notorious Jundallah), assassination of Iranian scientists and the list goes on.
What is so tragic about this list is that it all has become such a cliche. The discourse constructed around and based on coercive diplomacy, on a spectrum ranging from economic sanctions to threat of a nuclear attack (but also including occasional petty carrots) has now been normalised through international socialisation of, not the fact, but the allegation that Iran is definitely after a nuclear bomb. The Iranian nuclear case is still open and the IAEA inspectors are still at work, yet the judgment has already been passed and the punitive measures long taken. I believe that in order to solve this problem we need to remind ourselves once again what the problem really is, or ever was. I argue that we are at the wrong place using the wrong tools to solve an imagined problem.
Iranicum: You are suggesting that the nuclear issue is only an excuse and that these conflicts were also present in the past. But what are those real problems that we have with Iran - is there any core problem?
Shafaie: Iran is an undeniably important country in the Middle East and internationally because of its strategic geopolitics, its natural and human resources and its religious and cultural history. Therefore it makes all the difference to Western powers if Iran is behaving in accordance with their national interests (like some other Middle Eastern countries) or if Iran behaves based on its own national rights and interests. In other words, the West believes that it cannot afford to have a fully independent country, especially one as important as Iran, in the strategic Middle East region.
Therefore I suggest that the core problem for the West regarding Iran is neither Iran’s military threat nor its human rights status, but Iran’s national independence. As a matter of fact, symptoms of such problem are visible further back in history, for example in 1953 when the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown through a UK-US-sponsored Coup, namely Operation Ajax; this happened in the aftermath of nationalisation of Iranian oil industry. More than half a century later, Iran is once again insisting on its inalienable rights, this time the right to peaceful nuclear technology, accordingly the nationalised Iranian nuclear programme is raising similar concerns in the West.
That is why it has been used as an excuse by Western powers to isolate, weaken, demonise and finally overthrow the politically independent regime in Iran. But the issue is not all about problems. Certain Western countries directly benefit, in financial terms, from demonising Iran in the eyes of Iran’s immediate and oil-rich neighbours. Creating Iranophobia, especially with an emphasis on the alleged Iranian nuclear threat, is particularly useful if one needs to sell billions of dollars worth of anti-missile shields to the oil-rich Arab States of the Persian Gulf. In short, the West is trying to weaken Iran and sabotage its national independence through economic sanctions on the one hand, while financially benefiting from reinforcing the perception of an Iranian threat in the region on the other hand.
Iranicum: Even if Iran is not a military threat for other countries, it is perceived in Europe as an illegitimate and dictatorial state, under which its population suffers from restriction in daily life. Why should we not have a coercive relation with a country like that? Saddam Hussein’s Iraq also faced these coercive measures, which finally toppled his regime and turned Iraq into a democracy.
Shafaie: Even if Europe really sees the Islamic Republic as illegitimate and dictatorial, and is in fact bothered by this, it still recognises Iran as a sovereign nation-state and is therefore obliged under the most basic international norms to “refrain ... from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of [Iran], or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”. Even if Europe’s prime objective is to put an end to the suffering of Iranian population and their restrictions in daily life, Europe also has to recognise the fact that it is itself complicit in creating such suffering for the Iranian people through indiscriminate punitive and coercive measures that it has taken against them as citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Even if Iraq had in fact turned into a “democracy” after the US-led invasion of the country in 2003, the invasion still was based on a false pretext, namely existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq; the US did not seemed to be bothered with violation of human rights and absence of democracy in Iraq. Likewise, the sanction regime which was imposed on Iraq over more than a decade has in effect ripped the country and its people off of their most basic economic and technological infrastructure which is necessary for the wellbeing and development of any people in any meaningful democracy.
In short, even if the We stern intentions were purely directed towards promotion of human rights and establishment of democracies in the Middle East, even if this was also what the people of the target countries had called for, even if such benevolent Western strategies had any chance of success, it would be still senseless and paradoxical to follow the path of coercion, confrontation and conflict to reach peace and prosperity.
