Q: Tensions between Iran and the United States have spiked over the last several weeks. Many in the U.S. blame this on Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Do you believe Iran is close to building a nuclear weapon or that the purpose of Iran’s nuclear program is to achieve a nuclear weapons capacity?
Bijan Khajehpour (BK): To answer this question, we need to analyze two issues. First, how key strategic decisions are made in Iran, and second, how rational those decisions are.
I believe that nuclear policy in Iran, like all other strategic choices, is the result of an ongoing decision-making process involving various stakeholders. The process is dynamic and the balance of power can shift as a result of events, elections, policy changes etc. From past experience, especially during the Iran-Iraq war, we know that there is strong opposition to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iran, which was tested when Saddam attacked Iran with chemical weapons. That constituency (mainly senior clergy) was strong enough to stop Iran from using chemical weapons to respond to the Iraqi attacks. However, it is also conceivable that some political and military stakeholders would opt for a nuclear capability. The outcome of these ongoing deliberations depends on the balance of power in Tehran. If more hard-line forces gain the upper hand, then there will be a push towards a nuclear capability, while the more mainstream and moderate forces would focus on the peaceful use of nuclear technology. For these reasons, the justification behind Iran’s nuclear program has shifted over the past few decades. The current balance depends on internal and external processes but one thing is clear: Putting Iran under external pressure and threatening Iran will only empower the more hard-line elements and create a balance of power that will not be as compromising as the country’s political mainstream.
With regard to rationalism in Iranian decision-making, I believe that the Iranian regime is rational, though sometimes erratic. It is clear to Iranian strategists that nuclear weapons will not improve Iran’s national security situation internationally or regionally. They do, however, see a value in technological progress. As the last eight years have demonstrated, trying to change the calculus in Iran through external pressure will only backfire. I have always argued that Tehran acts rationally, but prefers to react as opposed to take initiatives. An Iranian reaction to external pressure will not be one of accommodation and compromise.
So, back to your original question: Is Iran pushing towards a nuclear weapons capability? My answer is that continued external sanctions and pressure will push Iran in that direction whether the majority of Iranian political stakeholders want it or not.
Q: In your opinion, what are the similarities and/or difference between the current U.S. saber rattling towards Iran and the events that occurred in the lead up to the 2003 Iraq war?
BK: The main similarity is that both processes were driven by neo-conservative and militaristic warmongers in the United States, who used the media to manipulate public opinion as well as some political players. However, there are three main differences that will hopefully influence the outcome of the current impasse between Iran and the United States, and ensure that the mistakes of Iraq are not repeated. These are:
a) Saddam’s Iraq was very isolated. It was easy to mobilize a Coalition of the Willing against the country in 2002/2003. Despite sanctions pressure, Iran is not an isolated country and is using diplomacy to counter claims regarding its nuclear program, including the recent IAEA delegation visit to Iran to discuss outstanding issues;
b) Second, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped a very different public opinion in the West, compared to that which existed before those wars. This war fatigue should have an impact on Western decision-making about attacking Iran; and
c) Third, savvier media outlets are asking the right questions and refuse to be pushed into another war that is driven by dubious interests;
In this context, we should also remember that the region has changed dramatically in the past few years. The uncertainties in the Middle East and North Africa region can both complicate the strategic considerations of all key players, but they can also facilitate the war effort as some may see another major war as a way of imposing American hegemony amid regional shifts and uncertainties.
Q: On Wednesday January 11, 2012, a 32 year old Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in a car explosion in Tehran. According to witnesses, immediately before the explosion, a man on a motorcycle approached the scientist’s car, attached a device to the vehicle, and sped off. This is the fifth Iranian nuclear scientist to be killed under mysterious circumstances. The Iranian government has blamed Israel for the scientist’s death, and has also implicated the U.S. and British governments in the incident. This is the most recent in a series of incidents that many consider to be part of a covert war against Iran waged by the United States and Israel. Do you see a pattern in terms of how, when, and where these incidents have occurred inside Iran? What do you think the U.S. objective is in conducting this covert war?
BK: First of all, I want to categorically condemn such acts of terror. Nothing justifies the killing of human beings. There are many indications that Israel and the United States are waging a covert war in Iran – I am not an expert on identifying patterns, but it is clear that the aim is to set back what is referred to as the “nuclear clock” in Iran. The idea is that covert activity, like the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists, would undermine the overall progress of Iran’s nuclear program. However, in my view, these covert actions have two consequences:
a) The new generation of Iranians includes those whose personalities were shaped by the Iran-Iraq war. This generation has two important characteristics: They are very self-confident (they fought an unjust war and succeeded in defending Iranian territory) and they are not afraid of threats. In fact, once you threaten them and undermine them, they will become more resolute to achieve their goals. So, the Iranian program would, in fact, be accelerated as a result of such inhumane actions; and
b) Such cowardly terrorist actions would also make a greater number of Iranians, as well as Muslims around the world, more sympathetic to the country’s position, increasing the overall popularity of the regime.
