On May 22, 2008, the U.S. Department of State’s International Information Programs in Washington D.C., the Public Affairs Office at the U.S. Embassy in Israel, and the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center jointly held an international videoconference seminar focusing on Iranian foreign policy and the country’s drive toward nuclear weapons.
Brief biographies of the participants can be found at the end of the article. This seminar is part of the GLORIA Center’s Experts Forum series.
Menashe Amir: We are facing an Iranian president with limited abilities in dealing with the country’s problems and with limited support.
There have been big expectations in Iran based on the fact that the price of oil has risen to over $120 a barrel and Iran gained more than $80 billion during the last 12 months. It was assumed that this money would solve some of Iran’s radical economic problems, but it hasn’t. Inflation is serious–around 30 percent–though the official numbers say about 13 percent. Social gaps in the country are widening. Dissatisfaction is general.
If we speak about the functioning of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, we see that he has changed many of his ministers in the last three years. This is happening because Ahmadinejad belongs to a very narrow group. There are many in Iran who say his declarations about wiping Israel off the map and his grandiose claims about Iranian nuclear achievements have severely damaged Iranian interests. Today it looks as if he has less chance to be re-elected as the next president of Iran.
A central question in Iran regarding the working relations between the president and the leader, Ayatollah Khamene’i, is whether the two are cooperating or competing against each other, and who is the main leader? Another question is about the role of the Revolutionary Guards, a group which is close to Ahmadinejad.
In any case, I think Iran today is isolated and in bad economic shape; more and more citizens are feeling that the sanctions are hurting their economy. Inflation is continually on the rise, and the rift between the different factions of the regime is becoming more visible.
Moreover, there is also dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad’s actions and declarations: The fact that he is relying so much upon claiming he has the support of the Mahdi, the Shi’a messiah, brings criticism from clergies who say that they rule over Iran and not the Mahdi. Clerics worry that such claims, combined with the country’s many problems, will turn people against Islam itself and the regime as a whole. The same applies to Ahmadinejad saying that he is the true heir of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and hence the revolution.
The consequences of Ahmadinejad being perceived as having failed objectively and being a threat to both Islam and the regime are very important. It might lead to widespread opposition to his continuing as president at the highest level of the government.
Patrick Clawson: We tend to focus on the Islamic Revolution in Iran as an Islamic phenomenon, but in many ways it’s more a revolution than it is a resurgence of Islam in that country. The politics of the Islamic Republic have always been primarily politically, not religiously, driven. Indeed, the founder of the republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, made one of his most famous decrees that any principle of Islam could be set aside if necessary for the regime’s interest. Khomeini decreed that the Iranian Constitution had to incorporate an Expediency Council which is explicitly authorized to override the principles of Islam if necessary for the regime.
I emphasize this because we should not understand the Islamic Republic as somehow a return to the ninth century. Perhaps when it comes to social policy questions such as the treatment of women, it is fair to say that the Islamic Republic is indeed fundamentalist and very traditionalist, but when it comes to its foreign policy, it isn’t. It is instead a revolution, as much influenced by the revolutionary ideas of the twentieth century as by any religious principle.
Indeed, over time the role of religion in the Islamic Republic has faded in the Islamic Republic compared to the role of politics. We see this for instance in the current supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamene’i, a man who has scant religious credentials and who very few people in Iran regard as being their religious inspiration–Khamene’i has spent most of his life as a politician. He was the president of Iran for a long time. He is a man of politics, not a man of religion. Indeed, that comes through in all of his actions and all his pronouncements. They’re not based on the great religious texts; they’re not infused with a sense of religion. They’re infused with politics, they’re about politics.
If that is true of Khamene’i, it is even truer when it comes to President Ahmadinejad and the people of his generation. Ahmadinejad was for a long time with the Revolutionary Guards, and many in the Revolutionary Guards have little respect for the clergy–in part because they provided security for the senior ayatollahs for a long time and got to watch them up close and know quite a bit about their corruption, to be blunt. Also, the Revolutionary Guards arrested many senior ayatollahs, saying they were misinterpreting Islam and following an American style of Islam. It has instilled in the Revolutionary Guards and the circles around them the idea that those truly committed to the revolution–like they themselves–know Islam better than the ayatollahs.
It is in that light that we should look at this fascination with the hidden imam, not only of Ahmadinejad but among many people of his social circle. They essentially are cutting out the clergy. They’re saying, who needs these ayatollahs; we’re in direct contact with the Mahdi. He is the one telling us what to do. He is the one inspiring us, leading us, guiding us, and we don’t need some ayatollah as a source of imitation; we instead have the word from God’s representative on Earth.
So we see a resurgence in Iran and penetration into official circles of folk religious practices long despised by senior clerics. This, I think, is not only of aspects of the hidden imam stuff brought forward by Ahmadinejad but a whole series of superstitious practices–for example, bibliomancy, that is, opening the Koran and being guided by whatever is said on the page that you see. This is folk religion. This has little to do with the traditions that inspired a man like Khomeini.
Now, Ahmadinejad is certainly a very prominent representative of this sort of trend, but it would be a mistake to regard him as an isolated example. He instead is, in important ways, a representative of that social group that is becoming increasingly important in Iran’s politics, namely the generation of veterans of the Iran-Iraq War. These are people who fought and sacrificed to save Iran from being overrun, and in their eyes they have the moral right and practical experience to lead the country. For a long time it looked like the war generation was going to be shunted aside. They were the butt of jokes, of movies, for being ignorant hicks–because in many cases they are. And it looked like they were going to be bypassed by a generation of reformers, but they have now come into power, and are looking forward to the opportunity to treat their opponents with the same kind of disdain with which they were for so long treated.
This war generation has two extremely disturbing characteristics. One is that they are ignorant, and the other is that they are arrogant. They are ignorant particularly about the outside world. They haven’t travelled that much. They don’t know much about the outside world and don’t care about it. That’s not the only area of their ignorance. Ahmadinejad and his friends have been putting on a public display of equally stunning ignorance about how the country’s economy works and getting a lot of pushback from economic technocrats.
