Iranian Politics and Iranian Foreign Policy
Sep 3, 2008 | AIJAC staff
September 3, 2008
Number 09/08 #01
This Update includes three pieces on the internal politics of Iran, with discussion also of how this might affect Iran’s foreign policy, especially concerning the illegal nuclear weapons program.
First up is a profile and interviews from Canada’s CBC Radio of Menashe Amir, Israel’s veteran broadcaster in Persian to Iran, who has considerable contact with Iranian public opinion, thanks to his call-in talk show. Amir explains that many Westerners don’t understand the belief system that motivates the Iranian regime. Amir also reports that many Iranians who speak to him not only like and admire Israel, but also are in favour of Israeli or American military strikes on their country, in order to bring down the clerical regime. For Amir’s views, and much else of note, CLICK HERE. More on the feelings and lives of ordinary Iranians is reported in the Washington Post, while the Guardian is reporting that due to mismanagement, Iran is now facing rolling electricity outages.
Next up, Benedetta Berti, an international security specialist at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University in the US, canvasses the internal political situation of Iranian President Ahmadinejad and finds it more shaky than most people think. Berti argues that not only does it look like a difficult task for Ahmadinejad to win the presidential elections next year, but that reported signs of backing for him by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are being exaggerated. For Berti’s full discussion of current and future Iranian political struggles, CLICK HERE. Also in Iranian politics, one prominent figure gets in trouble for saying Iran is friends with all people including the “Israeli people”, leading to an overwhelming declaration that Iran is not friends with any Israeli, while another politician allegedly faked a degree from Oxford.
Finally, this Update features a long, highly informative, panel discussion, on both Iran’s foreign policy and its domestic political and ideological drivers, from five experts brought together for a forum by the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA), edited by Barry Rubin. All aspects of the Iranian situation are canvassed by the panellists Rubin, Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute, Menashe Amir (discussed above), thinktank expert and author Meir Javedanfar, and Hudson Institute regional scholar Lee Smith. While all have interesting things to say, particularly interesting is a mutually eloquent and informed point/counter-point between Rubin, who is relatively pessimistic about hopes of containing Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions, and Clawson, who is more optimistic. To read all this wisdom on Iran in one place, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Analysis of the International Monetary Fund’s latest report on the economic situation in Iran and the effects of existing sanctions.
- An Arab paper claimed that Iran is actively trying to sabotage the Gaza ceasefire, and another reports that Teheran is giving more deadly missiles to Hezbollah.
- A report on the training in Iran (by Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards) of hit squads to be sent into Iraq to kill Iraqi political leaders as well as US soldiers.
- Iran claims it now has 4000 nuclear centrifuges working.
- Emanuele Ottolenghi on Iran’s record high rate of executions this year.
- Some interesting new claims on the Georgian crisis, from journalists Michael Totten and Melik Kaylan, both of whom report Georgian government claims, backed by some independent corroboration, that the Russian invasion was not precipitated by a Georgian military invasion of South Ossetia, as widely reported.
- Many Middle Easterners react with glee to the prospect of a renewal of the Cold War in the region. But Syria’s assumption that it could resume its old client relationship with Russia was badly dashed according to Israeli academic Guy Bechor.
- Meanwhile, some Israeli leaders have seen Syria’s behaviour as proof that Damascus is not serious about peace, while exiled Syrian democracy leader Farid Ghadry urges Israel not to engage in negotiations that legitimate the Assad regime.
Menashe Amir has been broadcasting daily from Israel to Iran for 48 years
By Terry Milewski
CBC News, Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Menashe Amir listens to a caller from Iran on his Farsi-language phone-in show. An Iranian immigrant, Amir has been broadcasting to Iran on Israels state-run radio for 48 years. (CBC)
Close your eyes, and you’d swear you were in Tehran. The tinkle of the santur, the whiff of Persian kebabs, the dancers chattering in Farsi … It’s Persian Night!
But open your eyes and you’ll see the old banknotes with the shah’s picture pinned up in the kitchen. You’re in the last place you’d expect to find a celebration of Iranian culture: Mahane Jehuda.
Mahane Jehuda is the old Jewish Market in Jerusalem — a little more trendy nowadays, with cappuccino bars squeezed in amongst the fruit and vegetable stands. But Persian Night? In Jerusalem? While Iran’s president threatens to wipe Israel off the map?
In truth, it’s not so strange. Since the time of Darius the Great, there have been ties of blood and history between the two nations that are now, 2,500 years later, on a collision course. Some 60,000 Jews from Iran live in Israel and they don’t forget the old country, where many still have family. So it’s natural that they gather often to enjoy Persian food and to sing along with their favourite Persian songs.
Should Israel strike?
But it’s not just the Iranian Jews who are intensely interested in all things Persian. Israel, and the world beyond, is debating the looming question: should Israel strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities before the mullahs get the bomb?
In Mahane Jehuda, on Persian Night, the prevailing view seems to be, no — but America should! Why, people want to know, does the world think it’s only Israel’s job to stop Iran going nuclear?
“Why Canada not bombing Iran?” asks one celebrant. “Why is America not bombing Iran? Only Israel — why?”
