Is Iran Israel's Problem to Solve? Monday, April 12, 2010
TAU's Iranian authority Prof. David Menashri says tougher sanctions from the U.S. and E.U. are needed now
Prof. David Menashri
Less than a year ago, protestors took to Iran's streets and signalled a possible popular uprising that would bring policy change and even slow the country's rush toward a nuclear weapon.
But now, with the old guards at the helm, and the increasingly strident declarations of its nuclear intentions, the Iranian threat looms ever larger. What will it take to change that? Is there any time left? And who can influence the future of the Iranian people and a more stable Middle East?
Prof. David Menashri, director of Tel Aviv University's Center for Iranian Studies, explored these pressing questions and others in a recent conversation. An Israeli who has lived in Iran, Prof. Menashri is an internationally recognized authority on Iranian history and politics and the recipient of numerous grants and awards. His latest publication is the edited volume Iran: Anatomy of Revolution (Hebrew, 2009).
Q: Why haven't we seen the change of guards many expected after Iran's last presidential election and the civil uprising last summer?
A: Don't be misled: Iran has seen a sea change in its domestic situation. The regime which claimed to be based on religion, ideology and morality is now clearly based on the arms of the Revolutionary Guards; Khamenei as Supreme Leader has since downgraded himself to a mere political player in a regime where factions are butting heads with each other. Clearly, the regime lost its legitimacy in the eyes of many of its youth — the children of the revolution. Although it hasn't produced more dramatic results yet, there is significant and growing resentment among the populace.
What brought protestors to the streets? Not only the fraudulent elections. They were driven by motivators much deeper than that, going back to the unfulfilled expectations of the 1979 Islamic revolution. These were focused in two main areas — bread and civil liberties. The vast majority has come to realise that thirty-one years later, nothing has really changed, either in reducing disparity of wealth or increasing personal freedom.
Another factor that pushed the people to the streets was Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign and the pledge for dialogue. The more educated reformists believed that going to the streets would put pressure on their government to give more freedom. It didn't really happen that way.
Q: If there's so much resentment, why have we seen conservative Islamic celebrationsin the streets recently? Are many Iranians happy with the current regime?
A: It is not new that the government has the power to bring together many people to rally support for it, or to suppress its own people protesting in the streets, but there is no doubt that the vast majority in Iran are not happy with the outcome of the revolution. The revolution wasn't supposed to be about returning to Islam, but about improving social services and expanding freedom — and by any criteria, that hasn't happened. At this point, the Green Movement chanting "Death to Dictator" does not seem to have only President Ahmadinejad in mind. Many of them want a more comprehensive change. As some of them have said, they want to change the horse, not the saddle. The reformists may have shaken the foundations, but working against the powerful tools of the regime, they don't yet have critical mass.
Remember, the conservative element in the government today has significant elements of strength. The regime says it speaks in the name of God and that carries a lot of weight in a country like Iran. Equally important, they have the armed forces at their disposal. With a supposed blessing from Heaven and arms too, the regime has a certain security. They also have the will to use force to maintain their power.
Q: What's holding back change?
A: While there is clearly a rift between conservatives and reformists, some of the critical factors that shape a mass movement are missing. The reformists are asking "Where is my vote?" and stressing the issues of human and civil rights. But it's hard to recruit millions of people to the cause of democracy — that alone is insufficient to motivate a mass movement.
What will resonate more broadly and supplement this query is adding another pressing question: "Where is my oil money?" And that's a great question. Where is the country's enormous oil revenue? Iran is a rich country full of poor people. One of the shortcomings of the reformist movement in Iran is that they're not focusing on social and economic change.
Q: So what should Israel do in the meantime? Could Iran really bomb Israel?
A: When you have an Iranian president like Ahmadinejad who says Israel should be wiped off the map, and an Israeli prime minister like Netanyahu countering by calling Ahmadinejad "Hitler" and referring to Iran as an existential threat, things can get out of control.
But a nuclear Iran is not only an Israeli problem: it's a problem for the Middle East — and beyond. It's a problem for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. Why does every problem here need to have a solution with an Israeli trademark? Why does Israel pretend to have the solution and appear as willing to take the steps to stop Iran? An Israeli attack on Iran would be difficult, with devastating results. Nuclear Iran is the problem of the world, and it is the international community that should solve the problem.
I don't really think a military intervention to stop Iran is the solution. I do believe in dialogue, as President Obama suggested in his campaign, and that the U.S. could come up with the right approach. We need to engage Iran, not because engaging them will solve the problem, but before any other, tough measures are taken, we need to speak directly to the Iranian people. A direct Iran-U.S. dialogue, may signal to Iranian youth as well as the American people that Washington has done all that is possible to solve the issue peacefully. But dialogue should have been direct, with clear agenda and deadline — not like what has been experienced in the last year.
The world needs to step in. Other countries are not doing what needs to be done right now, and that includes America and the E.U. countries. As a first step, moral pressure should be put on Iran. Where are the international groups fighting to solve human rights problems in Iran? Europeans are outspoken but they don't stress Iran's human rights problems, which are infinitely severe.
Q: Then why isn't the EU taking a tougher approach?
A: It seems that the EU countries are putting their own narrow economic interests first — oil and trade with Iran. Only once did the EU countries have a unanimous diplomatic step against Islamic Iran: in 1997, when the German courts found Iranian officials guilty of acts of terror in Berlin. And for their part, the Russians also seem to prefer their business interests with Iran.
That's why a few months ago the Iranian Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi suggested that the EU countries downgrade their diplomatic presentation in Iran. She knows what hurts the leaders of her country.
Sanctions can work. Iran is not as giant a power as they may think, and the U.S. is not a paper tiger. Moral pressure on issues of human rights, targeted economic sanctions and pressure on the Iranian banking system can convince Iran to rethink its nuclear policy. The recent decision by the big powers on sanctions is an important step forward, provided all parties abide to the decision and it will be implemented. This remains to be seen.
Q: If Iran isn't Israel's problem alone, is there anything it can do to bring about change?
A: Israel and the moderate Arab countries, facing a common Iranian threat, can weaken Iran considerably by resolving their differences, such as those concerning the Palestinian question or the Israeli Syrian conflict. A Saudi Arabian embassy in Tel Aviv would send a clear message to Iran. Unfortunately, that seems like a dream at this stage.
In the meantime, Israel is an easy target — easier than the US, the "Great Satan" in Iranian revolutionary jargon. Tehran can blame Israel for its woes and use hostility against Israel to divert public opinion from domestic difficulties to a distant enemy and strive for hegemony in the Persian Gulf and leadership in the Muslim Middle East.