But the ignorance about the outside world is perhaps what’s most troubling to us. Combine that with arrogance, in that this crowd really does believe that with enough revolutionary élan it can prevail. When Ahmadinejad has said repeatedly that Iran already is the world’s greatest power, we may think he is nuts, but the fact is he believes it. He really does think that Iran is the leader of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims, that history is on their side, and that they are on the march.
I like to tell the story of when Kofi Annan was on his farewell tour of the world and he stopped in Iran and saw Ahmadinejad. The New York Times account of their meeting was that Ahmadinejad complained that UN structures like the Security Council reflect too much the world of 1945, which is fair enough. But then Ahmadinejad went on to say that while Britain and America may have won the last world war, we intend to win the next world war. The New York Times described how Kofi Annan’s aides were stunned not so much by the words but by the clear, sincere and deep conviction with which Ahmadinejad and his aides believed this. They really do think they are going to be the world’s leaders.
That’s the war generation, but as we know, the supreme leader, Khamene’i, has really been the one calling the shots in Iran in many ways. He has been quite successful at taking advantage of his position to put himself in power in the central decisionmaking role on almost every major issue. And we have long said that Khamene’i, while he shares the bold revolutionary vision of this war generation, is a cautious man.
So what’s happening now? Has his caution been thrown to the wind? No, Khamene’i remains a very cautious man about the issue he cares about most, and that is his worry that the country may face a velvet revolution; this is his worry that the West has a new way of undermining revolutionary regimes. I love that Khamene’i’s expression to describe this is post-modern imperialism. He says that this post-modern imperialism is what we saw in 1989 in Eastern Europe with the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, for instance. He fears that a combination of propaganda, of support for civil society organizations, and of clever use of cultural propaganda is able to undermine revolutionary societies from within and bring them down.
And that is Khamene’i’s theory of what happened in Iran from 1997-1999, that is, that Khatami came out of nowhere and turned out to have the support of Iran’s youth, women, and intellectuals–people who Khamene’i is afraid will abandon the revolution at the first opportunity. This then proceeded to undermine the revolution to the point where in the student demonstrations in 1999 it looked like the revolution might fall. And so Khamene’i sincerely believes that this is the great danger, that it is Hollywood and not Washington that he must fear; it’s cultural invasion, not military invasion that he must fear. And that is why he is so cautious about these areas. This is a man, after all, who ordered a 67-year-old grandmother in the United States to be held in jail for months in spite of much criticism from her intellectual and leftist friends around the world. When called upon to explain why this had been done, the Iranian government put on television a show which explained in detail how George Soros and George Bush meet regularly to conspire to the overthrow of the Iranian regime. More recently, there was a television show that had actors showing how John McCain and George Soros meet every week in bunkers below the White House in order to give orders to the demonstrators in Iran of what to do to bring down the Iranian government.
Well, anybody who believes this kind of stuff–again, we have to say they are slightly crazy, but they do believe it. And as a result of this concern about cultural invasion, we’re going to have real problems trying to have engagement or people-to-people contact, because that is what they fear the most. And those are the areas in which Khamene’i is cautious. And as I’m going to discuss later on today, it is instead in the foreign policy sphere, which we care about most, that Khamene’i thinks Iran can be very bold. So it’s a mixture of very cautious policy at home and very bold policy abroad that I’m afraid is a foreign policy that the war generation and the supreme leader agree upon, much to the disgust of those who are not supportive of this regime, and to the disgust, as Menashe Amir was saying, of so many of the technocrats, and so many of the business and intellectual elite.
Meir Javedanfar: Certainly it seems that the long hard work Ahmadinejad keeps talking about is taking a toll on his physical appearance–he’s getting more white-haired, the twitch in his left shoulder and right shoulder when he speaks in public is certainly appearing more often, so I don’t know if he’s becoming nervous in old age or if he’s tired, but he’s certainly done a great job of keeping Iran in the news.
Pour Mohammadi, as an example of what Menashe Amir was talking about, was pushed out of his cabinet post because he was talking behind Ahmadinejad’s back to Ayatollah Khamene’i. He was reporting on the Ministry of the Interior, one of the most powerful ministries, which keeps an eye on what’s going on in the country not just regarding security matters but also regarding the economy. Ahmadinejad did not like that. His firing came as a surprise because Pour Mohammadi is a major member of the Mahdi-backing society.
Prior to the revolution there was an organization called Hojjatieh, people advocating the return of the Mahdi. I think it is interesting to note that the new generation of Hojjatieh people residing in Iran believe that the current Islamic government in Iran strictly speaking is not legitimate. In their opinion, there can only be an Islamic government established in Iran when the Mahdi returns, so there is a very interesting conflict between Hojjatieh and supporters of Ayatollah Khamene’i.
When it comes to foreign policy, I know President Ahmadinejad has turned himself into the face of Iran for many people, he certainly seems to be speaking from the heart when he says things such as: “UN resolutions are worthless pieces of paper;” “Israel is a dead corpse;” etc., etc., but I think it is important for us to establish that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not determine Iranian foreign policy. The person who ultimately determines Iranian foreign policy is Ayatollah Khamene’i, the supreme leader. He sets the general strategy he wants Iran’s foreign policy to take by allowing politicians whose ideas he agrees with to run for elections, and once the government he wants to be in charge is elected, he picks the people from the ministries chosen to sit at the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC).
We saw a marked change in the people at the SNSC during the time of Ayatollah Khatami versus the people who sit there today at the time of Ahmadinejad. First it was started by Ali Larijani, but then, to our surprise, Sa’id Jallili was elected to replace him. I would like to emphasize that his election was a major surprise because he is a major Ahmadinejad ally; Sa’id Jallili is messianic, Ahmadinejad’s right-hand man, the most senior confidant in Iran who helped Ahmadinejad rise through the ranks and become president of the Islamic Republic.
There is certainly concern that Ahmadinejad’s allies are making a comeback into Iranian politics, not just in internal matters, which is where Ahmadinejad’s domain is, but also in external matters. Now, the important question is why. Why is Ayatollah Khamene’i allowing these young revolutionaries whose ideologies can sometimes be too zealous for Khamene’i himself to gain power? I think the Iranian government at the moment sees no need to negotiate, which is why Ali Larijani was removed. And this is a major cause of concern for us here in Israel, for the Americans, and for the international community.
