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Iran will not cave in

Tehran is unlikely to accede to the West's demands to halt uranium enrichment. Sreeram Chaulia writes.

india Updated: Aug 02, 2012 00:07 IST

As Western sanctions on Iran's financial and oil sectors hurt more and the turmoil leading to potential regime change in neighbouring Syria peaks, there is a palpable sense of uncertainty among Iranians from all walks of life. From the intelligentsia to the common man, Iranians are bristling against Western hegemonic designs and reflecting on why they are being undeservedly singled out.

But far from developing a victim's mentality, they are stoically preparing for a long spell of confrontation with the West without caving in to the latter's demands to halt uranium enrichment in the nuclear programme. One common refrain among Iranians is that they are inured to externally-imposed privations since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and that they are "living in the present moment" and avoiding speculation of what the future holds. The culture of martyrdom ingrained in Shiite theology and an ethic of helping needy fellow citizens through cash or kind are the main coping mechanisms of a nation under siege.

A combination of Western sanctions and macroeconomic policy mistakes has depreciated the Iranian rial drastically and fed into an inflationary spiral affecting Iran's middle and lower classes. But, state support for the poor in the form of cash hand-outs, the intangible cement of 'Iran-is-special' nationalism is keeping the nation going.

Geopolitically, Iran is far from being isolated. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has emboldened Iranian strategists, who are confident that 'political Islam' is gaining ground across West Asia. Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi wishes to develop closer relations with Iran and says that his motive is to produce a "balance of pressure" in the region against Western hegemony. The fact that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is friendly to Iran, and that the Hezbollah-led government of Lebanon is also close to Iran, means that the Western agenda of cornering Tehran into submission is far from being successful.

Iranians berate the West for selectively interfering in the Syrian crisis with the goal of toppling the Assad government, while permitting its allies like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to crush popular uprisings in their own countries. Iran views itself as the guardian of Shiite interests globally and there is a great deal of concern here about the Shiite-led revolts flaring up presently in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Iranian strategists concur with sadness that the conservative, pro-Western Sunni monarchies in the region would crush Shiite uprisings in the short run but will fail in the longer term because the spirit of mass revolt is on the incline since the Arab Spring. If the unimaginable could happen in Egypt and Tunisia last year, when pro-Western dictators were dethroned by people, Iran sees no reason why revolution cannot occur in the strongest bastion of the West in the region - Saudi Arabia.

Contrary to oversimplification of Iranian's younger generation as culturally pro-American, I gathered from meeting several students here that many of them hold a deeper understanding that they represent a historic phenomenon. One student explained, "Iranophobia" is ingrained in the West because "we are the frontline nation in the region that reduces superpower influence." A vendor of Iran's famed carpets echoed similar sentiments.

While many believe that the West is itching for military solutions, there is also a pragmatic strain of thought that the sanctions cannot be total in their implementation. As one academician put it, "after the global financial crisis, the West lacks the economic sway and influence that it enjoyed in the past to be able to enforce a global embargo on us." Notwithstanding internal political discord and severe limitations on democratic freedom, Iranians are sending a message to the whole world: do not underestimate us.

Sreeram Chaulia is dean, Jindal School of International Affairs

The views expressed by the author are personal