Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 107-119)


7 MARCH 2007

  Chairman: Gentlemen, thank you for waiting patiently and listening to the previous session. As you are aware, we want to shift our focus slightly, although there were questions on Iran in our previous session. However, we want now to really focus on Iran and regional issues. I think that Fabian Hamilton will begin this set of questions.

  Q107  Mr. Hamilton: Thank you. Welcome, gentlemen, and welcome back, Dr. Ansari. It is good to see you here again.

    Iran is at the top of the news agenda almost every day. Every day we hear more about what is happening and the threat that Iran poses to stability in the middle east and further afield. Many of us are aware of the domestic political situation, especially with President Ahmadinejad. He was elected with high hopes of a redistribution of wealth and the removal from daily politics, perhaps, of some of the influence of the clerical classes. However, the opposite seems to have been true. His hopes for domestic economic reform and redistribution do not seem to have materialised. Between you, will you give us an overview of the current domestic political situation and how you see it moving in the next few months?

  Chairman: Perhaps you can introduce yourselves first.

  Prof. Ehteshami: My name is Prof. Ehteshami, head of the school of government at Durham university. It is a pleasure to be here.

    The domestic situation is dynamic, as it were. You were talking earlier about layers with regard to Lebanon and Syria. I think that Iran has a multitude of such layers. One layer is the President, who has ultimate executive authority in the state. The relationship between him, his office, Parliament and the leader is fluid. That is due partly to issues to which you have alluded already, such as domestic and economic matters—there is record oil income in Iran, as elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet Iran's economy is suffering very badly. There is a need for an explanation.

    The broader political and cultural environment has also changed over the last year and a half. The Parliament is now taking issue with the President over his management of some of these domestic issues, which it has the right to do. Part of this is the day-to-day routine of politics, but what is less clear is where politics and power begin to interact, and it is there that the role of the leader becomes quite important in terms of being this mediator, this overall referee who does not come on to the field, but supervises it from above. Where there are issues of concern, he clearly intervenes in what he regards as the interests of the broader system.

  Dr. Ansari: It is certainly right, as Professor Ehteshami has said, that politics in Iran remains dynamic, if somewhat confusing at times. It is a very complex beast. What has been most striking for me in the last three to four months is the way that it has come alive again. It has done so in large part because of the municipal elections and the elections to the Assembly of Experts. These are not normally seen as major electoral signposts in the Iranian political calendar. Ahmadinejad came in and put in a Cabinet that was, as one ex-diplomat described it, a sort of security apparatus. It was not really a standard cabinet; it was a cabinet made up of intelligence officials and other security officials. He is trying to clamp down, in many ways, on what dissent there was that one could express in the previous period. Despite that clamping down on the press and other tools of expression, an alliance of interests between the left and the centre right—the sort of reformists and pragmatic conservatives between Rafsanjani and Khatami; that is the best way to pinpoint this—managed to do rather well in these elections. They have seized all the municipal councils.

    Ahmadinejad himself fell out, as Anoush rightly says, with some of his conservative allies, partly because of his manner, as it happens. He tends to ignore Parliament. He does not pay it much attention and they do not like it for obvious reasons. He set up his own list for the city council. He put his own sister on it. Having come up as a sort of meritocracy and everything, he was basically as nepotistic as anyone else. He has not really put forward a coherent plan for economic policy at all. All he has done is throw money at people.

    When you throw money at people, as nice as it is in the short term, inflation goes up. When inflation goes up, it is the poor who suffer. What was quite striking about his recent budget was that in an incident that may go down in history, people heckled him from Parliament about the price of tomatoes in Tehran. They said the price had gone through the roof. They were probably more expensive than in Kensington, I have to say. He retorted that they should come and shop in his local store because it was much cheaper there. The parliamentarians found that very conceited and rather flippant.