The Iranian government at the moment believes there is no need to negotiate. They don’t want to give anything up, and the West has literally no leverage over them. The person who thinks more than anyone that Iran should maintain this position is Ayatollah Khamene’i.
In terms of priorities for Ayatollah Khamene’i, his priority is regime survival. What he wants to do to facilitate that of course is the Iranian nuclear program and reports regarding Iran developing the capability to produce an atom bomb. The atom bomb would give Iran the insurance to stay in power. Ayatollah Khamene’i uses Iran’s foreign policy to make sure that sanctions are pushed back as much as possible and for as long as possible to enable his government to continue with the construction of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
His other, second, priority is the expansion of the Iranian government’s political interests in the Middle East, in places such as Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Iran is certainly trying to make its mark around the world, especially in underdeveloped countries.
Of course the third priority is Iran’s economy. Before I would have put that as Iran’s second priority, but right now Ayatollah Khamene’i doesn’t have that much to worry about when it comes to using foreign policy to earn extra income for his country–the high price of oil at the moment seems to be doing that for him and it only seems like it will continue to go up.
The question is: How does Ayatollah Khamene’i use Iran’s foreign policy to serve his priorities? As I said, the number one priority is Iran’s nuclear program and pushing back sanctions. What Iran is doing is trying to divide and rule the international community when it comes to foreign policy, and especially the nuclear program. One of the reasons I believe the talks with North Korea succeeded is there was just one group of countries talking to Pyongyang. The North Koreans couldn’t go to this country and that country like Iran goes to Switzerland and Sa’id Jallili goes to Russia and then they try to bring Muhammad al-Baradei. They basically try as many discussions as possible to slow everybody down.
This is what Ayatollah Khamene’i is trying to do; this is how he’s using his foreign policy, to make sure that the international community stays divided for as long as possible. Not only does he use the emissaries, they also use counterproposals. When, for example, the West is talking about the new proposal of incentives for Iran–lo and behold, on the same day the Iranians are producing a counterproposal. The timing is no mystery. This is another plan for the Iranian government to create even more delay in the international community and the consensus needed to address this issue.
I think also in terms of improving Iran’s foreign policy reach, Ayatollah Khamene’i is not just relying on Iran’s foreign embassies and foreign emissaries; he’s relying more and more on organizations such as the Revolutionary Guards and Iran’s Intelligence Ministry. They have operations abroad that are based on Iran’s charity organizations such as those in Lebanon, like Jihad al-Bina. In places such as Iraq we recently saw an example of the Guards’ al-Quds force in action. This is a military organization, yet during the fighting between Nuri al-Maliki’s forces and Muqtada al-Sadr’s, the person who went in and negotiated the ceasefire was Qasim Sulaymani, the head of the al-Quds force. This shows that the Iranian government, especially Ayatollah Khamene’i, relies so much on the Revolutionary Guards, it is now using them to improve and expand Iran’s foreign reach and influence.
I’d like to add one point: People wonder why Ahmadinejad was elected and why these Revolutionary Guard people were brought into the fold. I think one of the things that impressed Ayatollah Khamene’i was not just the dedication of these individuals to the Islamic Republic; it’s because of their performance, what some Iranians see as a sterling performance of the Revolutionary Guards in Iraq. They’ve did a good job, as far as Khamene’i is concerned, in Lebanon before; and in 2003 after the United States invaded Iraq, the Revolutionary Guards started using the Iraqis living in Iran as agents, sending them back to Iraq, and beginning to use them as intelligence and political civil servants in Iraqi bodies. He was very impressed by it.
And since now Iran relies–Ayatollah Khamene’i relies–on Iran’s reach abroad as one of the pillars of stability for his government, the importance of the Revolutionary Guards is now increasing. Apart from charity organizations, we even see Iranian internal bodies becoming more involved in promoting Iran’s foreign policy interests. This includes organizations such as the Tehran Municipality that had a delegation in Beirut pledging millions of dollars to help in reconstruction. This shows that Iranian organizations at every level are becoming involved in promoting the foreign policy objectives of Ayatollah Khamene’i.
Everyone is talking about what to do with the Iranian nuclear case and how do we get the international consensus required to put effective pressure on Iran. As I mentioned before, the Iranian government doesn’t seem to be interested in negotiating, yet the international community at the same time does not seem too motivated to engage the Iranians. I think one idea we should talk about and put in action after the next U.S. elections should be to try to call Iran’s bluff. I think the United States should offer direct talks with the Iranian government. It’s very likely these talks will fail because Ayatollah Khamene’i is not going to back down from enriching uranium. But I think by doing so we can show to the international community that we tried everything–we tried incentives, it didn’t work; we tried direct talks, it didn’t work. That’s the best chance we have of bringing more countries on board to implement sanctions against Iran, because it’s very nice when we have countries far away from Iran as part of the sanctions, but the countries we especially need to join are the Persian Gulf countries.
I don’t think any meaningful sanctions can be posed against Iran unless the Persian Gulf countries join in. This is due to the level of trade with Iranian businesses, and also because the level of investment Iranian politicians have in countries such as the United Arab Emirates. The more we are able to sell to the international community and to the Arab world that we have tried everything and the Iranians are still not interested, the better the chance, I think, of bringing them on board, because the Arab countries are worried about a nuclear Iran–they are worried about war against Iran by the United States–though still more worried about a nuclear Iran.
Lee Smith: I want to start by quickly responding to what Meir just said concerning direct talks. One of the things we’ve seen consistently in Washington during discussions of the nuclear issue has obscured the key fact about the GCC states. One of the reasons that the Arabs aren’t going to do anything is the deal we’ve made with them: We protect them, we accept the fact that they do nothing and they say nothing about it, and we will never get their support on this, never publically. Privately, absolutely. They go around telling people, “We’re terrified of the Iranians, we’re terrified of the bomb,” but there is no way the Arabs are going to come on board publically about that, and it’s a real problem for us. So I think in large ways what we’re dealing with here is how the United States is going to handle it, and how the Israelis are going to handle it, and we can pretty much cut out the Arabs on this count.
