In the wake of the Iranian nuclear agreement, Gen. Mohammad Reza Naghdi, a commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, expressed concern that the United States would try to impose Western culture in his country.
"We thought that they would bring Boeing technology," General Naghdi said, "but they want to bring McDonald's."
Iran attempted to reverse-engineer a downed U.S. drone a few years ago, and earlier this year it detonated a homemade replica of a U.S. aircraft carrier during military drills. Perhaps Iran should prove it can be trusted to not reverse-engineer the Big Mac special sauce before it's entrusted with the sort of high-tech weaponry Boeing could provide.
Based on Mr. Naghdi's comments, it sounds as if Iran is tired of China's Happy Meal toy weapons — knockoffs of Russian, American and European hardware — and wants the adult menu. Iran reportedly just struck a deal to acquire 24 Chinese J-10 fighter jets, which look an awful lot like copies of Lockheed Martin's F-35. (China gets greater access to Iranian oil in the exchange.)
Obviously, Iran shouldn't be able to score a Boeing manufacturing plant before the ink is dry on the nuclear deal. It wasn't long ago that Iranians were hijacking Boeing planes. Still, Mr. Naghdi's point isn't entirely without merit. There has to be more to the Western development of emerging markets than merely the status quo, with the West treating these markets like a candy store of resources to be exploited. That is, until trouble flares up in these emerging markets again because they lacked the sort of economic stability that can be built through vested mutual interests.
The long game is one of diplomatic and economic influence, and the West has to be able to leverage its assets to compete with China in these new markets.
China is willing to give away its military hardware in exchange for access to energy and commodity resources. Knockoff military equipment is basically a loss-leader for China. And unlike with Western offerings, none of the countries that import Chinese hardware seem to care that the Chinese themselves are part of the package, because China has a policy of non-interference in other nations' domestic affairs. The Chinese come in, build whatever infrastructure is required to get what they need and to provide basic civilian needs, and don't interfere with anything beyond their focus. This works in China's favor when seeking out new business.
There's an impression that China is relatively benign when it's allowed to enter through the front door. The West's advantage is that it knows how to create wealth.
Iran's hard-liners don't want McDonald's and other symbols of Western culture to pollute their society. Understood. I know someone who expressed the same sentiment when stumbling upon a McDonald's in Brittany, France. "Why is that thing coming to get me all the way up here?" he said.
While Iranians might still succumb to the seduction of the golden arches, McDonald's isn't the West's most significant tool for cultural leverage anyway. In the same breath as they're slamming McDonald's, the Iranians are telling us exactly what they want from the West: ultra-high-tech manufacturing. That's precisely why it should be used as the ultimate enticement in developing closer relations with new frontier markets like Iran, not to be given away without something substantial in return.
Iran has its own scientists and researchers. It's constantly promoting its developments in nanotechnology, for instance. Maybe we'll eventually see Iran approach Western firms to propose some cooperative development that doesn't involve weaponry. For example, French defense contractor Thales has undertaken a number of joint ventures in China that pertain to security and transportation and have nothing to do with warfare. So how about coming to the table with some ideas, rather than just criticism of what you don't want to see happen?
Ideological agendas will always take precedence over business in some countries. But if anything can overcome such obstacles, it's the prospect of mutual profit. After all, Russia and Europe have managed to cooperate successfully on defense via equity crossholdings in each other's defense industries, despite occasional turbulence.
The most exciting thing about new markets is the potential for bringing diverse talents together to create new solutions, and to share knowledge and culture -— and maybe even a side of McDonald's fries.
Rachel Marsden (www.rachelmarsden.com) is a columnist, political strategist and former Fox News host based in Paris.