    That sort of attitude has lost him a lot of support. His economic populism is not bringing any results and this continuous crisis in the air, the international crisis, and the attention being put on to Iran, are also not yielding results. What was very striking in the last couple of months was that it was open season on criticism of the President. I have not seen quite as much life in the Iranian press for several years. They really went for it. It has come alive. In many ways that has to be considered a good thing.

  Q108  Mr. Hamilton: Professor Ehteshami, you said that the Majlis is beginning to criticise the President and you compared that with the criticisms that we may make of own Government here in Parliament. There is one big difference, of course and that is the selection of candidates. We know from our visit in 2003 that many of the people in the Majlis with whom my colleagues were involved were subsequently refused permission to stand as candidates. Candidates are vetted and if even the vetted candidates who are now parliamentarians are criticising, something must be wrong.

    My next question is about who controls foreign policy. We have had a lot of noises from the President about the destruction of Israel and about the building of weapons and so on. But is it the supreme leader who decides on foreign policy, or is it the President and does Parliament have any say?

  Prof. Ehteshami: It depends which bit of the foreign policy you wish to examine. If you are looking at relations with the United States, then it goes into a very different pot. So, if you like, there are red lines, green lines and a whole range of rainbow colours in between in terms of how foreign policy is taken forward. In what are regarded as national security issues, the leader's office—not just the leader himself, but his office, which is an elaborate machinery, a labyrinth in its own right—has considerable influence in determining the Government line. From there flows Government policy, as it were. On such matters as relations with the United States, Iran's nuclear programme, the question of Palestine and Israel and some of the broader Muslim-related issues, the leader's office clearly has, one could say, a supreme voice or even a monopoly over some of the discussions. Red lines are not crossed in a public fashion. In terms of conducting day-to-day foreign affairs, then that remains with the President, who is the head of the Cabinet. The Foreign Ministry then plays a role, as it does in London and elsewhere in trying to liaise with the host countries. That is a very simplified and simple divide.

    The problem with Iran's new politics is that it cannot avoid getting embroiled in complicated issues, like a 34-day war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Issues might have been minor, but a presidential visit to Lebanon can suddenly acquire a much grander dimension, so the leader's office has to intervene, to get involved and to set a line. But foreign policy is also often hard to read in an Iranian context, partly because of the checks and balances in the system. In many ways Iran may have gone far too far in its constitutionalism of putting systems in place that continuously interact and compete with the factions that also permeate the system. Reading foreign policy is trying to understand these levels of relationships—the factions, in various institutions of power and between the various institutions themselves—but also the issues that the President and his Cabinet, the Expediency Council and Mr. Rafsanjani, or the leader's office then get involved with. You would not find the President, for instance, coming up with a completely new position on the nuclear discussions were it not initiated from elsewhere.

  Dr. Ansari: I think it is quite right to say that what we have is a layered process. The problem we have, although not unique to Iran, is a collective decision-making process. The key is to find out who has the varying levels of influence. Up until the summer Mr. Ahmadinejad seemed to have that spoiler effect; he could come in and sabotage various moves. We saw this with Mr. Larijani, when he was negotiating with Solana over the nuclear thing. Ahmadinejad torpedoed it rather late.

    It all depends on whether the leader decides that he wants to come to arbitrate and balance and on which side he wants to fall down. That makes it a little bit more complicated. I think that, as Anoush quite rightly said, the leadership increasingly has a dominant role on major strategic decisions. My worry about that personally is that I do not think that the current leadership has a good track record for being decisive. What it tends to do is to manage the various parties. Mr. Khamenei does not, by and large, take decisive strategic decisions himself. In this way he is quite different from his predecessor. That partly comes from the domestic set-up and, obviously, the various domestic difficulties that he may have. But this I think has been a problem.