Of course, nobody is bombing Iran, yet. But Israel is creeping inexorably to a decision – and many experts say time is running out. In one or two years, they say, an Iranian nuclear device may be ready and it will be too late to stop it. Israel’s new F16s — called F16Is — have been fitted with bigger fuel tanks to increase their range and Israeli missile defences are being upgraded.
An Iranian Cross-Country Checkup
What to do to avert this nightmare? Many governments — including those of Israel, the U.S. and Canada — take this question to Menashe Amir.
Amir is the voice of Israel in Iran — but he’s much more than that. Governments call for his advice because, on Israel’s state-run radio, he’s been broadcasting daily to Iran, in Farsi, for 48 years. He’s been at it ever since he immigrated to Israel from Iran and, for the past 15 years, he’s also been hosting a fascinating Sunday call-in show. It’s a kind of an Iranian version of the CBC Radio program Cross-Country Checkup, with a twist: it’s broadcast from outside the country.
What Iranians are saying
A sampling of calls from Iranians, recorded and translated from Farsi by CBC News at Menashe Amir’s Jerusalem studio:
‘Long live the people of Israel, who have so much freedom and democracy that they can prosecute their prime minister.’
‘Islam only exists for [Ayatollah] Khomeini. They’ve ruined the people’s lives … they’ve brought dictatorship. Khomeini, [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad … with the oil income from the country, they live in their palaces while we live under the poverty line. What Islam? … We don’t want to live under tyranny … why can’t we have a good life?’
‘First of all, come and help us overthrow this regime and then we can have a referendum. But first we have to overthrow the regime — without violence.’
‘Our people know the regime and they know their bad intentions … unfortunately, the governments of Europe aren’t doing anything because they’re only worried about their economic interests.’
‘For what purpose do the people of Iran need nuclear weapons? The people of Iran should demand bread, water and freedom and they should shout it out. Why do we need an atomic bomb? For what?’
Iranians can call a number in Germany, so that they’re not seen to be calling the “Zionist entity,” and they’re rerouted to Amir’s studio, where they can vent. Once you understand what they’re saying, it’s a revelation.
Amir’s Iranian callers don’t just condemn their own government. They pour out their admiration for democracy, for America — even for Israel. On a recent show, the first caller had this to say: “Long live the people of Israel, who have so much freedom and democracy that they can prosecute their prime minister.”
Actually, Ehud Olmert hasn’t been prosecuted yet. But it could happen. And Iranians aren’t shy about applauding Israel’s democracy — or lamenting Iran’s lack of it. One pleads, “Come and help us overthrow this regime.” Another asks, “Why do we need an atomic bomb? For what?”
West needs to wake up
In an interview with CBC News, Amir said the West has failed to understand the Iranian threat. He believes the regime is opposed by most Iranians but is consumed by an apocalyptic vision: the triumph of Shia Islam [also known as Shiite] over the world.
Western governments, he says, don’t see that, for the Iranian mullahs, the destruction of the Jewish state is just a step along the way. Everyone knows that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called for Israel to be wiped off the map. But Amir points out, “On the same day, in the same speech that Ahmadinejad called for wiping off Israel from the map, he added that the destruction of Israel is the first step of our final confrontation with western civilization.”
Amir says the regime dreams of a new caliphate — an Islamic empire spanning the globe. He adds, “I want to tell you one more thing that the western countries don’t understand or don’t take it serious — and that’s the item of the Mahdi, the Shiite Messiah. And they believe that once the Mahdi comes, the whole universe will convert to Shiite Islam.”
The technology factor
What scares Israelis even more is that this fundamentalist world view is married to high technology. Iran recently sent a rocket into space to mark the birthday of the Mahdi — a 9th century imam known to Shias as the “last imam.” When Iranian TV covered the launch, the reporter didn’t forget to add the obligatory phrase when mentioning the Madhi: “May Allah hasten his return.”
Amir says the rocket sent a message. “They have the money, the missiles, they are seeking to have the nuclear bomb and the life of humankind is not important for them. I want to mention what Rahim Safavy, who was the chief commander of the revolutionary guards in Iran, said a few days ago: ‘We shall win and you, the westerners, shall lose because we gave 200,000 victims, martyrs, in eight years of war with Iraq and we have 300,000 disabled and injured in this war — and we don’t care about it. But you, the westerners, are afraid to give 4,000 or 5,000 thousand victims and casualties, so the final victory will be ours.’ “
But Amir says the Iranian people don’t share the regime’s messianic vision. He says most would support an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and even rise up against the regime.
“Iranians are totally a different nation — a peaceful, polite, moderate people who want a good life, who adore the United States, who respect Canada, who like western music … But the regime in Iran doesn’t feel like they’re Iranians. Mostly, firstly, they think they are Shi’ite Muslims and they have to work for the sake of Islam and not for the sake of Iran — and they are sacrificing the Iranian interest for the sake of Shi’ism.”
Prepare for the worst
But not everyone shares Amir’s view on the fragility of Iran’s government.
One who does not is Shabtai Shavit, who ran Israel’s legendary spy service, the Mossad, from 1989-96. Shavit, who’s now a security consultant, says the notion of Iranians overthrowing the regime in the wake of an Israeli strike is a fantasy.
