Professor David Menashri, a top expert on Iran, finds it hard to understand why the West, led by the U.S., has given up its assets against Iran • Menashri: An Iranian nuclear bomb would change the rules of the game in the Middle East and beyond.
“Before the Islamic Revolution, the United States had experts inside Iran in every field but the Persians, the people who speak the language, know the street and the culture. It is no wonder that they were taken by surprise.” The speaker is David Menashri, a professor of Middle Eastern studies and one of the most prominent experts on Iran in Israel and throughout the world. Menashri is also the president of the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan.
Menashri, who will be turning 70 in October, was born in Iran and immigrated to Israel at age five. His extensive research includes historical, political, social, educational and cultural issues with a common denominator: Iran. One of his areas of specialization is education in Iran and understanding the young generation of Iranian students, who serve as an overt and covert opposition to the Islamic Revolution. Menashri teaches that there is a certain resemblance between Iran and Israel regarding a well-known problem: the gap in accessibility to higher education. “One of the things I am seeing is that even after colleges were opened, the gap remained between students of the colleges and those of the universities.” Regarding present-day Iran, Menashri says that the West understands that there is a cultural difference that dictates its relationship with the world and its political behavior. “When somebody says that the situation is complex, the question is what makes up that complexity, and that must be translated into the language of action.”
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IH: What is your opinion of the West’s style of negotiating with Iran? Doesn’t the eagerness for an agreement raise the price among the Iranian merchants?
That is one of the toughest problems of the West, which has failed to understand Middle Eastern culture time and again. That is why the West is always surprised — because that culture does not match its model of thought. What happened here is that a meeting was created between two countries with weak leaders.
Iran is weak because of the sanctions, the economic situation, the young people, the internal tension, the election of [President Hassan] Rouhani, the attitude toward Ahmadinejad throughout the world, the decline in the value of its currency and the damage to its national honor. When Rouhani ran for office, he made two promises to the young people of Iran: that he would raise the value of the rial, Iran’s currency, and that he would restore the worth of the Iranian passport. He promised to make Iran into a respect country in the world.
Iran’s weakness met with America’s weakness. Look at what happened with Syria. America was weak. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin saved them. If the United States did nothing in Syria, what will it do in Iran? President Obama sought a relationship with Iran. That was part of his diplomatic agenda in his first elections campaign. He wanted a relationship with Iran.
With this mutual weakness, the U.S. did not understand that by the laws of the Persian bazaar it could have gotten much more, because Iran needed the U.S. more than the U.S. wanted Iran. And the U.S. did not collect the proper price. The fact that the Iranians did not agree in the first round of talks is part of the laws of the bazaar. You have to be stupid to agree in the first round. An Iranian would not be able to go back home. You have to get angry, pack your bags and put on the whole show.
IH: What is Obama getting from Iran?
Iran is an important country. It is a big problem for the West, but also a hope. It has 75 million inhabitants, and seeks technology and business. The West is waiting for that. Incidentally, as far as lifting the sanctions — they cannot be removed for only six months; the moment they are lifted, you cannot go back. If I were to ask you which was easier for the Iranians to agree to — to stop the nuclear project or hold direct talks with the U.S. — which answer would you give?
IH: To hold talks with the Americans?
No. To postpone the nuclear program. Not to give it up, but to postpone it. The concession is reversible. On the other hand, a photo of Obama with [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei or Rouhani is not reversible. In the public consciousness, it is crossing a 35-year-old policy of not talking with the Americans, the Great Satan.
For 35 years, they have been repeating “Death to America” for a revolution that was a terrible failure and did not supply the needs of the population. What the Iranian people hoped for in 1979 was not the Islamic Revolution, but bread and freedom. Today there is no more political freedom than there was in the time of the shah [Mohammad Reza Pahlavi]. I was in Iran during the last two years of the shah’s regime. At that time, it was a crime to speak against him. Today, it is a sin to speak against the Iranian regime. Are the Iranian masses better off? The revolution did not accomplish that.
IH: And the enemy of the revolution is the West, the Americans?
