Iran: A Roundtable

May 13, 2009
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In a conversation with Daniel Levy, David Menashri, and Gary Sick, we explore Iran as a regional player in Middle East policy; the domestic and foreign policy objectives that the Iranian government has held over the years; and finally, the contemporary issues that pertain to U.S. foreign relations. —KS

Kenneth Stein: Describe how Iran has been ruled, who makes the key decisions, and the road traveled from the revolution to 2009.

David Menashri: Both before and after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 (also known as the Iranian Revolution), Iran has been and remains a very important country in the Middle East because of its rich history, strategic location, and culture. The Islamic Revolution drew people from different strata of society, with different ideologies. The result of the revolution has been an Islamic republic; the aim of the people was to improve the life of the people of Iran. A major problem facing Iran, after 30 years, is the degree that it has or has not been able to ease, not solve, the basic problems facing the Iranian nation. The Iranian people were struggling for bread and freedom and these two issues remain the major problems facing this regime today.

Gary Sick: Several characteristics about Iran need to be remembered; first, Iran is not a totalitarian dictatorship of the Saddam Hussein variety though it is a repressive regime. Decisions are made by consultations and coalitions among multiple power centers — the supreme leader, the president, the parliament, the merchants in the bazaar, the Revolutionary Guards. While all of these people play a role, they are certainly dominated by the mullahs. Iran has changed dramatically in the last 30 years; it began as a rather fanatical place dominated by almost illusory visions of the world coming to look just like Iran. Initially the regime was out to change all of their neighbors into Islamic republics; they are not actively doing that anymore.

At the beginning of the revolution, the regime had a tremendous amount of legitimacy and popular support among the people. But over 30 years, as their inability to deliver effective government has been manifest, the regime’s legitimacy has declined. And as it has declined, the use of repression has increased. It seems we’re on a rising curve of repression, and a descending curve of legitimacy, which could create a very dangerous situation for the regime. A number of other factors come into play: The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan that got rid of the Taliban, which was Iran’s worst enemy to the east; the defeat of Saddam Hussein, Iran’s worst enemy to the west, and the installation of a Shi`ite government in Baghdad for the first time in history.

Without doing a single thing, Iran has emerged as a regional power; it’s not just that the Arab countries have been getting weaker, but that the actions of the U.S. have left Iran in a very privileged position. This makes Iran a natural rival to Israel in the Middle East — two countries at the poles; and Arab countries are having a very hard time dealing with this.

Daniel Levy: American policy recently has enhanced Iranian prestige and leverage in the region at the expense of America’s allies. As Gary explained, America has helped put into power Iranian allies in Iraq. Having America as an occupying neighbor in two neighboring states plays very heavily into how Iran looks at its role in the region. America also helped push Syria deeper into the Iranian camp. We must also look at the Hamas-Iranian relationship, which is not a relationship of Shi`ite groupings, as is the case with Hezbollah. It’s a much less obvious relationship; rejecting and actively undermining the Saudi initiative of bringing together the Palestinian sides in a unity government only strengthened the Hamas-Iranian relationship, strengthened Iran, and strengthened Iran’s hand.

Stein: To play the devil’s advocate, it sounds like Iran has kept her tentacles within her immediate borders, but the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the European foreign policy have all given Iran its prominence and prestige. And yet Iran has been active with Syria, with Hezbollah, and with Hamas. How much of the region’s current state of affairs with respect to Iran has been generated by foreigners; how much by Iran?

Menashri: What happened to the Islamic Revolution happens to all revolutions in history; there’s a difference between what is said in opposition and what is done in power. There is a degree of pragmatism in Iran’s policy, and pragmatism does not mean moderation, but calculating the risk of what the regime does and the price it is ready to pay. In almost all cases, when there was a clash between the ideology of the revolution and the interest of the state as interpreted by the regime, interest won over dogma. Within the Iranian political system, there are different interpretations of Islam, different interpretations of the goals of the revolution. We can see very clearly several segments and groups: one is more radical, conservative, extremist, and the other is more pragmatic, reformist, even moderate. Looking at the civil society of Iran, there are sources of encouragement for the future. Out of the Islamic Revolution has emerged an Iranian culture and a national spirit.

Iran takes advantage of opportunities; one of these is Lebanon. Iran did not create Hezbollah or the problem in Lebanon, but it jumped into a vacuum. The same can be said about its relations with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

Stein: Does the supreme leader call the shots and make the key decisions?