Iranicum: Iranophobia in the international system is an element which is mainly to be found in the US and UK foreign policies. It has often been stated that as far back as the Clinton Administration, the US has had problems to convince its allies to support its dual containment policy against post-revolutionary Iran. How effective do you see the cooperation between the US and its European allies today?
Shafaie: I don’t think that the US has ever faced any significant problems demonising Iran in the eyes of its European allies or Arab client states. Immediately after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979) there was a concerted effort on the part of major Western powers, especially the US, the UK, France, West Germany and Italy, but also including the Soviet Union and all the Arab countries of the region except for Syria and Libya, to help Saddam Hussein’s Act of Aggression against the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran. To put it in simple words, the European countries capable of exporting arms and military technology to Iraq found the Iraqi claim beneficial that Iran wants to export its Islamic Revolution militarily to the countries of the region, especially to the oil-rich Arab monarchies. Accordingly the UN Security Council also failed to recognise Iraq as the Aggressor in the Iran-Iraq War or to directly condemn or even try to stop the use of Chemical Weapons by Iraq against Iranian citizens, soldiers and Iraqi Kurdish population, something which could have encouraged Iran to accept an early ceasefire and hence put an end to the Western conventional arms deals in the region.
A similar approach towards Iran was pursued under the Clinton Administration in the 1990s which is known as Dual Containment Policy according to which Iran and Iraq would be held isolated and cut off from the international financial and trading network. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran has once again become the focus of Western demonisation discourse in region. Especially now with the rise of popular Arab revolts, the West certainly wants to set an appropriate example and discourage potential revolutionary groups from wanting to establish a fully independent regime which would challenge the Western interests in the region. There are many recent examples of European cooperation with the US in fuelling the idea of Iranophobia in the region; for example the most recent EU sanctions against Iranian banks and businesses which in part are designed to reassure the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf against the alleged threat of a nuclear "armed" Iran.
But there are also signs of disagreement between EU members in terms of going along with UK, US and Israeli policies of containment and regime change in Iran. Such disagreements have been perhaps most evident in the remarks of the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, in his visit to Qatar in February 2011 where he proposed the formation of a breakaway group of like-minded European nations, i.e. “Coalition of the Willing”, to join forces to take action against Iran outside the EU mainstream. This shows that there are uncertainties on how much longer the US- and Israeli-backed proposals for unilateral EU sanctions against Iran can be accomplished by all 27 members of the EU; Italy, Austria and Greece have already shown signs of disagreement for example.
Iranicum: Despite of Grand Politics, you are doing your PhD as an Iranian oversea student at a British university - Which disadvantages and discriminations do you and your fellow students have to face due to these sanctions?
Shafaie: There are thousands of Iranian students studying abroad who are funded by their families in Iran. Many of them live and study within the EU borders. Hundreds of them, for example, who study in the UK and pay some of the highest rates for their fees, are facing extraordinary problems doing so. This is a direct result of EU indiscriminate sanctions which has cut their access to the European financial system thus not allowing them to transfer their university fees abroad, among other things. The situation is getting increasingly worse for Iranians residing in both sides of the Atlantics. Outgoing funds have also become extremely problematic. This latter dimension is comprehensively addressed in a document by the Asian Law Caucus which discusses the restrictions imposed on Iranian Americans to engage in personal, family and charitable transactions in Iran.
To put it simply, Iran is under a multifaceted financial siege, the burden of which is greatly shared by Iranian university students abroad and their families in Iran. If there was such thing as International Students Rights, like there seems to be a Universal Human Rights, the right to freely pay for one's education, or the freedom to choose one's own subject would be of vital importance to it. In fact the right to education "in all its dimensions" which would in principle include the rights I just mentioned do exist in the UN conventions on human rights. More importantly, “normative instruments of the United Nations and UNESCO lay down international legal obligations for the right to education” while the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) supposedly monitors their implementation. “These instruments promote and develop the right of every person to enjoy access to education of good quality, without discrimination or exclusion”. Sadly however these de facto "international" student rights are being violated by many countries against Iranian university students, most prominently by the so-called Western democracies which attract the biggest number of Iranian students to their higher education system.
Iranicum: Miss Shafaie, thank you very much for speaking with us.
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