    Recently, one of the worrying developments took place in the Expediency Council. We saw that Mr. Rafsanjani has been much more vocal and has been back in the fray. He has made some very interesting comments, I have to say, about developments and about the role of the presidency. All of a sudden, Ayatollah Khamenei then appoints a number of Ahmadinejad's allies on to the Expediency Council, in order to try and tip the balance of votes. Now, when you do that, it is a lovely way of balancing things, but it does not mean that you can actually get things done, which, at this particular moment in the history of Iran's international relations is problematic.

  Q109  Mr. Illsley: Could I ask you gentlemen about Iran's role in Iraq? The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group recently said that, of all Iraq's neighbours, Iran has the most leverage in Iraq. We have seen our own Prime Minister lay responsibility for roadside bombs in Iraq at the door of Iran, saying that the munitions were manufactured there. Is Iran specifically and deliberately using its influence in Iraq, or is that influence simply there through historical ties and connections between the Shi'a Muslims in each country? If it is deliberately trying to influence policies in Iraq, what is it hoping to achieve?

  Dr. Ansari: The answer to that in some ways is both. Clearly, there are very strong ties, which you cannot get away from. One of their advantages is that many of them speak Arabic, which many of the coalition partners do not do, unfortunately, so they communicate reasonably well through the seminaries and other things.

    On the other hand, there is also a very strategic concern. The last time I was in Iran, and talking to individuals about this, they made it very clear that they had one single red line as far as Iraq was concerned, which was that they would not allow a military threat to emerge from the country again. I think that that is a valid concern that they have in Iran; that is what they want to do. Therefore, they will exercise a certain amount of influence. How much of that is sabotage, insurgency support and so on, you again have to divide, unfortunately, between elements of what we would call the formal Government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which sometimes has a separate agenda. Once Mr. Ahmadinejad came to office he let them off the leash.

    From 2004, the date of the abduction of British soldiers off the Shatt al-Arab, things started to go very sour. Prior to that, let us be honest about it, the Iranians were almost in southern Iraq by invitation. They were being very helpful but there were obviously areas of concern, which started to increase after 2004. We must bear in mind that by far the largest problem facing the coalition in interference comes from Sunni insurgence, not from the Shi'as. Iran, by and large, has not played as destructive a role in Iraq as it possibly could, and certainly not as destructive as some other countries in the region.

  Prof. Ehteshami: I would agree with Ali very much. It always surprises me that people express concern about Iran having influence in Iraq; after all, that was inevitable and it is not just politics, it is also economics, and it is cultural and social. The only place on the planet apart from Iran where the Iranian currency openly circulates and is worth anything is in Iraq. That is a small indicator of the influence that Iran has acquired thanks to the invasion.

    Beyond that, Iran, as we have heard, has a direct security interest in Iraq, but also it sees Iraq as part of its forward deployment. We heard earlier about Syria's interest and how it sees Hezbollah; Iraq, for Iran, is that very front line in many ways. Remember, the holiest Shi'a sites are in Iraq. Only yesterday, on yet another of these pilgrimages, tens of people were massacred by insurgents and terrorists. Some of the folk who have died in the past have been Iranians who have been there on a pilgrimage. Iranian security forces are under pressure domestically to ensure that wherever they go across the border loved ones can come back, and that they will come back. That dimension is not often mentioned. Iran has a direct interest in the domestic security—the street security—of the Shi'a sites, apart from the grander dimension of wanting to have a presence in Iraq, not just for the sake of being there but also to ensure that the Iraq of the future will remain friendly to Iran. Iran has not had this kind of opportunity for centuries and it is not likely to let this one go lightly.

  Q110  Mr. Illsley: On the question of the red line and Iran not wanting to see Iraq as a threat in the future, I should have thought that given the current situation it would be a long time before Iraq would again be a threat to the Iranians.