Menashri: Ultimately, the final decision is by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. People are asking if a change of president would change Iranian policies. I doubt it; during the eight years of his presidency, President Khatami was not able to change the policies of Iran because, ultimately, the power rested in the hands of the supreme leader. But these elections are very significant. The Iranian political system is complicated, but within a system that doesn’t allow dramatic change, there are some signs of openness and even freedoms. All the candidates must be approved by a committee that discusses the credentials of the candidates. As long as Khamenei is following his own policy, it will be very difficult to see a dramatic change no matter who becomes president. Dialogue may not solve the problem, but I think that it’s an essential step in any serious attempt to solve the problem.

Stein: How would you fashion a policy of diplomatic engagement toward Iran? What would each of the parties gain from diplomatic dialogue?

Levy: First, would it be a narrow or broad attempt at engagement? There has to be an overarching guiding ethos to that conversation. Over the past 30 years we’ve put a lot of issues on our table. While we will have to get to all of them eventually, certain issues are perceived by each side as being more or less urgent. We can’t go into this conversation with a stopwatch, and some of this will obviously have to be done discretely. We might start with Afghanistan, but we’ve got to be willing to have a broad-based conversation.

Stein: Is the Iranian regime fearful that the U.S. wants to see a regime change? And could the U.S. show Iran that it’s sincere by starting with a clear statement that it’s not?

Sick: If the U.S. is not prepared to make clear that regime change is not the driving feature of our policy, the Iranians simply won’t engage. The first step must be agenda building. We need quiet talks with the Iranians, outside the spotlight of media attention, where both parties can say this is what we would like to put on the table. With regard to an agenda, the nuclear issue is first. The U.S. and the international community must decide whether to accept Iranian enrichment if it is subject to much more intensive controls. We have to seek Iran’s assistance as we withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan; we need assurances that they will cooperate or collaborate with us. It would also be realistic to ask Iran to reduce its military assistance to Hezbollah and Hamas.

Both sides need to change their rhetoric; we should stop denouncing Iran as a terrorist state. And Iranian leaders should stop holding rallies at Tehran University and shouting death to America. Both sides are still smarting from wounds. Iran had a revolution, which was as much anti-U.S. as it was anti-Shah.

We have enjoyed the luxury of being able to denounce each other without ever thinking about the consequences of those attacks; we are going to have to start thinking about that now.

Stein: What else is on the Iranian agenda?

Menashri: Closer to home, the Iranians are more cheerful, and farther away, they can be more extremist with their ideological zeal. The most important thing for the Islamic regime today is survival and the continuity of the revolution. The most important thing for the outside world, led by U.S., is the Iranian nuclear program. For Iran, the name of the game is gaining time, and it has done so brilliantly — they have managed to achieve their goals step-by-step. I have supported dialogue for a long time; it may not solve the problem but it is important to send a signal to the Americans and to the people of Iran that America sincerely wants to solve the problem in a diplomatic manner. That’s why Iranians are not that enthusiastic about dialogue; it’s a policy of “carrot and stick.”

Levy: The Iranian nuclear issue is the world’s problem, and the world should solve it. Regionally, Israel and the moderate Arab States share a common interest vis-à-vis Iraq — and such an alliance could reduce Iran’s leverage in the region so that Iran has to recalculate its actions and interests. One way to weaken Iran today is to solve the Palestinian problem; but so far Israel is not taking any steps toward ending the occupation and allowing the creation of a Palestinian State and independence.

Sick: The precipitous drop in oil prices had more of an impact in Iran than years of sanctions. A serious move to address the Palestinian issue would have a much more serious impact on Iran’s regional position and Iran’s ability to speak over the heads of Arab rulers. The key is not to create an alliance against Iran but to reduce Iran’s capacity to impose its footprint on the region. If Iran does cross a certain threshold, it is hoped that more traditional deterrence mechanisms would pull it back from the brink. Both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons; America and Russia both had nuclear weapons during the Cold War; America and China are in opposing camps and both have nuclear weapons. A country can’t get that much leverage out of it because it is mutual destruction. While Israel may have a military option, it would be extremely ill-advised to use it.

Stein: How is the Syrian-Iranian relationship mutually beneficial?

