IA-Forum speaks with Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East Analyst specializing in Iranian affairs at the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company (meepas). Together with Yossi Melman, he is the co-author of the upcoming book “The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran”. The book will be available in the US from April 2007.
International Affairs Forum: Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said Israel 'must be eliminated from the pages of history.' Is this just rhetoric?
Meir Javedanfar: Ahmadinejad is a true ideologue. In fact, after Mohammad Ali Rajai (Iran’s second president who was assassinated in 1981 by the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization), he is the most ideological President that the Islamic Republic has had.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does honestly and sincerely believe that Israel should be eliminated, and he is trying to do what he can within his capabilities to show that he means it. The holocaust denial conference was one piece of proof. Just as the Easter uprising of 1916 was one of the main events which led to, and justified, the creation of the Republic of Ireland in 1922, the holocaust was and still is one of the important reasons behind the establishment of state of Israel in 1948. The hosting of the holocaust denial conference in Tehran was his way of trying to undermine the legitimacy of Israel. His hope and goal is that if Israel were delegitimized, it would become isolated and weakened, and eventually collapse just as the Soviet Union did in the late 1980s. Ahmadinejad’s other method of accomplishing his goal of trying to destroy Israel is his open support of groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah which call for the elimination of Israel. So his desires against Israel are not just rhetoric.
However the extent of how far he can go to accomplish his desire is confined. As the President of Iran, Ahmadinejad does not have the power to single handedly order an attack against Israel. Such a decision can only be taken by Iran’s supreme leader. Seyyed Ali Khamenei, Iran’s 68 year old supreme leader is much more pragmatic than Ahmadinejad. Ayatollah Khamenei, unlike Ahmadinejad, wants to avoid footing the bill incurred from a direct war against Israel, which would be very high if Iran initiated it. Even to launch a conventional attack against Israel could be extremely costly, which is why Iran, despite its strong anti Israel rhetoric, has avoided such a step until today. This also explains why Iran has relied on foreign groups such Hamas and Hezbollah, who are based on foreign soil to attack Israel.
If and when Iran becomes nuclear, it will be its supreme leader who will have the final word. In my opinion, even if Iran becomes a nuclear state, it is extremely unlikely that it would try to eliminate Israel by launching a nuclear attack. Ayatollah Khamenei is not suicidal. When it comes to its own survival, Iran’s senior leadership is very pragmatic. This is why it is still around today, despite a bloody eight year war against Iraq (1980 – 1988), and more than 20 years of US embargo imposed against it.
IA-Forum: Do you believe Iran's claim that its nuclear program is simply for peaceful purposes?
Mr. Javedanfar: The final goal of Iran’s nuclear program has never been entirely for peaceful purposes, even during the Shah, who would have made Iran a military nuclear power, had he remained in power. Regarding recent developments, the very fact that the IAEA referred Iran’s case to the UN Security Council (UNSC) is a sign that Iran’s post-revolution nuclear program is not for peaceful purposes only. The IAEA under Mohammad El Baradei tried very hard to avoid sending Iran’s file to the UNSC, despite the fact that many Western countries wanted El Baradei to do this a long time ago. What finally pushed El Baradei to take this step was a number of Iranian violations of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran is a signatory. These included failure to report Plutonium experiments (plutonium can be used for bombs), failure to declare hidden sites, and failure to report the use of the imported uranium in tests of its uranium conversion processes, as well as other violations.
This convinced not only the IAEA and the international community, but also China and Russia who are Iran’s allies in the Security Council that Iran’s nuclear program is not for peaceful purposes only.
IA-Forum: Do you believe sanctions will be an effective way of persuading Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program? What other measures can, and should, the international community take?
Mr. Javedanfar: Sanctions could only work if they avoid targeting Iranian people directly, and if they allow room for negotiations in the future. The current sanctions, under resolution 1737, target the government and its military organizations and individuals who are associated with the nuclear and missile program. The resolution does not impose sanctions on goods or services which have a direct impact on the everyday life of Iranians. The fact that the current resolution separates the people from the government has meant that Iranian people have refrained from siding with the government. This could all change if tougher sanctions are imposed, which do impact their lives. In such a case, they will side with the government, because the West would be victimizing them. Should this happen, persuading Iran to stop its nuclear program would be far more difficult. Therefore, so far, by keeping its focus on the government, the West has done well to avoid such a scenario.
Where the West, especially Washington, has failed is to heed calls for negotiations from Tehran. There are increasing calls from Iranian diplomats and politicians for direct negotiations with the US. Javad Larijani, Ali Larijani’s brother who is a close confidant of Ayatollah Khamenei, in a recent article in the news website Baztab openly called for negotiations with the US over the nuclear program. This week, the Iranian government went a step further. Ayatollah Khamenei dispatched Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s former Foreign Minister and his Foreign Policy advisor to Moscow to discuss El Baradei’s plan which calls for suspension of sanctions by UN in return for suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran. Such calls are being resonated inside Iran. On the same day as Velayati’s trip to Moscow, Daryush Ghanbari, a member for National Security and Foreign Policy of the Majlis openly stated that “Iran is prepared for temporary suspension as long as the West shows good intentions towards Iran”. He went on to back Velayati’s plan and said “by accepting a temporary suspension (of uranium enrichment), the strong psychological pressure on us will be reduced, and it will create an opportunity for negotiations”. However Washington does not seem to be paying attention or supporting such calls. This is a mistake. Rather than ignore them, such opportunities must be used to create dialogue between the two sides. This will support the reformists and pragmatists inside Iran who want to see a negotiated settlement to the current dispute. Furthermore such a scenario would weaken the hand of Iranian radicals.
