Iran After June 12, 2009, Presidential Election

Implications for Israel and the Middle East

Together with its partner Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Israel brought together Iran experts for an international conference from August 10–13, 2009 in the Konrad-Adenauer-Academy in Cadenabbia, Italy. Topic of the conference was the current situation in Iran since the elections in June 2009, the implications for Israel and the Middle East and the various aspects of the potential impact on future negotiations.

Among the 20 participants were the former Swiss Ambassador to Iran, Prof. Dr. Tim Guldimann, the former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dr. Dore Gold, a former Israeli Ambassador to Iran, former high ranking Israeli and former Iranian army officials, political advisors, journalists and NGO representatives from Israel, Europe and the United States.

First: The participants examined whether the uprising in Iran after the elections was a spontaneous one time event or rather part of a long term trend.

One participant who closely followed and analysed the uprising presented the assumption that the riots were deliberately provoked by the Revolutionary Guards in order to get more freedom of action and political backing from the religious leadership to crush the reform movement in Iran.

According to this analysis, this was the culmination of a long term trend in Iran leading to the gradual empowerment of the Revolutionary Guards and the decline of other centers of power like the clerical class. The participants were not optimistic that the momentum of the protest movement could be maintained or would lead to a collapse of the regime of the Islamic Republic.

Second: Since the Iranian nuclear program is considered to be the major threat in Israel, this topic played a prominent role in the discussions; the participants assessed various ways how to prevent Iran from obtaining the nuclear weapon and how to conduct further negotiations with Iran given their complex negotiation behaviour.

Concerning sanctions, one expert with long time inside knowledge of Iran pointed out that an alliance of only western countries imposing economic sanctions on Iran would not have the hoped-for outcome. The Iranian regime would probably utilize those sanctions in order to stress its victimisation by the west, which in the end would only strengthen the regime; an escalation would only help Achmadinedshad in his nationalistic approach towards his people. This expert contented that the more universal the sanctions towards the regime would be – including the Russians and the Chinese – the more Iranian decision makers would feel pressured because they would be concerned with international isolation.

Other participants dissented from this analysis and believed that also western sanctions alone could have an impact.

The participants considered whether Iran after the protest movement would turn inward and be reluctant to challenge the international community out of a concern with regime stability. Alternatively they proposed that the Iranian regime may choose the path of escalation and confrontation with the west in order to help the regime consolidate its position. But according to the discussants this would only work for the regime if the initiative for the confrontation is perceived as coming from outside and not from the regime.

Historically internal conflicts and confrontation with the west were politically utilized by the regime and especially by the Revolutionary Guards to expand their power and to rally the people behind them.

Third: The question rose who is the one who sets the agenda and who defines rules in the negotiations between the west and Iran and furthermore what could be done in order to change the status quo in which mainly Iran is setting the agenda. In this context it was mentioned that for Iran the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA is only a mean to buy time. Still Israeli participants maintained that the IAEA inspections – even though they are limited and do not produce an adequate picture of the nuclear program – are still useful and have an impact.

Several participants were concerned with the implications of the continuing progress in the Iranian nuclear program, even if Teheran does not choose to test a nuclear explosive device. Once the states of the Middle East perceive that Iran is about to cross the nuclear threshold then several regional states will already decide to move ahead with nuclear weapons programs by themselves. It is doubtful that they adopt the Asian response to the advent of the Chinese nuclear program according to which Japan, Taiwan and South Korea decided to accept the US security guarantee in lieu of developing their own nuclear weapons to deter the Chinese.

The participants were acutely aware that the Soviet American paradigm of deterrence that stabilized the military balance between superpowers during the Cold War would not apply to an nuclear Middle East. One reason would be that Middle Eastern nuclear forces would be small in size with none of the redundancy of the Soviet and American arsenals. As a result Middle East states might be far more tempted to launch a first strike against each other without fearing an effective retaliatory attack. This would produce a very unstable situation, which would be made more complicated by there being multiple nuclear powers. Civilian oversight of the military which was institutionalized in both the US and the USSR would be far more doubtful in the Middle East and especially in Iran where the Revolutionary Guards are becoming the dominant political and economic force. As a result the participants were sceptical about the reliability of deterrence in the case of a nuclear Iran.

What made the participants even more sceptical about the reliability of deterrence was the modern history of Iranian decision making. It was pointed out that Iran many times acted in the interests of what was good for the Islamic revolution and the Revolutionary Guards and not necessarily in the interest of the Iranian state. In 1982, for example, Iran recovered all the territory that it lost in the first phase of the Iran-Iraq War and logically should have sought a cease fire. However, the Revolutionary Guards insisted on pursuing the war for another six years in order to consolidate their internal power and secure the Islamic Revolution.

Unfortunately the feeling among many participants was that American and European political elites have begun to acquiesce to the idea that Iran will eventually obtain a nuclear bomb, hoping that a nuclear Iran can be deterred.

The conference contributed to a better understanding of the real scope of the challenge that the west is facing given the complexities of Iranian decision making, interests and ideological foundations to develop more realistic strategies in dealing with Iran.