We talk so much about the nuclear program that we forget that the nuclear program is an instrument of Iran’s foreign policy. Just to have the weapon in and of itself is not a goal. I think two of the most important goals are to export the revolution and to drive the United States from the region.
I want to focus on four different aspects of Iranian policy in the region, especially on how important it is for the Iranians to have Arab cover in order to jump the Sunni-Shi’a divide.
With Egypt, the key thing to remember regarding Iran’s relationship is the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat as a symbol of the fallout from Iran’s revolution threatening Egypt. Most immediately, the issue is Iranian sponsorship of Hamas especially given that group’s domination of the Gaza Strip. This is an enormous concern for the Egyptians. Mubarak is talking about having Iran on Egypt’s border.
Certainly Iranian investment in Syria is a big deal. True, Iranian businessmen trying to get work done in Damascus are having a hard time, for the same reason that anyone who tries to get work in Damascus has: The system is corrupt and slow. But the big deal between Iran and Syria is that it is an old relationship. It’s not a marriage of convenience; it’s a shared vision of the world, it’s a strategic alliance.
The idea both prevalent here in Washington, in Europe, and large corners of official Israel that it is possible to split Iran and Syria is preposterous. If this is part of the idea right now with low-level negotiations between Syria and Israel to try to find some wedge issue–I don’t see that there is a wedge issue. I think there was at a certain point a wedge issue, and that wedge issue is Lebanon. The Syrians, who are very much looking to protect themselves from the tribunal investigating their involvement in assassinating former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, first of all, and to restore hegemony in Lebanon, were willing to do anything it takes to get back into Lebanon. Iran is less enthusiastic about pushing this issue. But after the Doha agreement, which gave Hizballah veto power over government policy and a stronger position at little cost, there is no longer a wedge issue between Syria and Iran. Their interests are now very close in Lebanon as throughout the region.
To a lesser extent, Iran has turned toward Qatar, which mediated the agreement over Lebanon. Qatar’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia is something Tehran can use up to a point. The possession of al-Jazeera television is also a Qatari asset, and it criticizes the West and Arab regimes in general. The big difference with Syria, of course, is that Qatar is far weaker and unlikely to become involved in violent action. But it is also extraordinarily wealthy and has helped out the Syrians, especially in terms of the French. So it is important to watch Qatar’s relationship with Iran.
Finally, the Doha agreement between the factions in Lebanon says something very important about Iran, its assets, and allies throughout the region. What Iran and its assets cannot get by way of negotiations and politics it will take by way of force, and this is exactly what we saw happen with the Hizballah coup, and this is exactly what the Doha agreement represents–the diplomatic crystallization of a position gained through force in Lebanon. Insofar as Americans talk about negotiating with the Iranians or what they believe can be obtained by talking with them, Iran’s goals and methods must be kept in mind.
Barry Rubin: Let me set the stage by quoting Winston Churchill. When he began his speech after the Munich agreement in 1938 he said: “Nothing could be less unpopular but more necessary than to speak honestly about the extent of defeat that has been suffered.” The Iranians have won a huge victory in Lebanon, and it’s also important how they won it. Let me give four points in this regard.
The first point is our conception of the Middle East has to change. The historic concept was of the battle among Arab nationalists and specific regimes–Egypt, Syria, and Iraq mainly–for leadership of the Arab world and eventually leadership of the Middle East. And in that, the Arab-Israeli conflict was an important, though often exaggerated, point. This is no longer the Middle East we’re dealing with today. It is today a place of a struggle between two blocs. On the one hand, you have the Iranian alliance, which I call the HISH–Hizballah, Iran, Syria, Hamas–and the Iraqi insurgents, ironically much of the two warring sides in Iraq. There are also groups not allied with Iran–indeed, anti-Iran, but which also play a destabilizing role against the regimes, the West, and Israel: al-Qa’ida–which is less proportionally important today–the Muslim Brotherhoods, and other radical Islamist groups.
And on the other side, you have basically all the Arab regimes except for Syria and Sudan, and also Israel, and Europe, and the United States.
How are these two sides doing? It is clear that the Iranians are succeeding. Let’s take very briefly four cases. In the case of Lebanon–total victory. Why did they win total victory? Because the Iranians supported their ally Hizballah, and the other side–except the Saudis–did not help the Lebanese government. They could say to the Lebanese government: We will kill you. We give money, we give arms, we give help to our friends, and what is the West doing for you? When the chips were down, it wasn’t bad enough that the United States and France sold out Lebanon; they don’t even realize they did it, if you read the statements praising the Doha agreement. Total victory in Lebanon.
In effect, Hizballah went up against the entire world, and Hizballah won because there was a UN resolution and a UN plan, and the UN–the 160 whatever countries were more afraid of Hizballah than vice-versa, and they did not try to enforce the agreement made by all the world’s countries to do something in Lebanon to keep Hizballah out of the south and prevent it from intimidating the Lebanese government into giving in to its demands.
Number two: Iraq. Much more complex, but things are going well there for Iranian influence up to a point. Not a takeover but certainly a good amount of leverage in Iraq, even more so with a U.S. withdrawal.
Number three: nuclear. After about four and a half years of negotiations, including direct talks, they have run rings around the West, they’ve made fools of those trying to stop them, and have shown that the West is a pitiful helpless giant.
Number four: There are two barriers for Iran to leap. One of these is Sunni-Shi’a, and the other is Arab-Persian. Now, they haven’t done it completely by any means. They have alienated many people–we’ll come to that in a moment–but they’ve partly leaped the barriers. They’ve leaped the Sunni barrier with their alignment with Hamas, and of course they’ve leaped the Persian-Arab barrier with their alignment with Syria, Hizballah, Hamas, and forces in Iraq. So they’re doing very well.
And by the way, all of this is happening without Iran possessing nuclear weapons. What happens when a side does very well? They’re exposed to more opposition because they are seen as aggressors, dangerous, they kill people? Or perhaps more people are afraid of them or seek to join what might seem the winning team?
