Everyone who cares about Iran noticed that the country recently launched a monkey in space and safely brought the shivering (albeit live) creature back to its base. It is only the sixth country to launch any kind of a simian a hundred kilometres above us, and many of those who try, end up bringing it down faster than they hoped. The US shook its head in mock seriousness and said, “Really, now?” Meanwhile, Peta was visibly upset by all the monkey business in space.
But the Iranian president’s delight scarcely left his face over the next week. That is, until John McCain, the Republican front-runner in the 2008 US presidential elections, tweeted: “So Ahmadinejad wants to be first Iranian in space—wasn’t he just there last week?”
That Ahmadinejad is unpopular in the West and the Middle East is no mystery. The Islamic Republic, which has garnered some Arab popularity for its support of the Palestinian cause, is seen as being less judicious in its handling of goodwill by supporting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The Arab sentiment was that Iran should be made aware of its faux pas, but how? Less than a week later, someone altruistically decided enough was enough, and in customary fashion for foreign premiers in the Middle East, hurled a shoe at the Iranian president.
These incidents have real consequences for the heavily sanctioned state. The West fears that anything with more than one purpose can be injected into Tehran’s nuclear programme, which will speed up its weaponisation. Only a trickle of goods, capable of use for one purpose—and one purpose only—are allowed to be exported to Iran. It’s noteworthy that by now, the latest achievement of Iran’s space programme has amply demonstrated, dual-use monkeys and shoes are in limited supply in Iran.
For diplomats in the know, sanctions usually don’t bring down any dictators. But on the face of it, it seems to be a logical, water-tight argument: squeeze them tight, and the conservative, non-democratic leaders of the world will yield.
In McCain’s world, the tweet justifies itself. Iran is a ‘rogue state’, taking the road less travelled – at least by Western nations – and hence its place among the users of dangerous nuclear toys is unwelcome. It also highlights what policy circles in Washington believe to be a Persian truism: that Tehran is irrational, ideological, and driven by turbaned demagogues who don’t like having fun, without even considering the impact of such beliefs on the sensitive tourism industry. In fact, Iran has no nuclear weapons, its leaders have suggested no intention of developing or buying one, and there’s no basis in international law for treating Iran in the hawkish way that is seen since at least 2012.
Two tangents of reactions seem to emerge on the latest missile development: one, that Iran has miles to go before it establishes itself as one among the nations with advanced capabilities in this field, and the other, that given this capacity, Iran is hurtling towards a nuclear weapon. Neither is true.
Iran is being treated more like North Korea, the reclusive state, even though it is one of the world’s great civilisations, with major historical and scientific achievements, that goes back thousands of years. And, as anyone who has deeply analysed the personalities of Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Un knows, they don’t look like one another. Or like one another. The anomaly of its treatment in the diplomatic world stems more from a Western willingness to push Iran in a corner, rather than to level with nuclear misdemeanour.
The fact that Iran had developed capability to send missiles in space should not be brushed aside as an irregularity; it is not. Iran has heavily invested in science and technology. According to the British think tank Royal Society, over a fifteen-year period, Iran has come out as a new science giant, along with China, India and Turkey.
Its diaspora are to be spotted in top global universities and its domestic scientific achievements – both military and civilian – indicate a country with advanced technological progress, developed by inculcating a scientific temper in its people. That is not easily spotted in Saudi Arabia, for instance, or Egypt, two regional actors that count as America’s allies. Yet, the reality is that the denial of diplomatic dialogue is denial of being considered an equal.
Manoucher Mottaki, a former foreign minister in Iran, said exactly a year ago that improving relations with America was a “national project”. That offer was wasted away. This time around, it will take more than the offer of talks conditional upon being “real and tangible,” as Joe Biden put it – and involve no simian tactics.
Sana N Ghazi, Fellow, Observer Research Foundation Mumbai, is author of the forthcoming Beyond Rhetoric and Realpolitik: Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Dilemma (ORF Mumbai, 2013).