Should the West continue to focus its entire attention on Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric and threats of retaliation, this will provide support and strengthen the voices of those calling for military action against Iran. This is an option which is against the long term interest of both parties, and should be the last resort, and if possible, avoided altogether.
IA-Forum: Attention has inevitably focused on Iran's nuclear program. But Ahmadinejad was elected largely on a promise to tackle domestic challenges such as poverty. How is he doing on the domestic front?
Mr. Javedanfar: Ahmadinejad is weaker than when he started. Major signs of decline in his support were seen during the recent City Council and Assembly of Experts elections. In the city Council elections, the Rayeheye Khosh Khedmat (scent of good service) coalition which identified with Ahmadinejad (and included his sister Parvin) did very badly. In major cities such as Mashad, Tabriz and Kerman they failed to win a single seat. In other cities they lost to both moderate conservatives who are headed by Tehran’s current Mayor Ghalibaf, and/or to reformists. The Assembly of Experts elections brought even worst news. Only one of his allies (Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi) managed to win a seat. None of the others managed to, and here again, he lost to the reformists and pragmatists who are headed by his arch rival Ayatollah Rafsanjani. Major reasons for his losses were his inability to curb corruption and unemployment, as he had promised the voter prior to the elections. Furthermore, Ahmadinejad has been unable to curb inflation, a problem which is making life even more difficult for his supporters who are mainly from the poorer sectors of society. This is one problem which his expenditure policies are making only worst. Failure to address this problem and unemployment could lead to his failure to win another term as president in the next elections.
IA-Forum: Some observers believe that growing internal discontent suggests Ahmadinejad's days as president are already numbered. Do you see him being pushed out of office any time soon?
Mr. Javedanfar: The only way Ahmadinejad could be pushed out of office earlier than the next presidential elections is if Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei decided to cut Ahmadinejad’s term, which he could do through the parliament (Majlis) and the Guardian Council. Despite the decline in Ahmadinejad’s popularity, it is my firm belief that Khamenei will not cut his term, and Ahmadinejad is going to complete his term, which runs out in June 2009. This is because Ayatollah Khamenei thrives on internal stability. This is his number one priority. To push the president out could bring about instability as it would raise the ire of conservatives, who despite Ahmadinejad’s problems, do not want him to lose out to reformists or pragmatists who they view as their bitter rivals. Furthermore, with Iran being at an important juncture in its relations with the West such a decision could be taken as a sign of weakness by the West, something which the regime is desperately trying to avoid.
IA-Forum: Many governments in the West appeared to pin their hopes on former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani defeating Ahmadinejad in the 2005 elections. How much of a difference do you think this would have made?
Mr. Javedanfar: If Rafsanjani had won, we would have seen a softer approach towards the West. Rafsanjani is less of a firebrand than Ahmadinejad. Owing to his many years of political experience he realizes that Iran needs political credibility in international organizations such as the UN and the IAEA, and overtly attacking the West like Ahmadinejad is doing costs Iran much credibility. Under Rafsanjani, it is very possible that we would have seen Iran continuing the suspension of uranium enrichment for a while longer, because Rafsanjani had been lobbying very hard with Ayatollah Khamenei that it was in Iran’s interest to go the extra mile in order to avoid sanctions. However the suspension would not have been permanent. At some stage Iran would have most probably continued with the enrichment process albeit in a more passive and presentable manner in its approach with the international community. We must not forget two important factors. One is that Rafsanjani is the father of post revolution Iran’s nuclear program. He is a firm supporter and backer of Iran’s nuclear endeavors. Secondly, Ayatollah Khamenei, the man who has the final say over the program does not want to see a permanent suspension in Iran’s enrichment capabilities. He sees the program as vital to Iran’s strategic interests.
IA-Forum: What is the motivation behind reports that Iran is about to install 3000 centrifuges in Natanz? Isn’t Iran worried about further isolation and sanctions?
Mr. Javedanfar: The report regarding the 3000 centrifuges owes it existence to Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the Majlis foreign affairs and national security committee who said on 28th of January that Iran was about to take such a step. The government later denied it, because in the current climate it could lead to worsening of the situation. At the moment, the Iranian government, especially Ayatollah Khamenei, want to step back from the brink, and this is why we see a reduction in Ahmadinejad’s fiery speeches. An evidence of this was seen on the 28th anniversary of the revolution on February 11th. There were reports that on this day, Ahmadinejad would announce news about specific advancements in Iran’s nuclear program. Instead Ahmadinejad used this opportunity to say that Iran intends to stay in the NPT and wants to work with the IAEA. With the world’s eye on Iran, such a statement, which was most probably from the supreme leader himself and not Ahmadinejad, shows that the regime is looking for a way out of the current crisis.
IA-Forum: Thank you.
Comments? Mr. Javedanfar may be contacted at email@example.com
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