Well, in 1938 in the Munich agreement, Germany basically got control of the key strategic areas of Czechoslovakia and in March 1939 took the rest of the country. Did the world then become united effectively against them? No. Country after country tried to jump on the bandwagon because they wanted to be on the winning side. When he spoke about the Munich agreement Churchill gave the specific example of Yugoslavia as a country that was ready to join an anti-German alignment but decided: These guys are the winning side, the British and the French don’t help their friends. We’re getting on the bandwagon. And within three years the Yugoslav government was ready to join the Nazi alliance–they didn’t only because the British staged a coup in Belgrade, but by that point the Germans had invaded and seized the country.
Well, what’s happening in the Arab world? Regimes look around and say: Who’s the winning side? Who should we join? Who’s powerful? Who gets things done? Who rewards their friends? Who kills their enemies? Iran.
I can understand the point of view of Gulf states which, on the one hand, know they need American protection but on the other hand doubt its reliability or effectiveness. I won’t even get into how the U.S. presidential election might produce an administration that makes them feel even less confident. I’ll be general about this but everyone will know what I mean–the Iranians, the Syrians, Hizballah, and Hamas know who they want to win, they say so, they think that president is going to win, and if they wait for that president, they’ll be in a stronger position.
This is an extremely serious and dangerous situation, and unless people wake up and change their strategy and see this, then it’s going to be too late for a lot of things.
Let me briefly say something about the Iranian nuclear weapons issue. If Iran gets nuclear weapons it may use them against Israel–that’s a very serious matter. But let’s just say for the sake of our discussion that there’s only a 10-20 percent possibility that if Iran got nuclear weapons they’d use it on Israel. That’s still a very serious possibility.
But I’ll tell you three things that have a 100 percent certainty:
The first is that if Iran gets nuclear weapons the West is going to be even less willing to challenge Iranian actions.
The second is that if Iran gets nuclear weapons the Arabic-speaking world and Arab regimes are going to be less likely to challenge Iran and much more likely to appease Iran.
And the third thing is that if Iran gets nuclear weapons tens or even hundreds of thousands of people will join revolutionary Islamist groups, because they will see that as the wave of the future. They may not be necessarily pro-Iran groups but the general sense will be that Islamism is the winning side. And the level of violence and unrest in the region, and within individual Arab countries, will rise very sharply.
This is why I’m against the idea of direct talks, or at least prolonged direct talks because of their impact on the region, giving the perception that the Americans are going to cut a deal with Iran or be too yielding toward Tehran. That will send a dangerous signal to both Iran and the Arab states.
When the Syrians were invited to the Annapolis conference, for example, the next day the Lebanese government accepted the Syrian candidate for president. It was seen as betrayal or at least the prelude to that, the signal to start the run for the exits. The Americans are going to sell us out, so we better make our own deal. I think that’s the way people would read it.
In addition, what would happen in the talks themselves? Iran would spin out the talks. The West would be paralyzed, saying that you can’t do anything against Iran because it would ruin the talks. It would be argued that the situation requires confidence-building measures to reassure Iran, concessions. So the logic of how this would really work, not how it’s supposed to work, is it would make things much worse.
Now, this is a very, very, very pessimistic assessment, and I take no pleasure in giving it. But again, unless there are signs that there is real change–and the change can be in the exact opposite direction of what it should be depending on the outcome of the American elections–this is a very serious situation. Israel is not the place that is most affected. The places that are most affected are Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and in a sense Egypt. It is the Arabic-speaking world that’s in the greatest peril and I think, as Lee said, they are not ready to act decisively. Part of that reason is because of history and political culture, but also due to a fairly reasonable assessment of the balance of forces. In effect, they say: We don’t want Iran to win, we don’t want revolutions, but we also don’t want to take risks. Let’s hope the Americans solve the problem, but if they don’t, we can make a deal with Tehran.
Patrick Clawson: My argument is much more of tempered optimism than of Barry’s pessimism. But first a note: Let us bear in mind that what is motivating Iran’s foreign policy objectives throughout the region is a mixture of the revolutionary ideology, which has been so emphasized–correctly–by the preceding speakers, and also a proud nationalism, which leads Iranians across the political spectrum to assume that Iran is the natural big power of the region. We should understand that in the eyes of a great many people in Iran, and not only the revolutionaries, Iran is a great power, it is a great civilization.
The distinction I like to make here is with Bernard Lewis’s characterization of Arab attitudes, where Bernard Lewis correctly says that many in the Arab world think that Arabs once were a great civilization and a great power are no longer, and this is the fault of the West. The attitude one finds among many Iranians is that they once were a great power and civilization, they still are a great power and great civilization, and the West is too dense to notice. That’s quite a different attitude. So a fair amount of what Iran is doing is in its eyes simply reasserting the natural state of things in which Iran is the great power in the region.
But one of the reasons I’m relatively optimistic about Iran’s efforts to assert its great power status in the region is that Iran has essentially given up on trying to assert itself through soft power. Iran is not even pretending it represents a positive example, a shining city on a hill, to which others in the region aspire. That is a correct judgment, because let’s be blunt about this: Iran is not a particularly attractive society to Iranians, much less to anybody else in the region. Iran has rampant drug use problems, it has enormous problems of prostitution, enormous problems of unemployment, and the economic situation in Iran is not something anybody in the region regards as a model–quite the contrary. While Iranians may exaggerate the extent to which the country is suffering from inflation and many other serious economic ills, still, it is quite a contrast between the situation in Iran and the situation in other oil-producing countries.
I don’t know anybody throughout the Middle East who is writing articles in newspapers or putting on television shows or writing in blogs about how much they wish they were living in Tehran, about how Tehran’s the popping and exciting and international city that everyone around the world wants to be living in and looking to with excitement and enthusiasm. The name of that town is Dubai and not Iran, and everybody knows that is because Dubai is the not-Iran. Dubai is a place that’s open to globalization; Iran’s a place that’s closed to globalization. Dubai is the place that is totally integrated into the Western world, and Iran is the place that is totally isolated. So Iran has just simply given up on the soft power game–with one minor exception.
Thanks to $125 barrels of oil, it is true that Iran does have the largesse to spread around in non-aligned countries, so Iran does have the largest embassy in Latin America, in Managua, Nicaragua. But buying friends in Bolivia and Nicaragua and cozying up to Chavez is really not the way to make yourself into a world power. I’m not really worried about Iran’s soft power insofar as it is based upon that kind of bribery. Iran’s not going to win that game.
