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
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
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 mattersthere
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
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 rightthe sort of reformists and pragmatic
conservatives between Rafsanjani and Khatami; that is the best
way to pinpoint thismanaged 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 officenot just the leader
himself, but his office, which is an elaborate machinery, a labyrinth
in its own righthas 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 relationshipsthe factions,
in various institutions of power and between the various institutions
themselvesbut 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 securitythe
street securityof 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
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 thoselet us be honest
about itwho are extremely ideologically ill-disposed towards
the westI think that is the best way to put itwho
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 forcesyou 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
Dr. Ansari: The curious thing
about thisI will pass on to Anoush in a momentis
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
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 areI 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: Finallywe
touched on this, or our colleagues did, in the last evidence sessionhow
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
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 personalitieswhom
we have heard aboutwho 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
viewAli may differis 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 meetingbut 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 Iranfor 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 Baghdadit
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 othersand
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 billednot so much by the Iranian press but by
the Saudi pressas 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 impactsenvironmental,
political, security and so onon 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 territoriesa
Hamas-led Governmentwho 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 Governmentand with the Arab states under US pressure
not to support themit 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 pressnot the Iranian
presscame 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
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 executedin 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
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
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
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 blusterthat 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
He makes inflammatory comments that play
to a certain constituency in Iranit is quite a small constituency,
but it is thereand 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 anxietyit 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 naivethere 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 thatwere
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 bythe 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 cousinsthey 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
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 LebanonAmal.
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.