Francois Lenoir/Reuters
Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras talks to the media as he leaves an emergency euro zone summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 7, 2015.

Why Greece and Iran seem willing to take on the world

As they navigate their respective crises, both Greek and Iranian governments are trumpeting a historical narrative that portrays them as the victim of big-power efforts to subjugate the less powerful.

Who do Greece and Iran think they are? 

As global powers find themselves locked in face-offs with two relatively small states – economic powerhouse Germany and the European Union with Greece over its debt, and the United States and five other world powers with Iran over its nuclear program – exasperation is growing among the “bigs” that their smaller counterparts are not bowing to reality and accepting compromise faster than they are.

After all, it’s Greece that risks a full financial collapse without another European bailout, and Iran whose economy has been slammed by international sanctions that will only be lifted if Tehran agrees to a deal limiting its nuclear ambitions and opening its nuclear facilities to inspection. 

The major powers in both crises see mounting brinkmanship and intransigence where they feel reason should prevail. But both Greece and Iran are engaging their more powerful interlocutors in a manner that suggests how much they are driven by the more ephemeral motivations of dignity and mutual respect.

The Greek and Iranian examples aren’t the first instances where smaller states have used the scenario of the little guy being stepped on by big, bad bullies to further their cases, particularly with domestic audiences. The imbalance of power in both diplomatic confrontations has seemed to reinforce the determination in Athens and Tehran to stand firm on what they see as their sovereign interests.

But even if the appeal to a sense of national dignity resonates, some diplomatic analysts say taking pride too far can end up closing off escape routes to countries in crisis – ultimately working against their public's interests.

“In both these cases of high-powered negotiations – Greece over its debt crisis and Iran over its nuclear program – the smaller country feels it’s facing the opprobrium of the rest of the world,” says Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-based senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That has led to an us-versus-them sentiment that has fed off of each country’s strong sense of national pride, and in both cases the leaders have played that card with their populations.”

But in both cases, too much focus on national dignity has helped push the negotiations to the brink of failure, Mr. Hibbs adds – an outcome he says does not serve the interests of either country.

In the Iran case, international negotiations in Vienna that faced a Tuesday deadline were extended to the end of the week, with both sides saying significant progress was made in recent days but that critical sticking points remained.

As for Greece, a referendum Sunday that screamed nationalist pride as voters rejected Europe-imposed austerity measures has been followed by Greek calls for renewed debt-relief talks and a European cold shoulder, particularly from Germany.

As they navigate their respective crises, both the Greek and Iranian governments are trumpeting a historical narrative that portrays them as the victim of big-power efforts to subjugate and dominate the less powerful, some analysts say. 

“In both Iran and Greece they have spent decades cultivating a narrative of grievance,” says Peter Feaver, a professor of international relations at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “So in that atmosphere you have [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel transformed into Adolf Hitler, and the America of Obama turned into the America of the 1950s,” when the US engineered a coup in Tehran that installed the late Shah Reza Pahlavi in power, he adds.

To the Western powers and international institutions dealing with Iran on nuclear ambitions and Greece on its debt, “that narrative is beside the point of the matters at hand, it’s not today’s story,” Dr. Feaver says. “But to the Iranian and Greek delegations, that longer historical context does make sense,” he adds. “It serves as a filter for distorting the policy options.”

The narrative of smaller countries confronting the injustices of the world’s arrogant powers is a longtime staple of Iranian rhetoric in particular, Carnegie’s Hibbs says. Iran has claimed an international right to an indigenous nuclear power program since the early 2000s, he notes, and has portrayed international efforts to investigate Iran’s nuclear facilities as a veiled attempt by “the Great Satan” and other world powers to deny Iran an international right. 

To a large extent that narrative fell into disuse in Greece as the country joined the powerful club that is the European Union, and then entered the even more restricted inner circle in the Eurozone. But the narrative of the aggrieved has returned with a vengeance, Hibbs says, as Germany’s powerbroker role in the country’s debt-relief negotiations has revived memories of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Greece.

But Hibbs says that both Greece and Iran are “picking and choosing” among historical facts to suit their narrative, leaving aside those that don’t fit the story they wish to tell.

“In both cases there’s a kind of historical amnesia,” he says. “You hear about rights and dignity, but you don’t hear Iranians acknowledging their country’s two decades of systematically violating international obligations” related to the nuclear program, he says.

“You don’t hear the Greeks saying they’re in this mess because of past [financial] commitments they didn’t honor,” Hibbs adds. “At some point, you’d like part of the picture to be the Greeks facing their responsibilities in addressing their problems.” 

Duke’s Feaver agrees that Greece has played up the “powerful narrative of big countries imposing things on a smaller country” when it should be looking at its own role in its difficulties.

But he also sees a danger in equating the Greek and Iranian cases, when the game he sees Iran playing is much more about expansive ambitions than about addressing grievances.

“Iran is a country with imperial ambitions and it plays a much more problematic role in the region, and that does figure in the nuclear talks,” Feaver says. “Greece’s peccadilloes are much more of the ordinary sort,” he adds, “things like a dysfunctional public sector and overspending and petty corruption. So in that sense it’s not fair to lump them together.”

Moreover, he says that the Greeks face real-life upheaval and impoverishment as a result of coming to terms with Germany and the EU that go beyond the ephemeral injuries of a supposed wounded national pride.

“The Greeks are being asked to do things that are not just a matter of pride, but which would be very disruptive of Greek citizens’ lives,” he says. “But in material terms, what is being asked of Iran [in the nuclear talks] does not put in jeopardy the average Iranian citizen – although it may be problematic for the military part of the Iranian state.”

The injured dignity argument may have won the Iranian regime some points at home, and it may even resonate with other “small” states.

But Feaver says Western powers, and in particular the US, should stand up to it and address it for the negotiating tactic that it is.

“I think President Obama wants to say, ‘Wait a minute Iran, this is not about the little guy defying the strong, it’s not about the powerful trying to dominate the weak; this is about the rule of law.’ ”

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