On building bridges and new geopolitical friendships – Why closer ties with Iran should not to be discounted

By Catherine Shakdam. The views expressed are those of the author.

If ever the world needed a foe upon which to cast its ills …

Iran has been labelled a villain and a foe without so much as an opportunity to redeem itself in the eyes of those its revolution most offended.

And while many may still despair over Iran’s attachment to religious rule – its refusal to abide by our western political ethos: that any real democratic improvement requires a clear separation of the State and Church, Iran could prove a more reliable partner in the region, than those allies we are currently forced to put on notice.

However determined our western capitals, Washington in the lead, have been to absolve Saudi Arabia from the sins it recently committed, few more shocking  than the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it is evident that a Rubicon has been crossed, and thus pause is needed in our evaluation of geopolitics, and those dynamics we held as evident.

Iran needs not be perfect to resume its place within the international community, especially since by virtue of its geography and its political gravitational pull it has become a regional superpower. Iran is old, older than most countries in the region and its core stability could prove welcome respite in a region plagued by tribalism, ethnocentrism, sectarianism, and religious radicalism.

More to the point, Iran has proven too capable of withstanding both political adversity and crippling economic sanctions for any of us to still believe that more of the same would crack the proverbial nut.

And if an enemy cannot be made to kneel, we may as well consider making him a friend for his strength may add to our own, and ours to his,  instead of reducing both of our reach.

If Iran may feel a world away in that it still appears our appointed nemesis on the basis of its brash rhetoric and resistance to our calls for normalisation, it would be a disservice to our ambitions to imagine the Islamic Republic much different than we are in its aspiration to maintain sovereignty, its hunger for territorial integrity, and its determination to achieve socio-economic advancement through education and technological ingenuity.

There is most definitely a bridge waiting to be built.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “There was never a bad peace or a good war.”

Maybe we ought to distance ourselves from the belief that world politics is a zero-sum game, in which the rise of any one power necessarily takes away from our own. We should learn to recognise opportunities for mutual growth in those areas in which we see eye to eye.

The trick lies in our ability to expand our circle so that we end up including ‘them’ into what we previously considered to be exclusively ‘us’, and in the process gain an ally with vested interests in our future successes.

Education and most particularly what education has meant for Iran’s social fabric, could prove a tentatively alluring sector should we wish to move Iran away from the tumult of hardcore politics, and in doing so build a bridge towards peace.

For all the ills our western capitals have burdened Iran’s Islamic Republic with, it has outperformed most of its contemporaries in the field of education.

After the 1979 Revolution education was included in the high priority list of the government, focusing on programs like adult literacy, the construction of new schools, and expansion of public colleges and other higher education institutes. As of result Iran’s literacy rate reached 94.6% by 2001 across all age groups.

As of September 2015, 93% of the Iranian adult population is  literate, without any gender discrepancy or disparity. Iran sits firmly in the liberal seat as far as access to education goes.

By 2007, Iran had a student to workforce population ratio of 10.2%, one of the highest ratios in the world.

In a recent interview with Ardeshir Zahedi, made available to NCF before its publication, the former Iranian diplomat points to Iran’s educational prowess to demonstrate how decidedly proactive Iran has been towards not only equality of opportunity, but access to the workplace as far as gender equality is concerned.

He notes: “Today Iran is different than it was 40 years ago …

Today 4o million [Iranians] (out of a total 83 million population) have studied in universities and they are the leaders of the future … two third of which are women … I’m proud to say this, this is my country.”

A former man of the Shah, Mr Zahedi cannot be accused of favouritism to Iran’s Islamic Republic.

Unlike some of its neighbours, Iran is not at war with its female population; it does not operate on the belief that women should play a passive role in society.

And while Foreign Minister Javad Zarif admitted his nation’s many failures and mishaps as far as  human rights and freedom in general are concerned, the republic sits on strong foundations.

In 40 years women have managed not only to reach out to the highest degree of education but they have driven the narrative in the workplace, affirming themselves in leading positions across all sectors of industry, and diplomacy.

Surely we must recognise that for a system of governance to favour education above all else, regardless of gender, ethnicity, and faith, there must ground for reconciliation, or at least dialogue.

If we consider, as Christopher Hitchens so frequently, and one might add most eloquently argued, that social advancement rests on the liberation and empowerment of women, Iran is on par with our worldview. It would stand to reason therefore to facilitate such process by means of inclusion and exchange so that other areas of cooperation may be identified.

If Iran sits much at odds with our western capitals, the education sector represents too much of an opportunity to break new ground to be ignored. Friendships are built around common interests and values. In a speech in September 2018 the UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, stressed that Britain needed to strengthen its support for a rules-based international order, saying there will be a price to pay for countries that do not share the UK’s values and frequently cross geopolitical red lines.

A case could be made here for a strong common denominator, especially in view of Iran’s shared red line, that represented by its abhorrence for ISIS’s brand of Islamic radicalism.

Catherine Shakdam is a contributor to NCF and a researcher at Al Bayan Centre for Planning & Studies