Still, Shavit agrees with Amir that Israel must not assume that the regime will act rationally. “We have to make our decisions according to the worst-case scenario: They’re going to have the bomb,” Shavit says. “They’re going to pursue … an unrational way and they’re going to use the bomb. If this is the case, then I don’t have any other choice but to pre-empt it.”
Amir says his Iranian callers believe Israel has an obligation to act.
Their message, he says, is rooted in history. “They claim the Israelis and the Jews have a historical debt to the Iranians because, 2,000 years ago, Cyrus the Great came, freed Jews from Babylon and he sent them back to their country to build again their homeland … Iranian listeners say, now that’s the time you pay us back. Please come and help us to get rid of this regime.”
Suddenly, Persian Night in Jerusalem doesn’t seem so strange.
THE JERUSALEM POST, Sep. 1, 2008
In the past week, newspapers worldwide have given ample coverage to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his declarations in support of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Khamenei publicly praised Ahmadinejad’s policies and the way he has been handling the nuclear crisis and confronting “the West.” Furthermore, the supreme leader encouraged Ahmadinejad to prepare for a second term – a statement that many analysts interpreted as both an endorsement and a forecast of the president’s reelection.
However, although Khamenei’s remarks have strong political significance – especially in the race leading to the June 2009 presidential elections – it would be too simplistic to construe them as unconditional support. Similarly, it would be both inaccurate and premature to rely on them to infer that Ahmadinejad’s reelection is already assured.
IN FACT, three years after his decisive victory in June 2005, Ahmadinejad’s popularity has been steadily declining both within his own constituency and among his former allies. This trend has been fueled by his failure to deal with the ongoing economic and energy crises. Even Khamenei, only a few days after praising Ahmadinejad’s policies, urged the administration to focus on economic reform and contain inflation, which – according to the central bank – has been rising from 10.9 percent in 2005 to a worrisome 25.3% this summer. The administration’s economic mismanagement and massive increase in overhead are partially to blame for this surge, which influences housing and food prices in particular, thus strongly affecting the lives of ordinary citizens.
The ongoing economic crisis endangers Ahmadinejad’s credibility and popularity within his constituency, and increases the number of critics. Only in the past week, former president and current head of the Assembly of Experts Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani blamed Ahmadinejad’s administration for the ongoing economic and energy crises, saying the country was ready for change.
Given this decline in popularity, it seems that Ahmadinejad’s reelection now depends even more on the support of the conservative coalition, as well as on the backing of the supreme leader. However, neither of these factors can be taken for granted.
FIRST, SINCE the 2006 municipal elections, there has been a steady growth of the Broad Principlists Coalition, which was created to challenge Ahmadinejad’s leadership within the conservative ranks. This ad hoc alliance, which includes prominent politicians such as Teheran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qaliba and Majlis Speaker (and main nuclear negotiator) Ali Larijani, won 53 out of 117 seats assigned to the conservative block in the spring 2008 parliamentary elections. Although Ahmadinejad’s group, the United Front of Principlists, managed to hold the majority of conservative seats, the pragmatist faction obtained an important political result, subsequently enhanced by the election of Larijani as parliament speaker.
The growing divisions within the conservative block and the rise of alternative candidates such as Larijani, represent a substantial internal challenge for Ahmadinejad, and also potentially hinder Khamenei’s support. In fact, while the ayatollah’s backing of Ahmadinejad vis-à-vis his moderate opponents, already crucial in 2005, appears solid, the level of support against candidates like Larijani – a very close ally of the supreme leader – cannot be taken for granted.
In this sense, Khamenei’s endorsement of Ahmadinejad should not be interpreted as unconditional, while his words encouraging the administration to engage in long-term planning seem more a call for continuity and consistency than a forecast of reelection. Furthermore, even if Ahmadinejad could count on Khamenei’s endorsement, it would be hard to know whether such support alone will ensure his reelection, especially given the rift within the conservative ranks and the depth of the economic crisis. In 1997, Mohammad Khatami won the presidential race and defeated Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri despite the supreme leader’s support for the latter.
THEREFORE, TO ensure his reelection, Ahmadinejad needs to both address internal challenges such as the economic crisis, and boost his personal credibility. In this sense, he seems to be focusing on his foreign policy and on building international strategic alliances to increase Iran’s prestige and his domestic popularity.
For the international community, this means he might be especially interested in seeking a breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations. Any success in the nuclear realm would boost his credibility and silence those who have been arguing that he has mishandled both the negotiations and relations with the West.
However, the number and degree of concessions that Ahmadinejad would be prepared to make in this context will be inevitably tied to his electoral propaganda – an element the international community should keep in mind. International actors should also consider the consequences of their policies on the Iranian political arena. For instance, one of the unintended consequences of a military operation against Iran could be a massive rise in both nationalism and support for Ahmadinejad, as well as the silencing of the ongoing political debate.
The writer is the Earhart Doctoral Fellow in International Security Studies at the Fletcher School.
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Middle East Review of International Affairs, Volume 12, No. 3 – September 2008
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 th