The likely nuclear agreement between Iran and P5+1 – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – is opposed by many. The reasons for the opposition to the agreement vary, depending on who or which country opposes it, but the ultimate goal is the same: scuttling the agreement. The hawks in Iran and the United States oppose the agreement, as do Israel, and Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies. The opposition to the agreement is expressed in different ways. Some demonize Iran, and others make outlandish claims about the “true” intentions and ambitions of the Islamic Republic.The nuclear agreement will lead to the gradual lifting of the “most crippling economic sanctions in history” against Iran. As was discussed elsewhere (here, here, and here), sanctions represent severe collective punishment of the Iranian people and violation of their fundamental human rights. Iran’s hardliners enriched themselves as a result of the sanctions, amassing tens of billions of dollar in illicit wealth. Thus, naturally, they oppose the nuclear agreement, but hide behind the claim that the agreement will represent “treason” against Iran, and will ruin the country’s achievements and political independence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries, and their allies in the United States, on the other hand, claim that suspending or lifting the sanctions will transform Iran into a powerful regional power. They claim that Iran will have access to more than $100 billion of its assets frozen in Western financial institutions, and will spend all or part of it on supporting terrorism.
An article by David Rothkopf, the CEO and Editor of Foreign Policy group is typical of the opposition. In his article he claims that Iran will have made $420 billion by the end of the nuclear agreement, and that while Iran will shore up its economy, it will also continue its meddling in the Middle East. Rothkopf and others are not, however, aware of the dire state of Iran’s economy, nor is he objective.
Some facts about Iran’s economy
Taking a simple look at the daily needs of the people to survive the harsh economic situation they face shows how huge is the demand for resources necessary to make a minimally decent – not a good – life possible for the majority of the Iranian people. The survival of the regime as a whole, to a large degree, depends on providing for these needs before they erupt in widespread social protest. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the state will spend the bulk of the released assets it will acquire through some sort of sanctions relief in the following areas. Even regardless of this assumption, is it acceptable to deny these needs and impose further hardship on the Iranian people by resorting to reasoning based on speculations on possible future behavior of the regime and its foreign policy decisions?
According to the World Bank, from 1989-2012 Iran experienced an average annual economic growth of 4.8 percent. Between 1980 and 1988, when the war with Iraq was going on, Iran’s average annual economic growth was negative 1 percent. According to the United Nations, Iran’s Human Development index grew from 0.49 in 1980 to 0.749 in 2013.
This picture began deteriorating badly when the Western economic sanctions were imposed. Iran experienced annual economic contraction of 6.8 and 1.4 percent in 2012 and 2013, respectively. The economic depression led to hyperinflation and very high unemployment. Iran’s gross domestic product decreased to $393 billion, lowering Iran’s rank to 28th in the world. The oil price was cut in half, reducing Iran’s limited oil income. The Iranian people are paying for all of this. What would be the minimal budget for the administration of President Hassan Rouhani to address such problems?
First, every year 20,000 – 25,000 Iranians lose their life in road accidents, 20 times higher than the worldwide average. Iran ranks 177th out of 180 countries of the world in road accidents and safety. Iran needs to invest in road improvement and construction and rebuilding its auto industry to address the horrible situation. Currently, Iran has 2350 km of freeways, which must be expanded over the next 10 years to 10,000km. Iran also has 14541 km of highways that must be expanded to 30,000 km over the next 10 years. These will require a budget of $30 billion over 10 years.
Second, Iran, a country of nearly 80 million people, has only 141 passenger airliners with an average age of 21. Over the next 10 years Iran needs to buy at least 400 new aircrafts, worth close to $100 billion.
Third, Iran’s oil sector, its vital industry, needs $500 billion investment over the next 15 years to increase and keep the oil production to the pre-sanctions level.
Fourth, Iran must invest $7 billion annually for several years in order to complete unfinished projects in its petrochemical industry. Sixty unfinished petrochemical projects require $60 billion to be completed.
Fifth, Iran needs $20 billion to repair the existing power grid and increase its output by 10,000 MW. Its power grid is old and inefficient, causing repeated disruptions. Constructing one power plant to produce 1,000 MW of electricity costs $2 billion.
Sixth, Iran’s defense budget is far less than those of Saudi Arabia, the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf, Turkey, and Israel, all of which are smaller countries with much smaller populations. Only Turkey’s population is comparable to Iran’s. In 2014 alone Saudi Arabia spent $80 billion on buying new weapons. The UAE spent $23 billion. Qatar spent $11 billion just to buy the Apache helicopters. As a nation-state and regardless of the type of its political system, Iran must beef up its defensive capabilities, which requires billions of dollars.
