Tehran, Iran – Iran’s foreign minister has been touring world capitals to try and save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after the US’ withdrawal.
Pledges of continued support from China and Russia were no surprise. Even the European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s support was expected; she’s been an outspoken supporter of the agreement and her public remarks have made her a popular figure in Iran.
US President Donald Trump has been a critic of Iran‘s involvement in conflicts in the Middle East since he was a presidential candidate.
In an effort to placate the Americans, Europe’s leaders will be looking for concessions on Iran’s ballistic missiles programme, and are likely to raise the issue of Tehran’s support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Iran’s leaders say these relationships are part of a forward defensive strategy, all part of living in a tough neighbourhood, and that ballistic missiles are a necessity against the United States and other powerful countries in the region.
Despite suggestions by European signatories, Iran says compromising its self-defence capability is off the table, even if it means scrapping the nuclear agreement.
“National security is a [necessity] for any activities in a country,” said Kamal Dehghani, a member of Iran’s parliament and the deputy chairman of the parliamentary commission on national security and foreign policy.
“If we cannot guarantee national security, we can never [have] economic development and public welfare,” Dehghani added.
“The first step and foundation for a country is national security. Under the shadow of national security, national interests can be met.”
World leaders worry that Iran’s rockets could someday carry a nuclear warhead. But Iran has been clear on that issue; Iran never intends on pursuing a nuclear bomb. But it seems many world leaders are unwilling to listen.
“Never,” said Dehghani, when asked if Iran would ever build a nuclear weapon. “We have committed to the world that despite having enough nuclear knowledge to use nuclear power in many ways, we will only use it for peaceful purposes.”
So, why doesn’t anyone believe Iran?
Hamed Mousavi is a professor of political science at Tehran University. He says it’s a problem of messaging. In the face of the bully pulpit that the American presidency has become, Iran is struggling to have its voice heard.
“I think Iran’s [public relations] campaign is much much weaker than what the Israelis and the Americans have in terms of media outlets, in terms of the movie industry,” Mousavi said.
“So they have all sorts of these tools to try to accuse Iran and Iran essentially has not really adopted wise policies in this regard. Giving our message to the world has not really been our strong point for perhaps even the past four decades.”
Iran’s desire to keep itself safe goes back to the beginning of the Islamic Republic.
At the Tehran Peace Museum, many of the installations are about the war with Iraq in the 1980s.
Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded Iran shortly after the 1979 revolution. The US as well as many of Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbours supported Hussein in the eight-year conflict.
Post-revolution Iran was outgunned and unprepared to take on an enemy with a more modern military, as well as short and long-range missiles. The conflict ended in a stalemate and hundreds of thousands of people died on both sides.
Iranians say they still remember the sound of air raid sirens on the radio and on TV, whenever an Iraqi jet on a bombing run or an Iraqi ballistic missile would be spotted in the skies over an Iranian city. For eight long years, people here say they looked up at the skies in constant fear.
That conflict shaped the way Iran looks at national security issues. The country’s collective trauma changed how civilian and military leaders make decisions about present-day defence policies.
Iranians say they never again want to be in the position of coming under attack without being able to respond. So, even though it may be the excuse Europe’s leaders use to distance themselves from Iran, the ballistic missiles programme is likely to be around indefinitely.
While the US pullout may have given Iran the moral high ground with regards to the nuclear deal, at home the Rouhani administration is in trouble. If Zarif’s trip is unsuccessful in achieving even some minor measurable gain for Iran’s economy, one MP predicts changes at the top.
“[Rouhani] is supported fully to serve out his presidency,” said member of parliament Javad Karimi Ghodousi.
“I myself am one of his main critics but never thought about impeachment or him stepping down and we don’t think it is needed … But if he wants to continue like this, they will face problems and the government will face some crises. Big changes in his cabinet are expected and, if he wants to, I think he will resign himself.”
But Ghodousi said it was too soon to count Iran out. While he admitted sanctions would pinch, he said Iran had strong ties with its neighbours and a capable population of 80 million people who would enable Iran to resist the impact of the United State’s “psychological operations”.
He noted Iran sold $100bn worth of oil from 1982-1992 during the sanctions era.
“There is water and wealth under the feet of Iranians wherever they are,” he said. “We have knowledge, civilisation, experience, power, logic and security. As we dealt with sanctions before the deal, we can deal again.”