November 05, 2005

Iran Threatens Israel

ON THE LINE (متن برنامه به صورت مكتوب )
Iran Threatens Israel
This show broadcast Saturday and Sunday.
Host: At a conference in Tehran, Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that Israel, "must be wiped off the map." Countries that recognize the Jewish state, he said, will "burn in the fire of the Islamic nation's fury."
Mr. Ahmadinejad's comments were met with outrage around the world. The United Nations Security Council condemned his remarks. Saeb Erekat, thePalestinian Authority's chief negotiator, said, "Palestinians recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist, and I reject his comments.

What we need to be talking about is adding the state of Palestine to the map and not wiping Israel from the map." Twenty-five European Union leaders joined to condemn the Iranian president's remarks, saying they, "will cause concern about Iran's role in the region and its future intentions."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said "Can you imagine a state like that with an attitude like that having a nuclear weapon?" White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Mr. Ahmadinejad's comments about Israel further underscore "the concerns we have about Iran's nuclear intentions."
What are the Iranian president's intentions? And how should the U-S and others react? I'll ask my guests: Elie Krakowski, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council; Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and joining us by phone from London, Alireza Nourizadeh, director of the Center for Arab-Iranian Studies. Welcome and thanks for joining us.

Host: Elie Krakowski, why this Iranian saber-rattling from Mr. Ahmadinejad?

Krakowski: The saber-rattling is not all that new. I think that he is now newly installed in the Presidency in Iran, part of it is no doubt to make himself heard. But I think that underlying that there is a logical conclusion to a trend in Iranian policy. And that is that, while in December 2003 I think the Iranians were quite concerned about being next on the American target list, with the election and internal debate and polarization in the United States, they have, I think, concluded that the United States has not changed from what it used to be -- talks about Iraq and Vietnam and that type of thing. And they have become more and more emboldened, and I think that these kinds of comments are quite worrisome and quite indicative of a greater militancy on the part of Iran.

Host: Let me ask Michael O'Hanlon, do you believe that Iran feels emboldened these days?

O’Hanlon: Well, I agree that’s a good analysis we just heard, but I would be a little more blunt. I would say Iran was just stupid, maybe emboldened at an emotional level, but this comment by the president cannot serve Iran’s interest. Maybe Iran feels that Israel’s a creation of the West and it’s a creation of the United States, and in their anger at the United States, they go after Israel as well. But the frontline Arab states, essentially, accept Israel’s existence, or most of them. As we just heard in your comments, the Palestinians do too. And obviously all of Europe does, and in fact virtually every country in the world. And therefore, to go out, and criticize Israel’s existence, and talking about wiping it off the face of the map, convinces most countries that a tougher line on Iran may be appropriate. Of course, most countries don’t want to go to the extreme we do, here in the United States. So it’s still going to be very hard to sanction Iran over its nuclear program. But the president’s comments certainly help U-S diplomacy because they paint Iran as an irresponsible aggressive nation with illegitimate intent towards Israel. And so that cannot be a smart thing, and I would not quite put it the way Ali did. Yes, they felt emboldened emotionally, but politically it was still a counterproductive move, from their point of view and just a sign of political immaturity on the part of the new president.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, do you think this is a mistake by Iran, or do you think this is a policy that they thought through?

Nourizadeh: I don’t think it’s a policy they are going to pursue and we should remember that for the past eight years president [Mohammed] Khatami several times insisted and expressed that although the Iranians, they have some reservations about the peace plan, about Oslo and the Road Map, but they are not going to intervene in the Palestinian policies, and they are going to support the Palestinian leadership. And there was some warm welcome to Abu Mazen by Khatami. But I think, first of all we should know who is Ahmadinejad. Unfortunately the world, they do not pay attention to this gentleman. He is a Revolutionary Guards member who participated in lots of atrocities against the Iranian people. He was the man who used to shoot the last bullet in the head of the hundreds of people who have been executed. And this man suddenly finds himself as a president. He couldn’t digest the fact he’s not the head of the Revolutionary Guards Brigade, or he’s not there to go and commit atrocities or carry out a military operation inside Iraq or inside Kurdistan in Iran. He is President, and he is head of state, and that is the reason for Mr. Ahmadinejad finding himself among some revolutionary youths, among so-called the suicidal brigades, and he expresses views and he says what he feels. But this is not the policy of Islamic Republic of Iran.

Host: Elie Krakowski, what you think it means for Iran that a man like Ahmadinejad is the president and his history and what he brings into office?

Krakowski: I think your question is excellent because it ties into what was said before. First of all, to talk about whether it was a stupid move on their part: I mean, I agree on the face of it, it does look like a stupid move. But I think what one has to take into account, and I think whether it will be or not is going to depend on the ultimate reaction of the outside world. Right now the reaction has been at a rhetorical level. In terms of substance nothing has been done. And what I was saying is that there is a progression in Iranian policy, and so I guess I might disagree with what was said before, by my colleagues, I think there is some real substance there. That doesn’t mean that Iran is going to necessarily attack Israel, but they are certainly taking a very important role in supporting Palestinian terrorist organizations fairly openly and I think the fact Ahmadinejad is now president is not an accident. In other words the Iranian leadership, and the more radical element within that, have had a dominant hand for quite awhile. I think this is a formulization, in a way, of putting upfront, with the past that we have just heard. I think it is extremely worrisome. To me what is extremely worrisome is that while the Iranians are not foolish, in a sense of completely irrational behavior, I think the belief on their part -- that they are the vanguard of some sort of major challenge to the West -- coupled with a belief that the West is not willing to do anything but at the rhetorical level is itself quite dangerous and could lead, in the fairly near future to major military clash.

