By Steve Kramer
24 April 2014
There is a possibility that Israel, alone, might have to interdict Iran’s atomic weapons project. However, a distinguished expert on Iran at Tel Aviv University thinks that is unlikely. I heard Professor Litvak at the monthly lecture sponsored by the English Speaking Friends of TAU.
Meir Litvak is Associate Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern History, Director of the Alliance Centre for Iranian Studies and an expert in Iranian History. He described Iran as a unique country in the Middle East, a non-Arab state whose history goes back more than 2000 years.
Unlike the Arab countries of the Middle East, Iran is not a result of British and French machinations during WWI. Iran, a civilization with thousands of years of history, is one of the few Middle Eastern states with a Shia Muslim majority. Behind the majority Persian ethnicity, Iran has a large Azari population (20%) and Kurdish, Arab, and Baluch tribes comprise the rest of the population.
Iran hasn’t been occupied in modern times, but was a “playground” for foreign powers from the early 19th century until the 1940s, when Mohammad Rezâ Shâh Pahlavi became Shah of Iran (1941-1979). During the previous century and a half the Iranians became masters of politics and negotiations.
Litvak explained that there is still a heightened degree of paranoia in Iran as a result of foreign interventions, as well as a fear of being destroyed by other states. The Iranians are a proud and ancient people who insist on being treated with equality by the West in negotiations. But above all, Iran is a theocratic dictatorship masquerading as a democracy.
The Supreme Leader, currently Ali Hosseini Khamenei, is effectively the country’s CEO and Chairman of the Board. He orchestrates who may run for the office and sets the state’s political and social agenda. His title, Supreme Leader, speaks for itself. Due to the high level of education and sophistication of many Iranians, the dictatorship of the mullahs (religious leaders), while brutal, is nuanced and sophisticated.
The goal of the government is to forge and maintain a totally Islamic society. The problem is that there are few laws in Islam which are appropriate to running a modern state. For example, because Islam doesn’t allow for charging interest when loaning money, banks charge equally high service commissions.
Despite the importance of Islamic law, an emergency or state interest can circumvent or supersede Islamic law. Litvak pointed out that politics overrules religious law because the survival of the state/regime is paramount, as dictated by the first Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, who returned from exile in France to lead the revolution in 1979.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the previous president, was a hardliner who lost popularity with the public and alienated Western leaders. Khomeini handpicked more reform-looking candidates for the most recent election, which resulted in the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani’s election. His role is to improve the economic situation which had suffered greatly under Ahmadinejad’s administration. In all, reform candidates won 70% of votes.
President Rouhani is the perfect, pragmatic choice to replace the outspoken Ahmadinejad. His smooth demeanour and smiling face are helping to restore Iranian prestige, and now its economy. These were his election promises and he is fulfilling them. Even the Supreme Leader realizes that not everything can be sacrificed for nukes.
The electorate bought Rouhani’s program, to not starve the economy for the sake of nukes. Litvak cites this as potentially leading to compromise over the nuclear project. But there is a definite limit to concessions, as decreed by Supreme Leader Khamenei’s wishes.
Litvak regards Iran’s government and its foreign policy as rational and vicious, not ruled by apocalyptic notions as some pundits aver. The policy aims to promote Iran as leader of the Third World while extending the political power of Islam. The Iranians are always pragmatic. For example, because it’s more difficult to kill Israelis, the Iranians have attacked Americans numerous times (Beirut: 241 dead, Khobar Towers: 19 dead, etc.)
Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader, said that rapprochement with America would doom his regime and would be a threat to the Islamic world view. That dictum still defines Iranian policy. As for Israel, Iran’s pragmatists want Israel to be wiped out, but by the Arabs, not necessarily by Iran. In other words, “We will fight Israelis to the last Arab.”
The Persian Gulf and Iraq are Iran’s first priorities, before of other nearby problems. Iran wants a nuclear bomb because they are paranoid (remembering that Iraq used chemical weapons against them); because the bomb will preserve the regime (much like it preserves North Korea); because of the downfall of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi (who gave up or had no atomic weapons); to be a major power, not just regional power; because their neighbours have nuclear weapons (Israel, Russia, India, Pakistan); and not least, to enhance Iran’s prestige, domestically and internationally.
Litvak conjectured that perhaps achieving a threshold status, with the ability to quickly produce a weapon, will satisfy Iran, because they would then be immune from conventional attack, as North Korea is. It would be a rational response to the pressure applied against them, giving them advantages without having to pay any price. However, similar to all countries, Iran could make an illogical decision, such as attacking Israel.
Although repression by the government remains very high (i.e. the world’s highest rate of executions), Iranians’ habitual skepticism lessens the threat of revolution. The devastation wrought by recent regime change in nearby countries has not gone unnoticed by the Iranians. They want a better life, but not upheaval.
Concluding his remarks, Litvak opined that generally, revolution comes as a surprise, but with hindsight, a revolutions appears to have been inevitable. The situation may be ripe for revolution in Iran, but no one could say when.
Regarding Netanyahu’s policy towards Iran, Litvak termed it “senseless.” This is because Iran is already on the threshold of the bomb and has developed many delivery solutions. Referring to Netanyahu’s famous “red line,” Litvak noted that whenever Iran approaches the line, it cleverly backs off incrementally. Despite the sanctions, Iran retains the capability to quickly ramp up the production of highly enriched uranium before the West could react. Although Israel would like to disable Iran’s weapons program, an attack would only delay it and could bring on many negative consequences, especially against Israel.
Litvak described the current Western negotiations with Iran as a bad deal for the West. The negotiations have reduced economic pressure on Iran without stopping its race towards weapons. And if Iran were attacked, by Israel or America, Persians would rally behind the regime more than they do today. Therefore, Iran will probably elect to stay at the threshold of achieving the bomb, attaining regional clout without paying the consequences. Above all, Professor Litvak believes that there is no certainty about Iran’s future actions.
Steven Kramer is a freelance writer based in Alfe Menashe, Israel. His works may also be read on the website, www.encounteringisrael.com … San Diego Jewish World seeks sponsorships to be placed, as this notice is, just below articles that appear on our site.