The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings hosted a policy discussion with Najmeh Bozorgmehr, Saban Center Ford Visiting Fellow and Correspondent for the Financial Times in Tehran, and Barbara Slavin, Political Correspondent for USA Today on April 6, 2006. The presenters articulated their views on the challenges posed by Iran’s regime and how the United States should formulate its policy to meet these challenges.
Bozorgmehr provided important insights into the dynamics of Iranian nuclear politics. According to Bozorgmehr, Iran is reluctant to give up its nuclear program because it believes that the United States is pursuing a policy of a regime change in Iran. The view of the Iranian government is that the best strategy for confronting this policy is to continue with its nuclear program. Bozorgmehr observed that various Iranian political factions were convinced that Iran’s nuclear program had intensified the United States’ desire to change the regime. This perception, she argued, was dangerous because it ruled out the possibility of compromise. As a result of the ongoing nuclear confrontation the US will only accept regime change. Such an outcome, in turn, will be unacceptable to the government of Iran.
The nuclear program, Bozorgmehr elaborated, is not the sole reason for the stalemate in the nuclear negotiations. According to Bozorgmehr, Iranian politicians are convinced that had Iran not pursued its nuclear program, the United States would have raised other issues, including human rights violations, suppression of the opposition and democratic movements in Iran, in order to create an international crisis and so demand regime change in Iran. As long as the Iranian regime feels threatened, Bozorgmehr argued, it will pursue its nuclear strategynationalistic and ideological on the surface, yet defensive in its core.
In Bozorgmehr’s view, the strategy adopted by the Iranian government serves as a defense not only against the outside threats but also against potential domestic instability that might ensue were Western values of democracy and human rights penetrate to Iran and gain Iranian public support. Hence, Iranian leaders exploit the nuclear confrontation to rally Iranians around the current regime, Bozorgmehr explained, as Iranians are very patriotic. Regardless of their country’s poor economic and social conditions, for most Iranians the nuclear program is a symbol of national pride. Bozorgmehr noted that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime had effectively manipulated Iranians’ nationalism through propaganda, whereas historical memories of the 1953 coup and the United States’ support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 had reinforced their perception of an “international plot” against Iran and its people.
Bozorgmehr said that although Iranian politicians did not actively seek a major confrontation with the United States, they sensed that they could afford an escalation of the nuclear crisis because of American involvement in Iraq and President Bush’s weakening domestic support, all of which had convinced Iranians that the US would be reluctant to initiate yet another invasion. Thus, the nuclear confrontation, in the regime’s view, remains the best strategy for tackling the threats emanating from the West.
Bozorgmehr observed that although most political factions in Iran agreed on the importance of the nuclear program, they differed in their approaches towards solving the nuclear crisis. Unlike regime leaders, reformists are concerned that a referral to the UN Security Council, economic sanctions, or a military attack on Iran may result in a humiliating retreat for their country. In addition, they acknowledge that a possible US attack and ensuing retaliation by Iran could entail unpredictable consequences for Iran and the region in general. Bozorgmehr argued that a military strike could trigger Shi’ah radicalism, ignite Sunni-Shi’ah rivalry, and polarize Iranian public opinion. Most importantly, reformists are worried that an escalation of the nuclear crisis might give the hardliners an excuse to suppress the opposition and the fragile democratic process in Iran.
Following Bozorgmehr’s presentation, Barbara Slavin reflected on her recent trip to Iran. She agreed with Bozorgmehr that despite deteriorating economic and social conditions, the Iranian public felt strongly in favor of the nuclear program. In Slavin’s interpretation, Iranians feel that it is unjust to prevent Iran from developing nuclear capability while allowing other countries, including India and Pakistan, to possess nuclear technologies and weapons. Hence, the Iranian public believes that Iran has a legitimate right to develop a nuclear program.
In Slavin’s words, Iran’s government understands its vulnerability, and yet it feels it can exploit the “advantages” created by the Iraq war, Iran’s increasing influence over the Shi’ah in Iraq, Hamas’ coming to power in the Palestinian territories, and its longstanding ties with Hizbollah. Slavin observed that despite the divisions within Iran’s ruling elite, decisions were made in a group rather than by Ahmadinejad alone. The speakers concluded that despite Ahmadinejad’s faith in the viability of his confrontational strategy, his populist domestic agenda was not sustainable. It has already adversely affected Iran’s economy by encouraging capital flight and drying up investment. In the speakers’ view, the random distribution of money to the public instead of capital investment in the country’s infrastructure is not sustainable. According to the presenters, the ruling regime’s unwise strategy partially explains the inaction of the opposition which is awaiting Ahmadinejad’s political implosion.
A question was raised whether the Iranian public distinguished between nuclear technology and a nuclear weapons program and which of these it supported. Bozorgmehr observed that the Iranian public thought in terms of nuclear technology. However, if asked whether they would support a progression towards a nuclear weapons program, most Iranians, in Bozorgmehr’s view, would support such a development, primarily because they view the nuclear program through the prism of national pride and do not believe that it will invite a harsh Western response.
When asked what actions the United States should take, Bozorgmehr cautioned that an American military invasion should be avoided, because it can potentially undermine the fragile democratic process in Iran and inflict damage on those pockets of public opinion sympathetic to the United States. Bozorgmehr emphasized that the Iranian public remained suspicious of American intentions, and therefore could react to a military strike in an unpredictable manner. Slavin suggested that the United States could actively engage Iranian youth by facilitating their entry to the United States and providing them with scholarships and educational grants, so that Iranians visiting the US were not treated as spies at home.
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[The protests constitute] one of the most serious crises Iran has faced in the past 25 years... We now see that Iranians are willing to take profound risks to challenge the regime directly in a way we have not seen in years.