Iran's Domestic and Foreign Policy under President Ahmadinejad and US Policy Iran Working Group (video conference)
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Tis 27.11.2007 kl. 16:00-16:00
[Rush transcript of Professor Sick’s speech]
What is going on in the Middle East, from a strategic perspective is that Iran is emerging as a pivot of Middle East policy, as one the of two pillars that are driving policy in the Middle East. Iran is emerging as a much more important player and as a rival to Israel.
The United States is almost entirely responsible for Iran’s coming to this new position. After 9/11, the US eliminated the Taliban government, which was Iran’s worst enemy to the east, and then eliminated Saddam Hussein’s government, Iran’s worst enemy to the west. Then the US helped to install a Shia government in Baghdad —for the first time in history. This government was certain to be more sympathetic to Iran. At the end of the day, Iran, without doing anything, actually emerged as a much more powerful player in the region.
I would argue that today Iran and Israel are representing the two poles of Middle East politics. This is particularly unusual since Iran is not an Arab country and it is Shia. If Iran is the pole in the east, Israel is a similar (non-Arab, non-Muslim) country in the West. For the ‘old-line’ Sunni states’ (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt) that have been accustomed to being the dominant voices in the region in terms of policy-making this is quite a shocking development. The United States, having created this problem, is now attempting to solve it by putting together a coalition of those countries that are left out of the process, that is the Sunni Arabs, and getting them to join Israel as much as possible to oppose Iran. The US objective is that these parties see Iran as their common enemy.
This is a partial explanation of what is going on today in Annapolis, which is the first major effort at Arab-Israeli peacemaking there has been in the last seven years, and of why the United States is suddenly deeply engaged in making policy. The peace conference and the American engagement form one US contribution to this process.
The other contribution is money. The US has offered the Arab states of the Middle East and Israel a package of about 75 billion dollars in arms sales and military aid. In a sense, this is an offer these countries cannot refuse. Added to the fact that the peace process seems to be moving, this provides the kind of political cover and incentives that these countries need to join, not only the US but, at least tacitly, Israel as well in adopting Iran as their principal enemy. This, in a very brief sense, is the way I perceive the broader geo-strategic reality of the region.
What does Iran really want with regard to the nuclear issue? What is Iran doing?
Let me make a few statements that are somewhat different from what one hears on a regular basis from the US media, speeches or, for that matter, the EU.
Those countries that have covertly produced nuclear weapons —South Africa, India, Pakistan, Israel— have one common characteristic: Once they made the decision to develop a nuclear weapon, they actually had a device in hand within five or six years. Iran made its decision to develop a nuclear infrastructure twenty-two years ago, in 1985. After all this time, Iran today has maybe 3 000 centrifuges turning, producing low-enriched uranium; it has some other plans and the IAEA is watching what Iran is doing. This is a very different history from those of the countries that rushed to create a nuclear weapon.
My own view is that Iran today has adopted the policy that was started by the Shah of Iran before the 1979 revolution. We know what the Shah’s policies were because his closest advisors have now written memoirs and described what was going on inside the regime. According to these people, the Shah had a very clear objective as far as the nuclear side was concerned. He wanted to create what he called a ‘surge capability’, that is, a nuclear infrastructure/industry, which would give him the possibility of deciding to go for a bomb and to do it within, say, 18 months.
I would argue that that is the same strategy that Iran has adopted today. I do not think they are going to say it in those terms but it is interesting to look at it in those terms. There are today some 40 countries that have this kind of a capability. For example, many joke that if Japan decided to for a bomb it would take the country a long weekend. There are many other countries —Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan, Sweden and many others— that have the nuclear capability and knowledge but are perhaps farther away from actually having a bomb.
The 18-month-period is nominal but I do think that this is the concept of what Iran is doing. This makes a lot of sense from a negotiating point of view: Anyone who wants to threaten a country with this kind of a capability knows that it can in fact develop a bomb in a fairly short period of time; it gives some disincentive for others to ‘make your life miserable’ but yet the absence of a device in hand, which would make an excellent military target, gives the country negotiating leverage and keeps the country extremely ambiguous in terms of what its plans are, but it also gives the country a certain deterrent capability, basically at a relatively low cost. In my view, this is in fact what is happening with Iran.
In the United States there are many pundits who are convinced that Iran has decided to go for a bomb and that it is going as fast as it can. My reading of it, based on looking at the facts —instead of reading tealeaves— is that Iran has, in fact, been progressing very slowly and that this has been deliberate. I do not think this is because Iran’s incapability. Iran is far more developed industrially and in terms of its educational base than Pakistan, and yet Pakistan succeeded very quickly in building a bomb. This happened despite that ‘everybody was looking’ and trying to stop the country. Iran has not restrained because of not being capable.