What Iran is left with is competing solely on the basis of hard power. That is what Iran is doing, from the nuclear program to its activities in Iraq to its activities in Lebanon to its activities in Gaza to its activities in Afghanistan. Everywhere we look what Iran is doing is competing on hard power. It is remarkable. Iran has picked the domain in which the United States does best around the world, namely hard power, and has decided: Let’s go head-on-head with the United States where the United States is strongest and not compete with the United States where it is weakest, soft power. That strikes me as a remarkably stupid decision, one which is setting Iran up for a historic defeat. Because the fact simply is that Iran does not have a chance of winning that hard power competition.
Right now it seems to be doing all right thanks to the fact that the United States is tied down. But frankly, I don’t think the trend lines are at all good for what Iran is doing in these domains. Its nuclear program is a good example of this. Iran is betting a great deal upon this nuclear program, a program which has led its neighbors to order, in the last three years, $80 billion, at least, in advanced arms directed against Iran. And I’m not even talking about nuclear programs; I’m just talking about advanced nuclear weaponry.
Iran is not as wealthy as its neighbors; Iran does not have as good relations with the great arms producers and military powers of the world. The more Iran pushes its hard power competition, the more it is going to find that it is going to be losing this competition. I would say, by the way, that hard power is the only thing Iran has got going for it in the Levant as well. It is not the words of Ahmadinejad threatening Israel that are impressive–after all, Israel has been subject to a lot of nasty words over the years–what is impressive is that Iran is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into arming and financing and training those who are determined to wipe Israel off the map and are killing Israelis on a regular basis in Hamas and Hizballah. So again, in the Levant, Iran’s competition is with hard power and not soft power.
In this hard power competition, Iran is not doing terribly well. My reading of what Iran has been able to accomplish in this is that in a remarkably favorable environment for Iranian activities it has had mediocre results, that in fact, with its nuclear program, Iran grossly exaggerates the progress it’s been making– the most recent IAEA report from late February showed that Iran had done less separative work with its enrichment in the preceding three months than in the three months before that. It is not a trend lineup when you’ve got more and more centrifuges and they are doing less work. And furthermore, Iran announced that it was ceasing the production of the centrifuges it had been making–hint: they are not working. Instead, it is shifting to a production of a new line of centrifuges, which is not what Iran wanted to produce because Iran couldn’t get the materials from abroad, so instead Iran is trying a new and untested design–good luck getting it to work.
And similarly in Iraq, Iran has badly overreached. We have seen that the Maliki government had to make a fundamental decision as to whether to ally with the United States or to ally with Iran; it has decided to go with the United States. And the Maliki government and the security forces behind them have taken on the Shi’a militias, the very same Shi’a militias we were told the Maliki government would never take on and that the Iraqi security forces would fall apart if it took on. The Iraqi security forces have in fact asserted complete control over Basra, which is a dramatic change from the situation of late March 2008, and indeed are reaching into the heart of Sadr City, the very core of the areas that were controlled previously by these Shi’a militias. You may recall a few years ago that Muqtada al-Sadr announced that he was forming a parallel government and told people not to cooperate with the Maliki government. We don’t hear that today. We hear instead Muqtada al-Sadr insisting he is having a ceasefire, telling his people to put down their arms, and his people who don’t are being killed and arrested and their arms are being seized, and the Maliki government is taking over in Sadr City.
I would suggest that with the developments in Lebanon there has been a similar overreach. Hizballah has clearly demonstrated that it’s a sectarian project, Aoun, its Christian ally, looks like an idiot, and the temptation within the Christian community to work towards a deal with Hizballah has evaporated. That is completely gone, just forget it. And furthermore, the attitude throughout the Sunni world that Hizballah is somehow this bold resistance against Israel is also gone. Hizballah is now understood as the threat to Lebanon as it always was, and not a threat to Israel.
I would say that what Iran is doing by competing in hard power is taking on the United States where the United States is strongest and furthermore is doing a wonderful job at mobilizing a coalition against it. I find it impressive, for instance, that here we are, almost some five years into negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program, and the Europeans, those weak-kneed Europeans who are always so quick to cave, what is the position they are insisting upon with the Iranians in these nuclear negotiations? The exact same position they had five years ago–not one centrifuge, no enrichment inside Iran. The Europeans are taking a strong line of saying their position hasn’t changed, hasn’t budged, hasn’t moved in the least. That is not what I think was anticipated. We aren’t seeing a rush to the exits with an attempt by each country to offer a new deal. In fact, neither the Russians nor the Chinese have put on the table any proposals for enrichment inside Iran. That was not what was expected five years ago when these negotiations began, I would suggest.
So yes, it’s true, with America having been bogged down in Iraq, Iran looked pretty good; with the price of oil looking high, Iran looked pretty strong, but I think Iran has fundamental weaknesses. I am very encouraged that in four months Iran has been able to sell three months worth of oil. It is storing at sea and in storage containers in Iran and around the world an entire month’s worth of oil that has not been able to sell and is quietly having to discount the price of its oil significantly in the hopes of moving it. I don’t know where the price of oil is going to go over time, but I would just suggest that past history has been that oil forecasters have always gotten it wrong whenever they have come to a consensus about which way oil is going to move. Therefore, the increasing consensus that oil prices are going to go upwards at a time when U.S. demand is dropping month to month and Iran is unable to sell significant quantities of its oil encourages me that the price of oil may indeed be significantly lower within the next few years.
Barry Rubin: Patrick, as you know I always respect what you say, and I actually may quote you on my side in a moment. I actually feel a little worse because I was hoping you’d totally demolish what I said. Obviously, Iran does have its weaknesses but briefly there are several points I’d like to make.