Seventh, Iran has been suffering from a 14 years long draught. Wasteful uses of water by the agriculture sector and excessive evaporation of water stored behind dikes have reduced water supplies dramatically. They currently stand at 1/4th of the 1956 level. Ira needs $100 billion over the next decade to invest in water-related projects to save its people and its economy from the draught. The same type of investment is necessary in the healthcare, pharmaceutical, communications, and transportation sectors. Overall, it is estimated that Iran will need close to $1 trillion over the next 15-20 years to address such problems.
Eighth, according to the CIA, Iran’s foreign debt in 2014 was $10.17 billion, which must be deducted from the $100-120 billion that Iran supposedly get access to after the sanctions are lifted.
Ever since it came to power, the Rouhani administration has been emphasizing that the economic sanctions must be lifted so that “capital can enter the country, and the environmental problems, unemployment, industrial difficulties [such as shortage of raw materials] and [even] the problem of drinking water can be addressed, and the banking system can be revived.” In a speech on June 16 in France Abbas Akhoundi, Iran’s Minister of Road and Transportation invited foreign investors to invest to the tune of $80 billion in Iran’s rail, air and naval transportation. Iran’s Oil Minister, Bizhan Namdar Zangeneh has met and invited major European oil corporations to invest in Iran’s oil industry, as much as $20 billion annually.
What is the Opposition Worried about?
The opposition is supposedly worried that Iran might spent a small fraction of its money in the region and on terrorism. No country, including Iran, should support terrorism or try to destabilize other nations, or topple their regimes. But, Iran is not the only active player in the Middle East.
The George W. Bush administration lied to the world in order to invade Iraq, which led to the birth of al-Qaeda in Iraq – the present Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL – and the current state affairs in that country.
The United States, together with its Arab and NATO allies attacked Libya, leading to fragmentation of that nation and the growth of Islamic terrorist groups there.
Due to the intervention of the United States and its allies in the Middle East (here and here), the struggle for democracy in Syria was transformed to a sectarian war between the Shiites and the Sunnis. In August 2011, Netanyahu and then Israeli President Shimon Peres both said that “[Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad must go.” Then Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak also predicted in December 2011 that Assad will be ousted “in a few weeks.” Qatar alone has given at least $3 billion to Islamic groups in the Middle East. Vice President Joe Biden said explicitly that the U.S. Arab allies in the Middle East trained, funded and armed terrorist groups in Syria. When he was forced to apologize, Foreign Policy wrote that Biden apologized because he had told the truth.
Saudi Arabia, a dictatorial regime with no parliamentary elections; a country in which women are not even allowed to drive, and one in which beheading is done in public has played a leading role in everything that has been happening in the Middle East. 15 out of 19 terrorists that attacked the United States on 11 September 2001 were Saudi citizens, and the George W. Bush administration classified a 28-page report on the role of Saudi Arabia and its princes in the attacks.
For over three months Saudi Arabia and its allies have been bombing Yemen, and have imposed land, air, and naval blockade on that nation. Over 2,000 people, the vast majority of whom civilians have been killed and at least 300,000 people have fled their homes. Saudi Arabia utilizes cluster bombs supplied to it by the United States. The US has provided logistical support to Saudi Arabia. But, the net result so far has been the growth of al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Egypt’s military coup against its democratically-elected government received over $12 billion in aid from US allies, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE. The coup regime has killed thousands, which Human Rights Watch has referred to as “the worst mass unlawful killings in country’s modern history.” But, the US has supported the coup regime, calling it necessary.
Israel has occupied the Palestinians’ land since 1967, and has prevented so far the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. It attacked Iraq (1981), Lebanon (1978, 1982, 2006), Tunisia (1985), Syria (1967, 2007, 2013, 2014, 2015), and Sudan (2009, 2011, 2012), as well as the flotilla that was taking humanitarian aid to Gaza in 2010. Now, Israel wants the world to recognize its annexation of the Golan Heights, and its Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, has threatened Iran with nuclear attacks.
Iran is in the same region, and three countries close to it, India, Israel and Pakistan, have hundreds of nuclear warheads. Iran too has supported its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, as well as Hamas, and is said to be helping the Shiites in Yemen. But, year after year the Pentagon has stated in its annual report that Iran’s military doctrine a defensive one, designed to defend the country’s borders and force any attacker to agree to a diplomatic solution of the conflict, not an offensive one for attacking other nations.
