International Affairs Forum:
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to visit Iraq next month. Is this a constructive move?
I think potentially it could be. I think the Iranian position vis-à-vis Iraq is much misunderstood, along with many things about Iran. At one point last year, the Bush administration seemed to be trying to blame Iran for just about everything that had gone wrong in Iraq, which really was not quite right on a whole series of levels.
For one thing, the Iranians, if they favor any group in Iraq, and obviously they have an interest because it's a neighboring country, it is the group that won the elections and which the British and Americans are trying to support as well – the government of Mr Maliki. The Americans were blaming Iran for influencing militias, inspiring militias and possibly supplying militias to attack coalition servicemen.
But there's a lot of evidence that actually other countries in the region actually have been much more influential, and are sending more fighters to Iraq who have done more damage to coalition troops. For example there was a report in the LA Times last July, on the strength of sources within in the U.S. military, that said 45 percent of foreign fighters captured in Iraq came from Saudi Arabia, and half of them had been trained as suicide bombers. And suicide bombing has been by far the most damaging tactic, both to servicemen and civilians, in Iraq.
By contrast, when the Americans presented a dossier last year about the roadside bombs, which were supposedly what the Iranians were supplying parts for, there was a lot of doubt about whether they really were supplying these parts, whether these parts came from Iran, whether they had been assembled locally and whether they had been entirely manufactured locally. All of that was very doubtful, and it took a long time to bring the dossier out because it appeared to have been edited several times to make it credible. But even when that had been done, the number of soldiers allegedly killed by these things was at that time, I think 187 – 170 Americans and 17 British. And at that time, the total number of casualties among coalition servicemen in Iraq was something like 3,000. Obviously 187 is far too many killed by anyone, but out of the total it is a relatively small number, and you have to ask yourself who had been killing the remainder.
I don't think you can always take what the Iranians say at face value. But I think when they say they want stability in Iraq, I think we should believe them, because as I say, it's a neighboring country, they have generally supported stability in the country and have supported the same groups in the country that the coalition have supported, and there's very little evidence of any other kind of behavior. For all the huff and puff about Iran trying to destabilize the country and create an Islamic state there, there's just very little evidence of it.
So I would hope the visit of Ahmadinejad could be helpful. Whenever you talk about Ahmadinejad you have to have a bit of a caveat there because he of course is not given to moderation, he's given to grandstanding and winding up all of the worst fears of people in the West about Iran. He is the Iranians' own worst enemy. But last summer the Iranians began talks with the Americans about Iraq. It seems since the talks began in earnest, the number of attacks from roadside bombs has decreased, whether because the Iranians are not supplying stuff anymore or because for the first time they applied pressure to some of these militias to stop doing them; who knows. But they seem to have decreased. And I would hope that cooperation could develop and strengthen out of those negotiations, and that some of the success from those negotiations on Iraq could diffuse to other areas relating to the Iranians, most notably the nuclear dispute.
On the nuclear dispute, Iran has said it's nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. Do you think it is?
No, I don't. I believe that there is a large element of the program that is as it appears and as they present it. But the National Intelligence Estimate that came out at the end of last year from the U.S. intelligence community said that the Iranians had stopped the program for developing a nuclear weapon in 2003. Which is of course is a two-edged statement, as it means they are not developing a nuclear weapon now, but they were before 2003.
That is at least as good an assessment of what has been going on in Iran in regard to a nuclear weapon as anything else I've heard. I believe the Iranians have an interest in at least acquiring a nuclear capability, which may not be the same thing as an actual weapon. It could for example mean they develop their nuclear technology and weapon technology to the point at which they could, in a crisis, be able to put together a nuclear weapon in a fairly short period of time, but without actually having a missile with a warhead on the top of it that is ready to go. And that would be consistent with some of the religious judgements that senior Iranian clerics have made against weapons of mass destruction, which are significant and should be given some credence – it is an Islamic state after all.
And I think Iran has good reasons to wish for some kind of nuclear capability as a deterrent. It is situated in a very dangerous region, it has the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan to one side – the Taliban to whom they nearly went to war with in 1998, it has a good degree of instability in central Asia, it has a nuclear armed and unstable Pakistan nearby, it has the Caucasus in the northwest, which is also unstable, and in Chechnya there are potential fighters who are fiercely anti-Shia, it has Iraq in the west and has, I think, two nuclear-armed U.S. carrier groups sailing up and down the Persian Gulf as well.
So if countries like the U.K. and U.S. see the benefit of a nuclear deterrent, it is hardly surprising that Iranians, including Iranians in government, might see the benefit of having one as well. I don't think you have to look to other ideas such as wiping Israel off the map, to explain their desire for a nuclear weapon.
What's behind statements like wiping Israel off the map? Is it bluster or a statement of intent?