On the hard/soft power thing, I think you left out a critical factor. I’ll just mention the history of the Soviet Union. It’s not just hard and soft–there’s a third factor, which is an example not of economic social success but a victory. The question is: If people look at Hizballah and say they are not heroes but they won. Hamas won. This is the road to victory. In Egypt there have actually been people who have written explicitly: We have a very low opinion of what is going on in Iran, we don’t want to be like Iran, yet the idea remains that Islamism–as in the 1920s and 1930s Communism was the wave of the future–is an attractive model of success in terms of victory. This is true even if people argue: We won’t make all those mistakes and we won’t do things that way. I think that’s something they have very much going for them. In addition, it is not just that soft power means we want to be like you and hard power means you will make us be like you, that you will march in–it is the idea that they are the winning side. Therefore, at a minimum, we have to appease you and perhaps even join you.
In terms of Iraq, as you know Sadr is an “extreme” element, but there are many pro-Iranians in the government and the parties in the government. I don’t think this means Iraq will turn toward Iran; I think the Iraqi government–this is the great irony–will have two great allies: the United States and Iran. But it does represent a shift in power overall. If Iran is perceived as getting stronger and stronger and if the U.S. forces pull out, they are going to rethink their exact degree of orientation toward Iran. Even if the alignment remains limited–and arguably the other Arab states aren’t making Iraq tempting offers–Iraq is not the anti-Iran factor it once was.
As for the Europeans, what you said was exactly one hundred percent true, but the problem is to say that the Europeans are where they were five years ago, while the Iranians are more advanced toward nuclear arms. The Europeans were supposed to be tougher when they saw partial sanctions weren’t working. They are definitely active. They definitely want to see measures, but those measures fall very far short of what is needed, so I don’t see that as an example of encouragement.
Your other point that it is taking longer for Iran to get nuclear weapons than they thought, and I have no trouble accepting that. But again, they are getting so much done without them.
So I want you to convince me, but I see some problems in your arguments. I am saying even if you are partly right, I think we have to deduct some from the list. The Saudis and the Kuwaitis were never going to say we want a society like the society in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. But when Saddam was riding high, and if he had invaded Kuwait and the United States hadn’t responded, despite their failure of “soft power” and without their use in some cases of hard power, Saddam Hussein would be a strong figure in the Middle East. These are some of my concerns.
Meir Javendanfar: If I could just pick on Dr. Clawson’s point about Iranian soft power, I have to half agree and half disagree. I think yes, Iran is not a model for many Arab countries to follow when a majority of the Middle East is actually doing better in terms of international relations and in terms of economy, but that does not mean that Iran is not trying to improve its soft power at the expense of what happens inside Iran.
What happens inside Iran is that a lot of money the Iranian government spends on internal matters and the attention it gives to the Iranian power is far different from the attention and investment the Iranian government makes to look after the Shi’a in Iraq and Lebanon.
Barry Rubin: And its ally, Syria.
Meir Javendanfar: And Syria. And some Iranians call it shameless. I’ll give you an example. One of the biggest factors of the rising price of property in Tehran–in some parts of Tehran it is more expensive to buy property than in Los Angeles–is a shortage of cement in Iran. And one of the reasons for a shortage of cement in Iran is because a notable part of Iran’s cement production is actually going to Iraq. The Iranian government is using that for its reconstruction projects in Iraq.
I would dare say that Iranian soft power is not only alive, is not only very effective–we in the West should learn from it. The Iranians have done a much better job using health and education in order to bring people on their sides than we in the West have, than the United States has. Yes, the Iranian government does have a fundamentalist agenda, they do have extreme right-wing policies, but many people in the Middle East, their concern is security–as we see in Iraq–schooling, and health for their children. And this is something Iran is providing as a much better service to foreigners than to its own citizens, yet it is succeeding. We can condemn it because it poses a danger to us, but we could also learn from it, that by assisting social projects we in the West could increase our say and audience and influence in the Middle East.
I also think regarding the Iranian danger–which Professor Rubin discussed–the other 100 percent certainty I believe in is that while Iran may or may not use nuclear weapons, I am sure Iran will not cease threatening Israel once it gets its hands on nuclear weapons, and we cannot be living in a country that is constantly living under nuclear threat.
One last point: Regarding the clergy in Iran, yes, they have been shunted aside, but I see them making a crawling return. One of the indicators of that was Ali Larijani standing for election in Qom for the Majlis and not in Tehran. There are people who are opposing Ahmadinejad inside Iranian politics and they see the clergy as one way to balance the power against Ahmadinejad. I see the clergy making a small comeback, maybe notable in the future. We will see the results in the next Iranian presidential elections.
Lee Smith: Just very quickly to continue the soft power discussion, one of the things we see in Lebanon is that the United States is incapable of that sort of soft power. First of all, it’s a soft power that partakes of the totalitarian project of Hizballah and the Iranians. We all know what their educational system is like, right? It is not describing the Middle East as a beautiful mosaic. It’s a totalitarian project, so the United States certainly can’t do something like that. Much more importantly is that it is a soft project enforced by hard power. One of the things I know the United States had tried to do in the south of Lebanon is to go in through the south with USAID and various other projects. The problem is they will take the money and then essentially we are funding Hizballah. Unless you have a political party that is armed, that is willing to enforce its political institutions and its social institutions in these places, it doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter.
So I think in some ways, again, the soft power means nothing unless it is enforced by hard power, and that is what the Iranians are very good at doing. That is what they do in Lebanon and the Hizballah areas.
Menashe Amir: I would like to say that I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the future of the Iranian impact on the Middle East, because it very much depends on the policy and the action of the Western countries, especially Europe and the United States, and also the Arab countries. Regarding Ahmadinejad’s philosophy, he thinks that Islam is a young and dynamic movement that is winning, and he is ready to sacrifice. Ahmadinejad believes that there are two main values in life: One is jihad (holy war) and the other is shihada (martyrdom). Because we are ready to fight and ready to kill and be killed, the final victory will be ours. The reason is that the Western countries don’t want war, they are not ready to make a sacrifice, they want to have their good life. That is the reason that the final victory will be ours. So it very much depends now on the policy of the Western countries as to how to confront Iran and how to confront this kind of ideology.