  Dr. Ansari: Sure. That comment was made to me a couple of years ago; it is not something that I feel has changed, necessarily. There are two schools of thought within Iran on the issue. How do you deal with the coalition forces in Iraq? On one hand, they would rather not have permanent American bases in Iraq; at the same time there is a range of views in Iraq that say, "The Americans should at least clear up the mess they made and then they can go. Let's not get them out now." On the other hand, there are also those—let us be honest about it—who are extremely ideologically ill-disposed towards the west—I think that is the best way to put it—who think this is a good opportunity to irritate and harass them and force them out. I am inclined towards the other view: if you are taking a strategic perspective on Iraq, and you want a stable country of sorts on your border, they obviously need to handle it a little more prudently, in terms of their relations. However, it is true that there are those on the more hawkish side of Iranian politics who often take matters in their own hands.

    Going back to Anoush's comment about layers, it is very important to remember that, in many ways, Iranian politics is extremely decentralised. People sometimes do things on the ground that the centre may only hear about afterwards, and it then has to go and pick up the pieces. You have this almost feudalisation of Iraq, with some coalition forces—you have seen this happen with some over-mighty generals. You see exactly the same with the IRGC. Depending on the control in Tehran, they either have more leeway to do things, or less. I think that the more leeway that they have, the more problematic the situation becomes.

    The example of the 2004 incident with the British troops was quite clear; a local commander wanted to please his bosses. In fact, that obviously turned into a fiasco. However, the fact is that the decision did not seem to come from Tehran. That is something that we must be aware of. Whatever the grand strategic picture, the devil is in the detail, unfortunately, and that causes problems.

  Q111  Mr. Illsley: I know that a lot of the Iraqi Government members have previously been exiled in Iran. To what extent do the current Iraqi Government rely on Iran for support?

  Dr. Ansari: The curious thing about this—I will pass on to Anoush in a moment—is a point that Ambassador Zarif made in the UN very clearly. Iran has no interest in destabilising Iraq, because the Iraqi Government is largely composed of people who spent most of their time in Iran.

    I talk to Iraqi friends of mine who are Iraqi analysts and they say that some of these Ministers speak Persian better than they speak Arabic, or they speak Arabic with a very thick Persian accent. I did not believe that to begin with; I thought that my friends were exaggerating. However, the fact is that the various groups are—I would not necessarily say that they are politically beholden, but certainly they have strong cultural affinities with Iran. As Anoush was saying earlier, for Iran this is a golden opportunity in some ways. I am not saying that there are not spoilers in the system, but there are many people who see this as an opportunity that they ought to make the most of.

  Prof. Ehteshami: They speak Persian primarily because many of them have families in Iran, and over the years, they have acquired Iran's cultural fabric. It is so important to stress that cultural fabric; they have now acquired an Iranianness to their identity, in ways that they did not have before they were kicked out by Saddam Hussein.

  Q112  Mr. Illsley: Finally—we touched on this, or our colleagues did, in the last evidence session—how much significance do you place on the upcoming conference, which may take place in Baghdad, where it appears as though the Americans will speak to the Iranians? Bear in mind that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee suggested this move over a year ago, and it was snubbed by Bush. I think that we have suggested to our own politicians here that there should be a dialogue. Now that that dialogue appears to be on the agenda, how significant is it going to be?

  Prof. Ehteshami: Again, if you look at it symbolically, I think that it is very significant that they are meeting on this stage, in this place, and that all the parties will be present, as it were. It reminds me a little of what Patrick Seale was saying about the Arab-Israeli peace process and the Madrid meeting back in 1991; that was a symbolic meeting. On the Syrian track, that process has gone absolutely nowhere at all, but the Palestinian-Jordanian track has certainly yielded results, in terms of some kind of a peace with Jordan and some kind of a process with the Palestinians.

    This meeting could have the makings of that kind of a grand opportunity, or it could pass merely as a symbolic gesture. My own view at present is that, given the dynamics of the parties that will be involved and the personalities—whom we have heard about—who will be involved, I doubt very much that we can get beyond the symbolic. That is because I think Iraq is not the issue that Iran and the US need to talk about; Iraq is, at present, one of the range of issues, but it is increasingly a sideshow, as regards their core concerns. If this meeting facilitates a route to address those core concerns, that is fine, but my own view—Ali may differ—is that I cannot see it going anywhere beyond the symbolic.