I don't believe the Iranians would ever, even if they had a nuclear weapon, would fire one off at Israel unless seriously provoked, perhaps by a nuclear strike from Israel. This is simply because they would know that it would bring down on them a massive retaliatory strike, not necessarily just from Israel, or from Israel at all. I just can't conceive it would ever happen. What I think is the greater worry for Israel about the possibility of a nuclear capability in Iran, is that it makes their nuclear capability less valuable. It's safer for Israel to be the only nuclear weapon state in the region.
That's not to say there isn't a serious problem with Iran's attitude to Israel. It derives from a genuine indignation at the way the Palestinians have been treated, but it is also infused with a certain element of antisemitism, which reaches back into Iranian history. I'm not saying as some people do that Iranians are antisemitic as a nation – that's not the case. And in the past it has often been Iranian clerics who have protected the Jewish community in Iran. But there's also a strain of antisemitism as there has been in virtually every country in the world where Jews have been resident, and it is not a pretty thing.
Legislative elections are going to be held in Iran on 14 March. How important are these elections and with reports of 3,000 reformist candidates being barred from running, can they be seen as at all fair?
The elections for the Majles have in recent years followed that pattern – they have been increasingly manipulated through the vetting of candidates by the Guardian Council before the elections are allowed to go ahead. And plainly if a large slice of the potential candidates on one side of the political spectrum are not allowed to take part, that seriously skews the election. But a lot depends on what happens during the final haggling over lists of candidates that are allowed to run. If something like half or two thirds of the eventual number of Majles deputies, if something like that number of reformist candidates are allowed to stand, then you have something like a free election, even if 3,000 reformists have not been allowed to compete. But if only 50, or 25 or only 10 reformists are allowed to stand, then that really is not a free election.
As the elections have gone in recent years, the number of anti-hardline or anti-conservative candidates has reduced. The Guardian Council has taken a harsher and harsher line, with the support of the Supreme leader it seems, such that the field of candidates is narrower and narrower and in a way just reflects differences of opinion in the conservative hardline camp, and that's not a good situation.
Nonetheless, the Majles has been quite significant in opposing some of the policies of Ahmadinejad. The thing about Iran is that although you have all this fixing and what we would say, rightly, is illegitimate use of power of the state by the ruling clique, you still have some kind of expression of opinion coming through. It's a complicated and strange mixture of authoritarian elements and democratic elements and makes it quite difficult to read. But certainly recent elections have been less open and less free, and I would expect that trend to continue.
What would you like to see the next U.S. President do differently with Iran?
What I'd like to see is a new American president, announcing within a few weeks, a big serious diplomatic effort with him or her personally behind it to negotiate a settlement of all outstanding problems in Iran, including the nuclear issue, including debt problems that have been open since the time of the revolution and the hostage crisis, including Iraq and including more general security issues. This has sometimes been called the grand bargain. And that is what needs to happen.
Of course it takes two sides, and certainly I think if George Bush did an about turn and proposed such a thing he might well get a very frosty response from the Iranians, at least initially. That's the problem – it would take a certain amount of political courage for anyone, certainly any American politician, to do that, partly because of the unpredictability of the Iranian response.
The Iranians certainly wouldn't make it easy for the Americans, they would probably want to score a few points along the way. But it would also be difficult internally within the United States anyway, because such a picture of mistrust and such a hateful image has been built up of Iran over the years, some elements of which are justified, some elements of which are in large measure exaggerated, misrepresented and ill-informed - sometimes deliberately misrepresented in some quarters.
That's a big mountain to get over, and will take an enormous amount of political courage to get over. But that is what is necessary. I believe it will happen at some point, I believe it has got to happen at some point. It just depends whether the new president has the balls to do it.
Would Iran really be receptive to such a move?
Fundamentally I believe that is what they want – what they have been waiting for and hoping for for some years. That's not just my wishful thinking. There is a documented incident from 2003, just after the fall of Baghdad, when the Iranians under the previous President Mohammad Khatami proposed something like a grand bargain to the United States, through the Swiss, because of course the two countries don't have diplomatic relations. And the Bush administration, on a high
after taking Baghdad and thinking things in the Middle East would just slot into place in the region within a few months, ignored it and reprimanded the Swiss for passing it on, which in retrospect looks like a mistake.
The Iranians were, it seems, offering to negotiate toward a settlement of the nuclear dispute and also toward settling their position vis-à-vis Israel such that they would accept the Arab peace plan, which effectively means recognition of Israel. Again, the negotiations would have been difficult and taken time, but that really could have been an opportunity. Around that time, the Supreme Leader made softer statements about negotiating with the United States than he had done previously.
Of course Ahmadinejad replaced Khatami, but it is often overstated how much power and how much significance Ahmedinejad has within the Iranian system. In fact important foreign policy decisions are taken by a collective group which convenes as the Supreme National Security Council, and Ahmadinejad is just one element in that group, which otherwise is much the same as it was in 2003.
Michael Axworthy is a lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the Uuniversity of Exeter, and author of "Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran." From 1998-2000 he served as head of the Iran Section at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
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