In any crisis, an examination of both sides is important. No nation can blindly go forward successfully without considering the point of view of its adversary.
Much has been written about the American and Israel point of view regarding Iran's nuclear program, so there is no need to address that in any great detail here. However, little has been written about the Iranian point of view.
I had the opportunity to talk to an Iranian briefly living in the U.S. Alireza is a graduate student in international development at Harvard. I met him while I was a student there. Ali is a peaceful person who recently posted on Facebook a picture with a caption that read: "Israeli People, we (heart) you: the Iranian people do not like war with any country." I had a conversation with Ali at the Harvard Coop bookstore on March 27, 2012. This is a bit of that conversation, printed with Ali's permission.
Nuclear Weapons, Negotiations and Iranian Stability
I explained to Ali the concern the West has over the suspicious nuclear program and I asked Ali to comment on the popular sentiment in Iran. He explained that "the nuclear weapons program is a fiction. A [weapons] program is not sensible. The regime wants stability so they don't want trouble or war, and nuclear weapons don't lead to stability" because of the consequences and pressures coming from the international community.
According to recent press reports and Ali, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenie has said that nuclear weapons are not what Iran wants; Iran wants negotiations. Sanctions hurt the people more than the government and this leads to instability, which is the last thing that government wants.
On using negotiations to buy more time for a nuclear program, Ali said Iranians want negotiations. The belief in Iran is that the U.S. is not serious about negotiations and proof of that is that we have yet to send a high-profile negotiator to discuss the nuclear issue. So why do Iranians have to do what the West says if the West doesn't seem to be too serious? Ali also noted that while the U.S. can negotiate right now, Iranians (the people and government) will accept nothing less than the NPT, which means they can enrich uranium for peaceful energy purposes under the watchful eye of the IAEA. To Iranians, this is a right that all other nuclear-powered countries have. Furthermore, Reuters reported that "United States, European allies and even Israel generally agree on three things about Iran's nuclear program: Tehran does not have a bomb, has not decided to build one, and is probably years away from having a deliverable nuclear warhead."
Iranian Opposition: The Green Movement
I explained to Ali that one of the big concerns in the West is if Israel is going to strike Iranian nuclear facilities in coming months. Ali does not think that war is going to happen: "Think back to the days and weeks after 9/11. Even after a very contentious election less than a year earlier, after 9/11 President Bush's approval rating was in the stratosphere. The Iranian opposition talks about the rights of Iran to have a nuclear program. And under the NPT they have the right to enrich uranium and the people support this right." He continued, "Think of 9/11 and what that did for American patriotism. Now think of how much more nationalistic tendencies Iranians have than Americans. Even Iranians in exile still love the country because of the culture, which is different than the government."
Ali further continued to say, "Striking the nuclear sites in Iran is supported by a very wrong view of the opposition in Iran. The government in Iran has less of an appetite for nuclear weapons than the opposition. Western fears of weapons lead to sanctions, sanctions hurt the people, the people become angry, and anger causes instability."
On the flip side, considering that "democracies with nuclear programs are more stable, it is easier for the U.S. to confront a dictator regime pursuing nuclear weapons" [think of North Korea or Libya] but it is much harder to confront a democracy that has a nuclear program [India or Pakistan]. Also consider that in democracies the people approve of the nuclear weapons program because of its deterrent value, even if they don't approve of nuclear weapons," Ali said.
When asked, "What do you think about the idea that Iran won't attack Israel with a nuclear weapon, but that Iran might hand one off the Hezbollah who would subsequently attack Israel?" Ali responded, "This is a fiction. Everybody knows that if Israel were attacked with a nuclear weapon, it would have come from Iran. But what would happen after that? Two hundred nuclear warheads from Israel would come down on Tehran and other cities. So why would Iran want to do this? The regime didn't start in 1979 so that it could give up power over night."
Ali admitted that Iran wants to "get close to the [weapon] technology but not touch it." He continued that "[weapons are] the forbidden fruit. It is forbidden because if you touch it you are doomed. They may want the capacity, but they don't want the bomb because a bomb will lead to instability."
Ali explained to me that one of the options is regime change and the other is to get Iran away from a nuclear program. He said both objectives are flawed. Regime change will backfire and the nuclear program is viewed as a right under by the people, a people who have more of an appetite for nuclear weapons than does the regime.
"Any stable government after this will pursue nuclear weapons," Ali said, and he continued, "Iranians and others in the Middle East want nuclear weapons. This is something that the U.S. should understand. It is not about any one government. It is about problems with Israel. It is about the bigger sense of insecurity in the area. Why don't countries in Europe don't want nuclear weapons? It is not because they are too nice, it is because the system in the Middle East requires a system of protection. Pakistan got nukes because of India, and India got nukes because of China. If any country in the Middle East wants a nuclear weapons program it is because Israel has one."
The Need for Reforms
Ali is not a cheerleader for his government. He said he likes President Ahmadinejad as much as he liked President Bush, which is not too much. Ali said reforms in Iran are needed but it is complicated. For reform you need middle-class leaders committed to reform, but they are in jail. While reform may not lead to American interests, that doesn't matter because reform is not about American interest. Ali would like to see more representation for the people and a more complex decision-making process.
I had to get back to my car or get a ticket from an expired parking meter, so I ran out of time with Ali; I am left with more questions for another time such as: If the people would rally behind the government after an Israeli or U.S. strike over a nuclear program, how is this bad for stability? Another question I have is: If China caused India to get nukes and India caused Pakistan to get nukes, how then does Iran not want nukes considering that Israel has them?
While it is not wise to use one interview as a basis to form an opinion or policy, one point of view is better than no point of view. The critical element in this crisis is one of trust, or the lack thereof. I am fortunate to know someone from Iran briefly studying in the U.S. that is willing to talk about this issue from an Iranian point of view before he returns to Iran.
Ali is not my enemy but the saying from Sun Tzu's The Art of War, "Know your enemy," is always necessary. If we don't understand our enemy, how can we ever successfully resolve this crisis? Through bombs, force, sanctions? How long will this work if at all? Maybe it will but history tells us it probably won't work for very long and probably won't be too effective. Sanctions and diplomacy with covert activity are necessary; there is no evidence right now that we need force or bombs.
Paul Heroux previously lived and worked in the Middle East, was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarment Studies, and is a frequent guest on TV and radio stations discussing the Middle East. Paul has a Master's in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.