  Dr. Ansari: I concur fully; I agree entirely with what Anoush has said. I also heard from Washington that members of the US delegation had no intention of talking to the Iranians at the meeting—but others can comment on that better than I. The meeting was called by Iraq, and they were going to keep their distance. I am not sure, either, what sort of delegation the Iranians will send. As Anoush rightly says, they need to discuss a range of other things. It could be an opportunity, but I have my reservations, sadly.

  Q113  Chairman: Before we move on, can I pick up a point that was made about the exile relationships? At the moment, as I understand it, it is reported that Moqtada al-Sadr has left Iraq to go to Iran—for his own safety, I assume. How much influence do the Iranians have with the Sadrists, and how much with the Badrists, the SCIRI people? Are they in a position to bang heads together and get those two groups, and Da'wah and Fadila all the other Shi'a parties, to stop this power struggle, or are they playing the power struggle as a way in which to create weak government in Iraq, which could serve their interests?

  Prof. Ehteshami: The al-Sadr issue is very interesting, because he does not represent any kind of religious weight. It is largely that he carries a name that is a very distinguished name in Shi'a mythology and theology, and also the fact that he was so ably prepared to step into the vacuum and push himself forward as one of the vigilante groups. Frankly, that is all that he is in the Shi'a politics of Iraq. To a degree, my take is that Tehran sometimes sees him in that light. While he serves a good purpose, he is useful; his brigade is there and it is fully armed and present in Sadr city and around Baghdad—it provides the main security there and also has a reach in the south. However, for Tehran the bigger prize is keeping the Houzeh in Karbala and Najaf on board. Differences between Sistani and his machinery and al-Sadr are so great in Iraqi domestic terms that the prudent members of the Iran establishment are very careful not to be seen to be too openly supportive of al-Sadr while also not abandoning him.

    Mr. Chairman, you said that al-Sadr is in Tehran. I think that it is an open question whether he really did leave the country. He might have gone to the Kurdish border, which could be more or less Iranian territory.

  Dr. Ansari: I do not know whether he is in Tehran or not. The interesting thing is that there are family relationships between Sadrists and other Iranian clerical families. However, the Sadrists are the least popular faction in Iran anyway. They are not seen as people who have been particularly helpful. They have worked on the SCIRI and Da'wah and others—and the Badr brigade, because that was funded by Iran.

    I think that Iran could play a role, in that it would knock heads together, but right from the beginning, it felt that Moqtada al-Sadr was something of a firebrand, who needed to be kept under control, if it could do it. I do not know whether it can exercise control that directly, because he has built up a following of his own. That takes us back to what Patrick Seale said in the previous session, and I think that he is absolutely right: since last summer we have fallen under the rubric of seeing everything as a Shi'a-Sunni divide. It does not work that way. There is probably more to be said for a Persian-Arab divide than a Shi'a-Sunni divide, and you need to bear that in mind.

  Q114  Richard Younger-Ross: A senior official in Hamas says that he feels the EU has now been supplanted by the Iranians in the supply of aid. The same official also said that our relations with Iran have angered Saudi Arabia. Considering that, has the Mecca agreement been a setback for Iranian attempts to influence the situation in Iraq, and if so, do you think that Ahmadinejad will seek to undermine it?

  Prof. Ehteshami: If we had had this session before Sunday, I would not have answered as I am about to do. Ahmadinejad's trip to Saudi Arabia and his meeting with King Abdullah was a significant event, in that it was the first time. In the short time that he has been in power, Ahmadinejad managed to see much of the world, from Indonesia right across to Venezuela. He is probably one of Iran's most travelled leaders, which is ironic because he still does not know much about the world, despite his travels.