As far as they are concerned, the Western world stood on two main principles: Soviet communism and American capitalism. One fell, and the other’s turn is coming. Islam is the ideology of the future. That is how they see it. For the Iranians, Israel is like the Persian expression, “a low wall” that can be stepped over. They are using us for their fight to take control of the region.
IH: You are describing a mutual desire, and that is the depth of the weakness of the West, which treats Iran as its equal…
That is why Obama’s desire to meet with Rouhani is a mistake. Rouhani should meet with [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry, while Obama should meet with Khamenei, the head of state. Khamenei is not the queen of England; he is a political figure with constitutional authority who, in the end, makes Iran’s policies on the nuclear program, foreign affairs and defense.
IH: When we meet with the Americans, with all the disagreements, there is an infrastructure of common values. When a Western leader meets with an Iranian leader, at what level is the meeting really taking place? Is there trust, or is it a meeting between merchants?
Both are true. The question is which one takes precedence. From the start of the revolution in Iran, every time there was a collision between revolutionary principles and the national interest, the latter won out. The country’s leader must provide bread for 75 million people, so he has to be pragmatic. So all the political leaders, at one stage or another, got into friction with the supreme leader because there is a gap between ideological purity and the one who has to feed the citizens. [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini himself said, before he arrived in Iran, that in an Iranian state people would not pay for water and electricity. Does that mean they don’t pay? Of course they pay.
Both sides know that they have to come out of the meeting equally dissatisfied. Nobody is yearning here for an agreement in which both sides get a hundred percent of what they want. But they want to solve problems. Iran is in trouble. Look how the rial has decreased in value in just the past two years. The employment situation. The university graduates. Iran has two million students. Who is going to hire them? They know how people in the world live. The young people of Iran are the most secular in the Arab world. They no longer believe the slogan that Islam is the solution. Neither we nor the Americans are the existential threat to the Iranian regime; it is the young people of Iran.
The regime cruelly suppressed the Green Revolution in 2009 because the power is in the hands of the others — Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guard, the radicals and the Shiite groups. These mystical groups are dangerous; they are liable to think that a world war must begin to hasten the coming of the Mahdi. Still, we must make a distinction. There are various colors within the radical camp.
IH: From what you say, it seems that putting Iran on the West’s permanent agenda, together with the sanctions, helped strengthen the opposition. So right before the harvest was reaped, the West came and said: No, don’t fall apart; let us help you.
That is why I said I was amazed at how quickly we shed our advantage and hurried to reach an agreement without getting the maximum benefit out of the situation. It is true that holding talks with the Iranians is essential. The time has come for the Americans and the Iranians to sit down together. But know your power! You represent Western democracies. You are a superpower and you are not on an equal level with the Iranians!
IH: Is Iran threatening the West and Israel, not only as far as obtaining the nuclear bomb, but also by serving as an example for the masses of radicals in the Islamic world that this is the way to go?
Let us make a distinction. The threat to the West is mainly harm to its clients. If the threat is to destroy the United States, they cannot do that. As far as Israel, there is certainly a threat. The question of whether they will use nuclear weapons against us resembles the debates about [then-Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein during the First Gulf War; some thought he would fire missiles while others thought he would not. We should not let the decision of whether to use nuclear arms against us remain in their hands.
But the nuclear threat is broader. We need to think about how we will live with a nuclear Iran — even assuming that it does not use the bomb. How bold will Hamas and Hezbollah be under a nuclear umbrella? Who will decide oil prices in the Persian Gulf? It is obvious that if Iran has nuclear arms, it will not be the last to obtain them. A process of nuclear proliferation will begin in the region. You see the regimes’ stability, how one after another is falling, and into whose hands those weapons could fall in the end. That is a problem.
There is also the threat of Islamic radicalism, which is looking for an entry point. The idea that others will imitate the Iranian example did not work. Iran did not become heaven on earth. Where were they successful? In places where the central regime collapsed and a power vacuum was created, and they went in. That happened with Hezbollah and Hamas. Both of them had no relations with Iran at first, and as the governmental system collapsed, Iran went in. They went into Afghanistan and Iraq after the Americans. Ironically, the U.S. served Iran’s national interest by breaking the military power of Iran’s enemies.