What kind of a negotiating strategy should the West have towards Iran?
Lately, the whole objective of the US and EU policies with regard to Iran have been to impose more sanctions. Sanctions have become almost and end in themselves. I do not think that is a useful objective. If the sanctions can be useful in accomplishing something then that is what should be done. Does anybody really believe that another round of sanctions will force Iran to turn around, destroy its centrifuges, stop building a nuclear capability and forget how to do all the things they have mastered over the last decade? I think not.
Is it possible to get Iran to do this? In some way it probably is possible. However, instead of our objective of zero enrichment, I believe, we will have to settle for some level of enrichment as far as Iran is concerned.
The United States’ strategy towards Iran that many in the EU have picked up also has been to draw a series of red lines: Initially, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the US didn’t want to allow any nuclear technology for Iran. That was quickly given up. Then the US established a new red line, namely, not having any nuclear power plants. After some significant effort, the Soviet Union/Russia sold Iran one. This plant [in Bushehr] is now largely built but is still not in operation.
After this, the United States stated that it would not accept any degree of enrichment. Still, as we speak, Iran is enriching uranium and I will not forget how to do it. Not only that, but Iran has learned how to make centrifuges and the building capabilities are scattered around the country. Therefore, even if the centrifuges that now exist were destroyed, the Iranians could build new ones and, of course, if this were to be the case, they would do it completely underground where the US would have no knowledge of what is done.
What would be a reasonable outcome for the West? In my opinion, our objective should be to keep Iran as far away from a bomb as possible. We may not like it, but I think we will have to accept that Iran, along with the other 40 countries, have that capability. We will simply have to live with it. The point would be to make sure that everything is as transparent as possible so that if Iran decided to go for a bomb we would detect it very soon. I also hope that we could keep Iran’s nuclear capability small enough so that it would take the country some time —not only a ‘long weekend’. This way, if the Iranians changed their mind and went for a bomb we would know it and would have time to react. That, it seems to me, would be the time when we should start thinking about various serious and very dramatic means to try to interrupt that.
In order to get to that point, all of us will have to put something on the table. Iran will not do as we wish just of the goodness of its heart. That means the West/US will have to engage Iran, negotiate with the country and offer something Iran finds useful. Until now, we have not done this.
What is going on domestically in Iran?
Domestic events have an influence on everything. The arrival of Mr Ahmadinejad as the president of Iran has been a truly disturbing event in the sense that his rhetoric has reduced the willingness of the West to have any confidence in Iran. Ahmadinejad has removed a level of confidence that in fact had begun to build up under President Khatami. Ahmadinejad also loves publicity and power. I believe he is engaged in a process of trying to extend the power of the Presidency far beyond what it has been in the past.
One example of this was when Ahmadinejad unceremoniously fired Mr Larijani who was the personal representative of the Supreme Leader in the National Security Council of Iran and the main nuclear negotiator. Ahmadinejad replaced Larijani with someone of his choosing. I cannot recall a single case in modern Iranian history in which the president of the country has fired a representative of the Supreme Leader and replaced him with his own representative. That is dramatic.
I believe the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was startled by this. He insisted that Mr Larijani would come along as a second negotiator on the last round of talks but he did not tell Mr Ahmadinejad not to do what he did. In fact, I think there is a kind of power struggle. I call it a slow-motion coup what is underway in Iran today. The president attempts to acquire more and more power under his own control.
This comes at a very crucial moment: In March 2008, Iran will have the Majlis (parliamentary) elections. In these elections, a group of supporters of Ahmadinejad will be running against reformers, conservatives and others who do not agree with him. The outcome of these elections will be an interesting indicator of where Iran might go from here.
Beyond that, Mr Ahmadinejad himself is up for re-election in the spring of 2009. The political elite in Tehran today believe Ahmadinejad might not be elected for a second term. However, a lot of things can happen between now and then. The United States will also have installed a new president in January 2009. Iran will either have a re-elected president or perhaps a new president by mid-2009. I think that if the latter were the case, there would be an opportunity for both countries to re-examine their positions.
The chances of a United States’ military operation in Iran
My short answer to this question is that I think it is extremely unlikely. I think that the talk about that this is likely to happen within the next few months or year is incorrect. I have many reasons for coming to this conclusion. Those views are not necessarily shared by everybody. I could tick of some of these but I prefer to see which areas you are interested in and then pursuing it from there.
I hope that I have offered you enough food for thought so that we can have a good conversation for the remaining time.