Q: During the week of January 9, 2012, the Washington Post published an article quoting an unnamed U.S. senior intelligence official as stating that the intention behind U.S. economic sanctions against Iran is to bring about regime change in the country. Shortly after the article was published, the Post pulled the senior official’s statements, claiming he was quoted incorrectly. To what extent do you think that U.S. pressure on Iran is directed at ending Iran’s nuclear program vs. achieving regime change?
BK: Before I answer your question, as a long-time observer of U.S. policy towards Iran, it is interesting to me that this policy has not changed much over different administrations. That alone tells me that there is something emotional in this policy that needs to be analyzed.
I believe U.S. policy towards Iran is a multidimensional phenomenon that tries to address many issues at the same time. There is a bilateral element that is very emotional. There is a regional element in which the two parties compete for greater regional influence in a dynamic part of the world. There is an element to do with nuclear technology about which Washington is trying to set a precedent with the Iranian case etc. As such, it is difficult for anyone to actually explain the end game from a U.S. point of view, including for U.S. officials.
I can tell you from an Iranian point of view that the current set of U.S. policies are self-defeating, regardless of the end goal. Also, from a moral point of view, U.S. policy towards Iran does not add up. From the nuclear issue to human rights abuses to accusations of interference in the affairs of other states, there is at least one other regional player that is worse than Iran. Washington, however, has no complaints against this other regional player and considers it an ally. Iranians and other citizens of the region register this double standard and view the Americans as hypocritical. This hypocrisy undermines the U.S. position in Iran and in the region, and creates a power gap that is filled by other international and regional powers.
Q: There has been much talk of how tensions with will affect U.S. interests, in terms of oil prices. There has been less discussion of how other U.S. interests will be affected by the growing prospects of confrontation with Iran. For example, the U.S. has substantial interests in Afghanistan as well as in countries in the greater Gulf region, such as Bahrain. How do you believe that rising tensions with Iran and/or a U.S. attack against Iran will impact U.S. interests in Afghanistan as well as in the Gulf countries?
BK: As I mentioned earlier, Iran is a rational, but reactive actor. Intensified confrontation with Iran will compel it to more actively confront U.S. interests in the region. However, Tehran will not commit suicide. In some of the cases you mentioned, Tehran and Washington have common interests and Iran will not undermine its agendas in Afghanistan, Iraq or even in some of the Persian Gulf states. If Tehran is compelled to confront U.S. interests more widely, then it would choose areas of interest where there is little to no overlap between Iranian and U.S. interests, such as in Syria or Israel/Palestine, and by influencing the state building processes in the region’s new regimes. The biggest blow to U.S. interests in the region will be the one I mentioned earlier, i.e. a loss of U.S. influence and soft power as a result of Washington’s hypocritical behavior towards Tehran. That alone should be reason enough for Washington to reconsider some of its approaches towards Iran.
Q: Will the U.S. be safer if the U.S. or Israel attack Iran?
BK: Absolutely not. There are many reasons why this is the case, but I will mention two of them below:
a) A military attack will be the final confirmation for Iran’s hard-line factions and will put the Iranian nuclear program on a different track – Iranian officials have also repeatedly stated that Iran would respond with asymmetric warfare, which would be very difficult to challenge;
b) Iran’s post-revolutionary animosity towards the United States can be described as a generational animosity, i.e. the dislike of a generation of Iranians who felt betrayed by the United States as a result of U.S. support for the Shah, especially Washington’s role in the 1953 coup. That animosity impacted the Iranian psyche for more than a generation. An attack on Iran will translate into another generational conflict – a new generation of Iranians and Middle Easterners will harbor serious resentment against the United States and this will undermine Washington’s medium to long term interests in this important region.
Such an attack would only emerge from delusions about short-term fixes, but will exact a heavy medium to long-term price for western, especially U.S., interests.
* Dr. Bijan Khajehpour is a managing partner at Atieh International, the Vienna based international arm of the Atieh Group of Companies, a group of strategic consulting firms based in Tehran, Iran. Dr. Khajehpour co-founded the Atieh Group in 1994 and ever since he has been involved in establishing successful private sector companies in Iran. Throughout his consulting years, Dr. Khajehpour has focused on strategic consulting for Iranian and international companies and has commented on political and economic developments in Iran, especially through contributions to international conferences and reviews on Iran. Among his publications are contributions to the following books published in the U.S.: Caspian Region, New Frontiers, Iran at Crossroads and Security in the Persian Gulf: Origins, Obstacles, and the Search for Consensus. Dr. Khajehpour is also an editorial board member of the Farsi Review, “Goftogu”.