IH: It seems that if not for Israel’s insistence, Iran would not be on the global agenda either.
True. Here is a dilemma: If Israel does not talk about the Iranian nuclear bomb, the world will forget about it. And if it does, it entrenches the idea that Iran’s nuclear program is its problem only.
IH: Can we assume that if we allow them to possess nuclear weapons, we will help protect the regime?
In that situation, it will be much more difficult to make change. The West has an interest in not allowing them to gain nuclear weapons. Nuclear arms in Iran’s hands are a huge headache for the State of Israel. I do not say they are an existential threat — it is not right to use that term, since in doing so you are telling the young people that if Iran get the bomb, they need to run away from here…
IH: From the book the Khomeini wrote in exile in the late 1960s, titled “Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist,” one gets the impression that Islam’s biggest problem is Israel. What is it?
The rejection of Israel by fundamentalist groups is based on an ideological view. They believe that Jews have no right to a state, certainly not in the Middle East and even more so in Jerusalem, since they see the Jews as a religion, not a nation. The fight is a total one, and there is no solution but to annihilate the one so that they other may exist.
In another ideological aspect, they see Israel as an advance unit of Western imperialism and culture that led to the division of the Middle East into ephemeral states so that it could rule over them, and put Israel at the heart of the region to accomplish this goal. Israel’s cooperation with the shah during his time lends strength to this viewpoint: look, the Israelis supported the Iranian people’s enemy.
From a practical and national perspective, they have no reason to deviate from this line because it does not hurt the national interest. First, they appear as the representatives of the Islamic world. If you want to be a leader of the Muslim world, you must wave the flag of Jerusalem. If you want to be at the heart of the Middle East — support Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and talk about the “Palestinian problem.” By the way, in Iran some criticize the fact that “We have become more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves.” If they are holding talks with Israel, why should we be opposed? There is a Farsi saying about the plate that became hotter than the soup.
Having to face that at close quarters, Iran acted pragmatically. For example, in Nagorno-Karabakh, in a conflict between the Armenian Christians and the Azeri Shiites, Iran backed the Christians. Iran is more moderate around its border regions. Far from their borders, they can afford to be fiery. They exported this impassioned ideology not only to Israel. A suicide action — going out on an operation knowing in advance that you have no chance of surviving — was unknown in the Middle East until Khomeini appeared. Now, the world has pretty much resigned itself to Islamic terrorism.
IH: From a spiritual and cultural perspective, how is it that Islam became a religion that frightens and intimidates the world? Is it their perspective? Is it the way a Muslim stands before his God?
What causes the Islamic anger at the world? If Islam is the right religion, the last to come down to the world, and Mohammed was the last of the prophets — the belief is that the Muslim world is the most developed and advanced. But they look around and see that this is not the cases, that the West is the political, military and scientific power. To a certain extent, this creates frustration and envy. If we have the right religion and oil reserves too, then how is it that the West is stronger?
That creates a dilemma, and the anger at the West stems from here — the inability to connect the ideal of Islam in the New World and the weakening reality. By all standards, the Islamic states are weaker.
IH: How do you see the future of the Islamic Revolution?
It is hard to predict. My grandmother would say, “Today, the future is not what it used to be.” The great enemy of the revolution is the young people of Iran. Rouhani was not elected president to change the revolution; he was called in to save it. For all practical purposes, he delayed the inevitable.
The Iranian people have a tradition of taking to the streets to change policies and administrations. There have been four revolutions in the past 120 years: in 1891, 1906, 1951 and 1979. I am not even talking about what happened in 2009, but about the popular movements that ripened into revolution. Not many countries had two large revolutions in a single century: the Persian Constitutional Revolution took place in 1906, and the Islamic Revolution took place in 1979. One never knows when a popular movement will break out into a revolution. A whole collection of weights is putting a burden on the administration until the straw appears that breaks the camel’s back. We saw [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak and [Libyan President Moammar] Gadhafi fall before our eyes — we did not see the shah about to fall. Suddenly something catches on fire. One day it will happen. When? I do not know. The Iranian public’s dissatisfaction with the Islamic Revolution’s ability to fulfill its desires will finally create that momentum.