I think the West can defeat the Iranian regime if it acts very decisively and united. The Iranians are very afraid of the U.S. military, especially U.S. marines power. If the Americans put a real serious and direct threat on Iran to create this impression that they are going to attack, and if they bring in sanctions against Iran, and if the important powers cooperate and implement the sanctions against Iran, and if the West helps the 60 to 70 percent of Iranians who aren’t happy with their current rulers, the regime will be changed. I am not saying this will lead to democracy, that’s not so easy, but it can lead to a regime in Iran that will think about the interests of the people and not export Islamic revolution or support terror organizations.
Patrick Clawson: Yes, I think Menashe Amir is quite correct that we can prevail against Iran and indeed, as Barry reminded us with the Churchill quote, it is important that we speak bluntly about the defeat that has been suffered. In the last two months Iran has been defeated badly in Iraq. That is a country ten times the size of Lebanon, that is the country where there are 150,000 American troops, that is where the American project is most committed. If you had told us two months ago that the Maliki government would have decisively moved against Iranian agents in Basra and the south of Iraq and indeed throughout Sadr City and that the response of the Iranians would have been to fold their tents quietly, few of us would have believed that is the case. But that is in fact what has happened.
And if you had told us a year ago that the Maliki government was going to take decisive actions against the Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, you would have been regarded as quite nuts. But that is in fact what has happened, and the Iraqi security forces have held together in doing this. So the fact is that when it came down to the punch, Maliki and the Iraqi politicians and the Iraqi security forces decided to side with the Americans, not with the Iranians. I think that has much to do with the character of Iranian power inside Iraq, where Iran was seen as supporting those who were engaging in sectarian slaughter–the Shi’a engaging in sectarian slaughter of the Sunnis, and even the Sunnis engaging in sectarian slaughters of the Shi’a. That is not a great way to win friends. Nor has Iran been successful. It has been backing the losing side in Iraq. That is the side that has been defeated in each of the battles; the militias are doing very poorly against the security forces.
In the most significant confrontation that has been occurring in the region, it is the Iranians who have been losing–furthermore, who know that they have been losing. That is going to make much more difference for power relations in the region than any other developments in recent months.
Lee Smith: I just don’t think the nuclear weapon is the main issue. The nuclear weapon is part of their larger project for the region. Insofar as part of that project is to drive the United States from the region and export the revolution, it is a serious concern across the region for the United States. Because of that I think that at a certain point, sooner rather than later, it’s going to get very serious. I don’t think that it is possible for the United States to play any part in the internal mechanisms of the regime. My belief is that the people in Iran who are willing to fight and die for ideas are basically pretty happy with the regime they have now. The idea that a majority of Iranians might be pro-Western or pro-U.S. doesn’t inspire me with confidence that these people are going to bring down a regime. I just don’t see it happening.
Meir Javedanfar: As someone who was born in Iran and lived there until 1987, what I can say is that the one thing the Iranian people hate more than the current regime is foreign governments talking about supporting independent movements within Iran. Yes, the Kurds and other minorities in Iran are discriminated against, but the one thing that can unite the Iranian people in an instant is if they suspect that foreign countries are using the nuclear program as an excuse to come and tear Iran apart, just as the Iranian people suspect that the weapons of mass destruction was a conspiracy to go into Iraq and take its oil, etc. So I would urge caution when we are talking about attacking the Iranian government in the West so that we don’t come across as factors who want to support these movements to become independent, because that would significantly boost the support of the government in Iran. Dr. Clawson talked about the patriotic feelings of Iranians. This is something we should take into consideration.
The other factor is the Mahdi. Yes, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is someone who believes the Mahdi should be returned, but I would like to make the distinction that in all of his speeches, Ayatollah Khamene’i has not talked about that, and he is the ultimate decisionmaker. In fact, I would say that he is the brakes, he is the biggest obstacle pro-Mahdi people have in Iranian politics. So I would say that the Mahdi people are dangerous, but in terms of having power in areas such as foreign policy and defense, they are not that influential, thankfully.
Barry Rubin: I want to make a different point that I think is a good conclusion to the discussion. We should remember here that we are dealing with two different factors. One factor is what can Iran and an Iranian-led alliance do directly to increase their power and take more influence. But the second is: To what extent will their activities, efforts, and examples lead to violence, instability, and radicalism in the region even if they are not the patrons or the direct sponsors of it?
There’s a lot of harm done in the second category, the encouragement of radical forces, radical Islamist forces, destabilization showing that the West and most of the Arab regimes are pitiful, helpless giants that goes far beyond the specific actions and specific advantages that Tehran receives.
Menashe Amir has been a journalist (and later a broadcaster) for over 50 years. He is one of Israel’s most veteran analysts of Iranian affairs. He served as head of Kol Israel’s Persian service (The Voice of Israel Persian Service) in, broadcasting to Iran for 24 years until his formal retirement in 2004. He continues to broadcast political radio programs, talking with the listeners inside Iran. He is chief editor of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website in Persian (http://www.hamdami.com). He also serves as an expert on Iranian issues to radio stations and television networks in Israel and abroad, and as a professional consultant to state officials and research centers worldwide.
Dr. Patrick Clawson is deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has authored and edited 24 books and monographs, including Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave, 2005, with Michael Rubin) and Getting Ready for a Nuclear Ready Iran (Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, 2005, edited with Henry Sokolski). He has written more than 70 articles about the Middle East and international economics, appears frequently on television and radio, and has published op-ed articles in major newspapers including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. He has also testified before congressional committees more than 20 times and has been an expert witness in more than a dozen federal cases.
Meir Javedanfar is a Middle East Analyst and Director of the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company (MEEPAS). He is the coauthor (with Yossi Melman) of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran (Carroll & Graf, 2007). He is a member of Club of Rome Think Tank and also serves as an expert on the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations – Global Experts Resource Project.
Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute who specializes in the Levant, Lebanon, and Syria. He has contributed articles on Arab and Islamic affairs to, among other publications, The New York Times, The Weekly Standard, Slate.com, The Boston Globe, and Wired. Most recently he authored a book on Arab politics, The Strong Horse: America and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, (Doubleday, forthcoming).
MERIA is indexed in Index Islamicus and CSA Worldwide Political Science Abstracts. ISSN: 1565-8996. *Serving Readers Throughout the Middle East and in 100 Countries* All material: Copyright MERIA Journal. You must credit if quoting and ask permission to reprint.