  Richard Younger-Ross: He can compete with Ken Livingstone.

  Prof. Ehteshami: Ahmadinejad's trip was billed—not so much by the Iranian press but by the Saudi press—as important in trying to clarify some issues. What are the issues? The issues are: Lebanon, the stability of the Sunni-led Government and the role of Hezbollah therein; Iraq and Iran's role therein; Iran's nuclear programme and its impacts—environmental, political, security and so on—on its neighbours; and last but not least, Palestine. Iran has wanted to get engaged with the Palestine question since the revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini's main mantra was to liberate Iraq so that we can liberate Jerusalem. That was his strategy for much of the 1980s. The interest has been there, but this is the first time since 1979 that Iran's reach is truly important.

    As you said, Iran's reach has not come through just polemical or ideological support for the Palestinians. For the first time, there is a Government in the Palestinian territories—a Hamas-led Government—who choose to make their first foreign trip to Tehran and not to an Arab capital. Again, that is symbolically important. As you have heard from Palestinian authorities, Iran has supplanted the European Union as Palestine's main financial backer. That has not sat well with the Arab world, particularly not with those who either hold the Palestine question as their key issue, such as Saudi Arabia, or who have had relations with Israel and are worried about how Iran could influence them, Egypt and Jordan being the two examples. The Arab world in general is concerned about this, but in the absence of any support for the Hamas Government—and with the Arab states under US pressure not to support them—it made perfect sense for them to go to Tehran and test that loyalty of the previous 25 years or so that I have been talking about. Now Iran has acquired that presence in Palestinian politics.

    The Mecca meeting was followed by this exchange between King Abdullah and President Ahmadinejad, which I think is significant. The Saudi press—not the Iranian press—came out after the meeting saying that Iran had accepted the Mecca accord and that it also accepts the Arab peace plan, which we heard about an hour ago. I have to say, I will wait for confirmation of both of those before I buy that fully. I think that it will be very difficult for the current Government in Tehran to accept the Mecca accord in full, unless they are assured that Hamas's role is secured and that Hamas will not be forced to change sides, through financial support or other incentives, away from Iran. If that were to be the case, Iran would find it very easy to oppose the Mecca accord, on the basis of its selling the Islamic Palestine question cheaply. Let me stop there.

  Dr. Ansari: I will make two small points and take things in a slightly different direction. When we talk about Iran's growing regional influence, one of the things that we have to bear in mind is that a lot of this is a consequence of own goals that have been scored by various parties in the middle east. Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Government have been able to exploit various weaknesses. Hamas is a case in point, but the interesting thing that also sometimes emerges is the reaction in Iran to that support. There are many people who do not think that the Iranian Government should be sending $200 million a year to Hamas, when they should be feeding their own people. That is an element.

    One interesting thing came across after the execution of Saddam Hussein. You would not be surprised to hear that not many people shed a tear in Iran that Saddam Hussein had been executed—in the Arab world the execution was widely considered to be basically a Shi'a lynch mob taking revenge. However, mourning ceremonies were held in the Palestinian territories to lament the death of Saddam Hussein. I can tell you that this went down very badly in Tehran. The idea is, "If we're helping these people, what on earth are they doing?" That goes right back to Yasser Arafat. He was welcomed at the beginning of the revolution, but probably supported Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. He then became the most reviled person in Tehran. There are a lot of curious cross-purposes here, which are quite interesting. The Iranians take the opportunity that is opened up to them in some ways mainly by the Arab states not doing enough, which is clear in Iraq as well. On the other hand, it was very striking that after Saddam Hussein's execution, people were not happy that in Palestine they were busy mourning this great Arab hero. They said, "Well, he was not a great Arab hero as far as we're concerned. Frankly, he was paying you the money."

  Richard Younger-Ross: The Quartet is still calculating how to respond to the Mecca agreement. How do you think Iran would want the Quartet to respond?