Host: Michael O'Hanlon, one of the things that comes of this statement is that it does draw attention to the role Iran has had in supporting terrorist groups in the Palestinian territories. And you have, at the same time, the Palestinian Authority trying to get some control of that territory to be able to move forward. Is the Iranian government at odds with the Palestinian Authority and how is that going to play out?

O'Hanlon: That’s a very good question. I think the short answer, I would tend to say, is that yes, they are at odds, because I believe the Palestinian leadership is now sincere in wanting to move away from violence. Now obviously that view is going to be a complex one inside of Palestine, and there are all sorts of debates over whether violence is ever legitimate against certain targets at certain times, depending on the state of the peace process. But overall, the current Palestinian leadership wants to try to work out a deal, as long as it’s acceptable to Palestine’s core interests and they do not believe in continued war against Israel and Iran does. So, on that basic point you have a disagreement and you also have a disagreement in terms of internal Palestinian politics, that Iran would naturally favor groups like Hamas which are at odds with the government, and its political rivals. And so while there is a lot of common interests as well, I say on these two key issues, attitude towards Israel, and attitude towards groups like Hamas, Iran and the Palestinian leadership today, are indeed at odds.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, do you think that Iran is in a position to scuttle efforts by the Palestinian Authority to bring peace to the region.

Nourizadeh: Absolutely, I think what [Palestinian] President Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], just prior to his election has said about Iranian intervention in Palestinian affairs is absolutely a fact that Iranians are paying millions of dollars to Islamic Jihad. Islamic Jihad was actually created by the Iranians and now we see the Hamas is accepting ceasefire while Islamic Jihad is carrying on all these atrocities and suicidal attacks and other attacks. Therefore I think the Iranians, they have enough tools and enough people on the ground in order to jeopardize any sort of peace process and any sort of attempt by President Abu Mazen to come to agreement with the Israeli Prime Minister to draw the maps and to have a real peace. On the other hand the Iranians, if they really decided to help the Palestinian authority they also have the means and they have the tools in order to help Abu Mazen in his crusade for peace.

Host: Michael O’Hanlon, recently the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution putting greater pressure on Syria to open up to an investigation involving terrorist attacks in Lebanon. So much of Iran’s support for Palestinian terrorist groups has seemed to go through Syria. How is this investigation and the focus on Syria going to affect Iran’s efforts to have influence in the region.

O’Hanlon: Well, the decision to put pressure on Syria by France, as well as the United States and other countries, I think makes good sense. It’s just a very straightforward invocation of international decency and morality and law. You don’t go around and assassinate other country’s politicians or even their citizens for that matter. Having said that, as has been pointed out by my colleague here at Brookings and others, it’s not exactly clear what we hope to accomplish in Syria with this process of sanctions. We don’t really have a strategy that’s at least publicly articulated for what the final goal will be. Do we want [Bashir] al-Assad to step down? Do we really think that’s realistic? Exactly what do we want to accomplish? So we’re standing more on principle than on anything else right now. And I think therefore that means in regards to Syria’s government and in regard to Iran we are not likely to have some big decisive effect or outcome produced here by the U.N. Sanctions efforts. We may or may not get some additional pressure on Syria’s economy, but I would be surprised if we are fundamentally able, in the short term to affect, either the nature of the Syrian government or Iran’s role in Mid-East terror. But over time you can gradually perhaps shift the norms a bit and if Syria’s action is increasingly seen as illegitimate and Syria is increasingly seen as an outlaw state, Iran’s ability to work through Syria may become somewhat more difficult, but I think that’s going to be somewhere done the road.

Host: Elie Krakowski, is Iran getting itself at all isolated here with more pressure on Syria and not getting the support it might have expected from China or Russia to block the Security Council issuing the condemnation of Ahmadinejad’s remarks?

Krakowski: Well, I don’t know one could say that. I think part of what is happening is that we have to divide issues between the rhetoric and the substance. At the rhetorical level I think it’s simple we can see. At the substantive level Russia has been working very closely with Iran. Russia has been selling to almost anybody anything that anybody wants to buy regardless of whether it can then --

Host: Do you mean nuclear technology?

Krakowski: Nuclear technology, arms, I remember the Russians -- somebody at the Russian foreign ministry when the Taliban was still there and the Russians were supposedly helping them, Northern alliance was fighting the Taliban the Russian officials --

Host: Is this in Afghanistan?