Sick: On the very simplest level, Syria provides a gateway for Iran to provide equipment, support, and training to Hezbollah across the Lebanese border; it’s a very useful path. Syria, in turn, gets Iran’s strong support to reject an easy sell-out on the Palestinian issue. An Israel-Syria settlement on the Golan Heights would take a huge amount of steam out of the Iranian-Syrian relationship. Syria has shown that they’re interested in negotiating. As David mentioned, time is going to be a major factor influencing how the U.S. and Iran proceed in their negotiations. Iran’s development of its nuclear program has been one of the slowest in history, progressing at a snail’s pace. I agree with Secretary of Defense Bob Gates that Iran is not close to a weapon at this point, so there is time. President Obama has been making positive signals toward Iran, and Iran did not install the 2000 additional centrifuges that were available to them. It benefits us to assume that was a signal that they’re prepared to slowdown their nuclear ambitions.

Stein: David said that two issues remain outstanding for Iran: bread and freedom. Is there something that the U.S., Europe, Israel, and the IMF can do to help Iran on the bread and socioeconomic issue?

Sick: They need foreign direct investment, capital to run their oil and manufacturing industries. If the U.S. offers to deal with Iran, the Iranians couldn’t refuse; their own people would argue, why are you turning them down, we have been looking to join the international community. It is useful for Iran to have that debate in the course of their presidential election; then let’s see who wins.

Stein: Is there a big difference between the way the Europeans and the U.S. look at Iran, both in terms of its nuclear capacity and in terms of engaging in dialogue?

Levy: There is something to the claim that Iran has a right to develop civilian nuclear energy power; of course, Iran’s history of not allowing for verification means that one’s antenna should be up, and safeguards in place, and we might need to take a step back from alarmist predictions. The former deputy head of strategic planning of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) says, Iran is eternally 18 months away from the bomb. It would be very healthy for Israel and the Jewish community to be very serious about security, to be very serious about the threats that Iran poses, but not to get into a “gevalt” mentality. A comprehensive approach to both peacemaking and regional security is ultimately going to be the best way to manage the Iranian situation.

Stein: Islam as a platform for political mobilization is not new in the Middle East. To what degree did the Khomeini Revolution give sanction to Islam as a platform? And could anyone have done anything to slow down the process?

Sick: One can always go back and replay the historical tape, and come out in a different place — the what-if game. But the Iranian Revolution was the first time that the U.S. and much of the world came into direct contact with Islamic politics. Political Islam burst on the world scene with the Iranian Revolution. We weren’t prepared for it, and we didn’t know what was coming.

Levy: Equally important is that in the Middle East the lack of civil society meant that the only place to organize, the only alternative space to the regime, was the mosque. No one was thinking about how to handle political Islam as a rising force, as a consequence of our democratization program. While there is one model in the Shi`a world, there is another in the Sunni world, and we still don’t know if we can pursue engagement — even a conversation — with the Brotherhood-style, non-al-Qaeda manifestations of political Islam — those who want to be part of the democratic process. And that’s still the strongest emerging force wherever there is a democratic opening, whether in Egypt, or in Gaza with Hamas, or elsewhere.

Menashri: Thirty years ago the world was not prepared for the potential of the Islamic movement to take power in a major country like Iran. Today, the world is watching and much more aware of the potential of Islamist movements. So while the Iranian Revolution provided encouragement to Islamism, its success in overthrowing the Shah may also be seen as a cautionary tale.

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Professor Kenneth Stein is the director of the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel and William E. Schatten Professor of Contemporary Middle Eastern History and Israeli Studies at Emory University. He was the founding director of the Carter Center (1983-1986). His writings include “My Problem with Jimmy Carter’s Book,” Middle East Quarterly (Spring 2007) and Heroic Diplomacy: Sadat, Kissinger, Carter, Begin and the Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace (Routledge, 1999).

Daniel Levy is the director of the Middle East Task Force and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative at The Century Foundation. During the Ehud Barak government, he worked in the prime minister’s office as special adviser and head of the Jerusalem Affairs unit under Minister Haim Ramon. He also worked as the senior policy adviser to former Israeli Minister of Justice, Yossi Beilin.

David Menashri is the director of the Center for Iranian Studies and the Nazarian Professor for Modern Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, where his field of specialization is the history and politics of Iran. He is the author most recently of Post-Revolutionary Politics in Iran: Religion, Society and Power.

Gary Sick is a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s SIPA’s Middle East Institute, and the author of All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter With Iran and October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan. Sick served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis.

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