  Dr. Ansari: I will leave that to Anoush.

  Prof. Ehteshami: Thank you so much. It depends which Iran you are talking about, I would venture to say, because there is one Iran that sees great advantage in settling the issue once and for all, providing it with the opportunity for a get-out clause from the intransigent position that it has adopted. If the Mecca accord can bring in Hamas and legitimise dialogue in the Palestinian community as a whole to recognise Israel, and if Hamas is part of that, it makes Iran's job a lot easier.

    There are those in Iran who think that it should be looking towards a more constructive position on the issue if Hamas is going with it. The old saying in Tehran is, "We cannot be more Palestinian than the Palestinians." That we cannot be more Islamist than Hamas sounds even better. There is that side. Those elements would want the Quartet to endorse the Mecca accord, so that Iran can get off the hook and proceed without worrying about compromising its own principled position on the issue, if Hamas is part and parcel of the process.

    There are those, however, who for ideological reasons as much as anything else continue to argue that Palestine is non-negotiable and that Quartet acceptance of the Mecca agreement is more evidence for the conspiracy of the western Zionists to take the Palestinian territories and the Palestinians themselves away from their rightful place, which is in the heart of Islam.

    Both forces are out there peddling their business, but the pragmatist forces, as Ali said, are not just reformists. There are conservative forces in Iran that recognise the futility of Iran's position. If this were to get them off that position, I think that they would probably welcome it. It will also depend what the European Union position in the Quartet is. That will also be important, because if nothing else, over discussions about its nuclear relations with Russia, Iran has warmed to Russia's middle east role, but it does not rate Russian influence in the Quartet. It rates the EU's, frankly, and it sees the EU as providing a counterweight to America. If the EU is playing the counterweight in Iranian eyes, Iran might see advantages in it.

  Q115  Richard Younger-Ross: Obviously, President Ahmadinejad has made some inflammatory comments, not the least of which is that Israel should be wiped off the map. Which audience do you think he is playing to? Do you think that in a sense, he is deliberately courting danger? Some elements of what he says at times remind me a bit of Saddam Hussein, in terms of bluster—that this will be the mother of all battles, as Saddam would say. He seems to have the same language, almost as if he wants someone to respond to him.

  Dr. Ansari: First of all, the language in the east is always a little bit more flowery, I suspect, and it sometimes loses something in translation. There are a number of things that have been lost in translation. None the less, my view of Ahmadinejad is basically that he is a populist. I think that he believes a lot of what he says. He was elected on a "what you see is what you get" platform. Unfortunately, the Iranians, having elected him, probably did not realise that, or how far he was going to go, because they could not quite believe their eyes.

    He makes inflammatory comments that play to a certain constituency in Iran—it is quite a small constituency, but it is there—and which are also geared very much to the wider Arab world, rather than the Iranian world. A lot of what he does is really Islamist-populist, if I can put it that way. That is where the chickens are coming home to roost. One of the most striking things was the holocaust conference that he had the audacity to hold via the foreign ministry, where it caused a certain amount of anxiety—it was not seen as its thing to do. The reaction in Iran to that conference was quite striking because people had to come out and explain themselves, and what on earth it was all about. If one good thing came out of the conference, it was that it engendered a certain amount of very negative reaction in Iran. People were wondering what on earth the point of it all was. It brought Iran only a lot of bad publicity and did not, to my mind, represent views there.

    You might ask whether Mr. Ahmadinejad is cunning or politically naive—there are two schools of thought. I think that he is a populist. I do not think that he is cunning. Others in the Persian elite are cunning, have good political common sense and know how to play the game, but Ahmadinejad was elected because he is basically a very simple man who was meant to be "one of us". Unfortunately, what they got was just a simple man. As Anoush said, nobody has travelled the world so much and yet so completely misunderstood it. It is quite bizarre. Having said that, he only started travelling very recently.