What the Islamic Republic has been doing in the region is intended to guarantee its survival. Every regime ties its survival with its nation’s national interests. Even if the most crippling sanctions are imposed on such regimes, they will not stop supporting their allies, because it is tied to their survival.
Is foreign intervention in any country unacceptable, only if Iran does it? Foreign intervention must be condemned, regardless of who does it. If the United States and its allies intervene in other countries under the guise of protecting their national interests, then condemning Iran for doing so is baseless and represents double standards. The only way to stop the interventions of the Islamic republic in the region is through recognizing the legitimate defensive needs of Iran as a nation-state, and helping the struggle for democracy in Iran. Continuing the economic sanctions under any excuse will only strengthen the dictatorship, making the Iranian people powerless.
What is the goal of the opposition to nuclear agreement with Iran and lifting the sanctions imposed on Iran? Is the opposition concerned about democracy, respect for human rights, peace and justice, or is it concerned about its regional allies, or preserving the status-quo in Palestine?
Undoubtedly, there are governments and extremist groups who would like to transform Iran to another Syria. The late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urged George W. Bush to “cut off the head of the snake,” meaning bombing Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has stated that Iran “cannot be trusted and should be killed,” like a snake before it bites.
Resolving the conflicts in the Middle East requires a comprehensive approach that considers what is happening there collectively. Without collective peace and security for all, there would be no democracy and respect for human rights. Secretary of State John Kerry once said correctly that confronting terrorism in the Middle East is subject to the resolution of Israel-Palestinians conflict, adding, “There wasn’t a leader I met with in the region [Middle East] who didn’t raise with me spontaneously the need to try to get peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because it was a cause of recruitment and of street anger and agitation.”
Iranian democrats are not magicians. The West cannot create a hell in Iran and the Middle East, and then expects the Iranian democrats to set up a democratic state in Iran that respects human rights.
The West cannot impose economic sanctions on the Iranian people, deny them their rightful national assets, and keep them under the worst inhumane conditions under the guise that the Islamic Republic might spend a small fraction of Iran’s foreign currency reserves or oil income on its activities in the region. Can a nation have a democratic system and respect human rights without economic development? The United States and its allies in the Middle East must stop supporting terrorist groups in Syria, so that Iran’s aide to Bashar al-Assad’s regime can also stop. One cannot support the growth of the extremists and enemies of democracy in the Middle East, on the one hand, and expect Iran to follow international legal standards in pursuing its policy in the Middle East, on the other hand.
One may ask, what guarantees that if the economic sanctions are lifted, the priority of the Islamic Republic will be shoring up its economy, and not spending the extra income to help its regional allies? The answer is simple. In addition to its dire economic state that threatens the very survival of the Iranian regime, we must recognize that any regime, when threatened externally, tries to have allies and proxies in the region in order to remove the security threats from its own borders. Right from its inception, the Islamic Republic has felt threatened by outside forces, and in particular by the United States and Israel. Iraq’s invasion of Iran that was encouraged, and later on supported by the United States, the constant economic sanctions by the United States, and the military threats by Israel and the George W. Bush administration have all contributed to this sense of insecurity. Thus, until and unless there is collective regional security agreement, backed by the United Nations Security Council, whereby all the signatories agree not to threaten others and not to arm the internal opposition in other nations, there will be no guarantee that Iran will completely stop the support for its allies and proxies.
If the people of a nation are to be denied their rightful resources and assets because their regime might support acts of terrorism elsewhere, then, Saudi Arabia has been supporting radical Sunni terrorist groups for decades, and particularly since the Arab Spring began in 2011, yet it is supported steadfastly by the United States and its allies. This is a nation whose foreign currency reserves are estimated to be around $800 billion. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell warns Israel that it should not work with terrorist groups in Syria, which has been reported by Haaretz. Did the United States not support right-wing groups in Latin America and staged so many coups there (see here, here, and here, for example)?
Our goal is collective peace for the entire Middle East, and peaceful transition to democracy and respect for human rights. Continuing the economic sanctions imposed on Iran will lead to the downfall of the Rouhani administration, and the return to power of Iranian hardliners. It is as if some governments are would like to see the hardliners back in power in Iran.
This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei.
Akbar Ganji is an investigative journalist who was imprisoned for more than six years in Iran. He currently lives in exile in the United States, and his writings have been banned in Iran. He has been named honorary citizen of many European cities. Ganji has won several international awards, including the World Association of Newspapers‘ Golden Pen of Freedom Award, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression‘s International Press Freedom Award, the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, the Cato Institute Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty and the John Humphrey Freedom Award.