Krakowski: In Afghanistan. I remember Russian officials saying to me, We are not giving anything to the Afghan resistance -- we are selling. So the substantive level is that you have a number of states in the West -- European countries, Russia -- that want to do everything they can not to have a confrontation with Iran. Iran has been exploiting that, and the United States has been trying to work with Europeans and with the Russians. The Iranians figure that they have an easy game here, and they do not believe that anybody’s serious about really taking measures. As was pointed out, the U-N is mere pressure that can blow over. I don’t think we are talking yet about an isolation of Iran. If the Iranians continue in such a blatant manner that even their friends who I think have been telling them -- the Europeans that is and the Russians [have been telling Iran], Look, don’t embarrass us, don’t do things that are so flagrant that we cannot be on good terms with you. What Ahmadinejad has done now, is one such thing. So, they cannot but say something negative -- I mean in that sense it can play against Iran. But if things don’t really move beyond where they are, then the Iranians will feel confident that they can continue to move further and then we get into what I was talking about: the truly risky situation, because then not the Russians, not the Europeans, not the United States will be able avoid a military clash and it is out of such things that for instance, World War I started. Nobody wanted it, but it occurred.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, we’ve talked a lot about the international component of this. To what extent do you think that these remarks are for domestic consumption within Iran, and what’s the situation in Iran right now, and how are these remarks perceived there?

Alireza Nourizadeh: First of all, allow me to add a few things about the consequences of condemnation of Syria and the effect on Iran’s and Syria’s relation. Syria is such an important ally for Iran -- through Syria they manage to send tons and tons of weapons to Hezbollah. Hezbollah has got more than eleven hundred missiles and all went through Syria and the cooperation between the two countries and intelligence fields as well as the military fields it’s on -- something that has been going on for the past twenty four years. Therefore any changes in Syria would have direct effect on Iran. As far as the Iranian people are concerned
I think the Iranian people showed many, many times that they do not share the regime’s animosity towards the West particularly towards the Iraqi state. Particularly after nine-eleven, thousands of Iranians, they got to the street with their candles in their hands, and they expressed their sympathy and love to the American people. And also they do not share the regime’s hatred and animosity toward Israel. I think for the majority of Iranians, Israel is a natural ally for Iran as it was before the revolution. Therefore, I think what has happened, perhaps Mr. Ahmadinejad thought he’s going to get -- this kind of expression will satisfy his audience and his constituency; Revolutionary Guards and intelligence service employees and all of these people. But I’m sure the reaction of the Iranian people -- even President Khatami in a way, criticized him -- I don’t think the Iranian people are going to accept such a remark and they don’t believe Mr. Ahmadinejad is entitled to represent them. They don’t want him to be the president of Iran, and if there is a real referendum or election, then you will see to whom the Iranian people are going toward.

Host: Michael O'Hanlon, what’s your sense of the domestic situation in Iran and what it means for how the West should think about reacting to the kind of rhetoric they’ve been hearing from President Ahmadinejad?

O'Hanlon: I won’t pretend to have a real crystallized view because the Iranian people confuse me, to be blunt. On the one hand I agree with what’s just been said, they do sometimes voice pro-American sympathies. They poll, if you do surveys, they seem to support Americans and be more pro-American than virtually any Arab country. On the other hand, they just elected Ahmadinejad. And was also said earlier, this is a man who’s been known to have been associated with some fairly extreme politics inside of Iran over much of his lifetime including, I think, some anti-American politics. Therefore I’m a little perplexed by the Iranian people. I believe that deep down, they do have a natural partnership with Israel historically, and that there’s no reason for why they should have a bad relationship with the United States and vice versa. But I also think that Iranian politics are a pretty volatile, and a pretty emotional sort of thing and the leaders often manage to rile up the crowds and get them to believe things and support things that aren’t necessarily what people will say when they are surveyed. So, I frankly don’t know if the Iranian people are pro-American, or anti-American, and I’m going to have to look for more evidence before I make up my mind.

Host: Elie Krakowski, we have about a minute left, your thoughts on that same question.

Krakowski: I think that I would agree with the former speaker. I think Iranians, by and large are, in my limited experience in Iran, also is that they are fairly strongly pro-American. Elections there have been a sham and so I don’t think the elections reflect anything. So, all in all, I would say you have a regime in Iran that’s dictatorial, that does not represent the views of the people, and I think that the people as a whole, are very pro-American. They are also -- when I was there, there were people who openly spoke favorably about Israel, even in some official position. So I think that, that’s right there. They don’t need to do that otherwise.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, we’ve only got about twenty seconds left, and how do you think the position of Iranians should affect the U-S approaches the crisis with Iran?

Nourizadeh: I think the U-S should distinguish between the Iranian people and those who are ruling Iran.

Host: Well, I’m afraid that’s going to be the last word we have for today. We’re out of time. I'd like to thank my guests: Elie Krakowski of the American Foreign Policy Council; Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, and joining us by phone from London, Alireza Nourizadeh of the Center for Arab-Iranian Studies. We have created a new, interactive On The Line website which we hope you'll visit. The address is On the site, you can watch the latest program, read or listen to previous programs, learn about upcoming shows, and even submit questions for future On the Line guests. That address again is For On The Line, I'm Eric Felten

November 5, 2005 02:23 PM

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