    Incidentally, it is now coming out that a lot of the very great statements made about him—"greatest mayor in the world", "greatest administrator in the world" and "greatest guy" and all that—were nonsense. I have even heard talk of him having gone behind the lines in the Iran-Iraq war. In fact, people are saying that the only lines he was behind were the Iranian ones, not the Iraqi ones. A lot of things are not looking as good for him now. As a consequence, people are picking holes in his rhetoric.

  Q116  Richard Younger-Ross: A bit like Bush then.

  Dr. Ansari: Cut from the same cloth, as someone said once.

  Prof. Ehteshami: I want merely to add that on another level his rhetoric on Israel and the holocaust has had a security dimension to it. The atmosphere in Iran is electrifying and has prevented discussion of Israel, which there had been until the end of the Khatami era. Israel was a name that you would hear. Now it is back to this Zionist entity again. Elements in Iran were trying very hard to establish intellectually Israel's right to exist, as a presage to discussing where they went from there. His rhetoric has ended all of that and has so polarised the atmosphere, as we have heard, that nobody has been able to come forward and say, "Ah, but", because his is, of course, the great Islamic cause.

    In addition, although he has been mocked in sophisticated circles in Iran for what he has said and his efforts to organise the holocaust conference, it was not too long ago that people in Indonesia were marking Ahmadinejad out as this great Muslim leader who is out there speaking Muslim minds. He was told that when he went to Indonesia. Students in Jakarta said, "You, as a Muslim leader, are able to say and not suffer the consequences of what our leaders do not even dare think in private." When he hears those things, he really does believe that this is the Muslim cause that he ought to be championing and that the way to do it is to continuously delegitimise Israel and what its identity has been forged by—the holocaust. We might not like it, but there are intellectual drivers behind what he has been saying.

  Q117  Mr. Horam: Turning briefly to Lebanon and Hezbollah, you heard what was said in the previous session, which was very interesting. How do you view the relationship between Tehran and Hezbollah? How far is Hezbollah an independent Lebanese force and how far can Tehran influence it? Does it want to influence it?

  Dr. Ansari: I tend towards what Patrick Seale said. It is a Lebanese force. The relationship is like that of cousins—they are related but they do not necessarily always agree. Some people believe in a direct causal relationship, but I do not believe that that necessarily exists. I do not think that orders come from Tehran on how to do things; it does not work like that; they are not that close, and they have been moving further and further apart since the 1980s. Hezbollah wants to be a Lebanese political party, so it has to create a distinctive force. Nevertheless, although the Iranians will say that the support is purely moral, I think it is more. They are first cousins, maybe. They talk and they have a lot in common.

  Q118  Mr. Horam: So you do not think that Iran has a big investment in the whole thing?

  Dr. Ansari: I think it does, but that does not mean that it can direct things in the way that people suspect. The analogy that is often used is that of the United States and Israel. Can the United States dictate what Israel should do?

  Q119  Mr. Horam: Do you agree with that analysis, Mr. Ehteshami?

  Prof. Ehteshami: Absolutely. Hezbollah's place should be seen first in the Lebanese context, and then related to forces beyond Lebanon. In that sense, Iran has a very direct interest in the success of Hezbollah as a political force, just as it has been nurturing the other Shi'a organisation in Lebanon—Amal. Iran's interest is to domesticate Hezbollah as much as it can. When one considers the popularity of Sheikh Nasrallah in Arab circles, one sees that it would appeal to the Iranian view on domestication of Hezbollah were he now to supersede Gamal Abdel Nasser, because the Iranians would then have to invest much less in legitimising Hezbollah. However, there is always a security aspect. As we heard previously, Hezbollah will continue to serve a very useful purpose to Iran for as long as it is in south Lebanon, and therefore north of Israel. If Iran felt any threat from Israel, for instance by way of pre-emptive strike on its nuclear capabilities, I think that it would find it too difficult to resist the temptation to use Hezbollah regionally.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 13 August 2007