Prospects of war in Iran
Valdaiclub.com interview with Vagif Guseynov, Director of the Institute of Strategic Studies and Analysis (ISSA), Editor-in-Chief, «Analytical messenger» journal.
How would you assess the political situation around Iran?
The political situation around Iran is highly complicated. To begin with, the United States is pursuing a harsh policy regarding Tehran, aimed at overthrowing Iran's clerical regime. At the same time it has to be noted that Washington is being very careful about it. America has learned the lessons of the Iraq campaign. They seem to realize that without proper planning a military operation against a country with an intricate web of ethnic and religious problems may be too costly. With this in mind, the United States has adopted a long-term policy aimed at gradually destabilizing Iran’s regime through a diplomatic embargo, cultural and economic penetration, sanctions and military threats.
The United States and its European allies are braced for a long political fight with Iran. They will not tolerate a strong, populous state in the Greater Middle East with a regime that dares pursue an independent foreign policy aimed at defending its national interests – not while Iran is challenging Washington’s regional ambitions, resisting its “allies” in the region such as Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni monarchies in the Gulf, and capitalizing on Shiite pride.
In this context, the Iranian nuclear program is the key issue for the United States, meaning that Washington is using it as a pretext whenever they need to ratchet up pressure on Iran through the UN Security Council. It is in fact a weak pretext because the military component of Iran’s nuclear program remains very much in doubt.
Allow me to cite a few examples here.
First, Iran is still unable to produce nuclear fuel for its Bushehr power plant and must buy it from Russia. On the whole, this suggests that the nuclear project has not progressed far beyond its initial stage. As long as the country’s nuclear scientists are unable to enrich uranium to the level required for making nuclear fuel, enriching it to the 80%-90% level required for nuclear weapons is impossible.
Second, local uranium ores are very poor, and the uranium produced contains impurities such as molybdenum. Experts believe this material can still be used for nuclear fuel, but weapon grade uranium cannot be produced without thorough purification – a technology that Iran does not possess. This has been confirmed by nearly every IAEA inspection.
Washington cannot be ignorant of these facts. Moreover, recent media reports suggest that the U.S. and Israeli special services have long agreed that since 2003 there has been no reliable evidence that Iran’s nuclear program includes a military component.
According to The New York Times, quoting sources in U.S. and Israeli special services, Iran halted all military-related nuclear research projects in 2003 following a direct order from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. According to the sources, this work was never resumed, despite occasional media reports to the contrary.
It follows that the Iranian nuclear project is unfolding very slowly and cannot pass from the current civilian phase to the military one at the current level of technological development in Iran. That is, the Americans exaggerate the potential nuclear threat posed by the regime of fanatical ayatollahs, to put it mildly. Therefore, I’d like to stress that Washington’s determination to rub it in is simply a pretext to rally the international community to increase pressure on Tehran.
The West is interested in Iran as a source of energy and an alternative to Russian gas. It might be useful in the future as a huge market for Western companies’ products and a source of cheap labor. But Iran is too independent for that. So to turn it into a semi-colony, the West would have to unseat the clerical regime, which is still strong. The United States has been pursuing this for the past three decades, and stepped up these efforts since 2003.
It would only be fair to note that Iran often provides Washington with new reasons to step up international pressure. Its highly controversial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has proved incapable of putting together an effective economic policy. This nominal head of state (while the country is truly led by the nation’s spiritual leader, or Rahbar, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) was recently summoned to the Majlis to answer questions on a range of issues, including his economic and administrative policies. It seems that conservative-minded lawmakers have been growing increasingly displeased with Ahmadinejad for quite a while. He appears to be the one to blame for the 30% inflation and depreciation of the national currency, the rial, and the inefficient use of government funds approved for large infrastructure projects such as the Tehran metro and geopolitical initiatives such as rebuilding efforts in Lebanon devastated by Israeli bombers in 2006 (Iran provided unlimited financing to Hezbollah for this purpose).
Also, Ahmadinejad’s relationship with Iran’s clerical leaders has been tense since 2009. He disrespectfully criticized Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, a prominent backer of Ahmadinejad’s opponents in the disputed 2009 presidential election. Such disrespect toward one of the country’s most powerful clerics was met with outrage from other influential ayatollahs such as Kyani and Jannati. Rahbar Ali Khamenei joined the president’s critics after Ahmadinejad dared oppose him too. The president was eventually accused of disloyalty to the spiritual leader, which led to a defeat of pro-Ahmadinejad political parties in the 2012 parliamentary vote.
He does not have much to show for his presidency: Iran’s improved defense capability and the controversial nuclear project are about all he can use to defend his policies to the impoverished population and discontented ayatollahs. Still, publicly admitting that the nuclear program is far less effective than is officially maintained is out of the question. So Ahmadinejad and his team’s only option is to continue playing a complex diplomatic game to create an illusion of Iran’s growing nuclear might.
I would venture to guess that Iran will face some major administrative changes soon. Otherwise, the country may end up at a political and economic impasse. This is in fact what the United States wants, and it will continue pressuring Iran for any and every reason, especially the nuclear issue.
I also have to mention Syria, as the developments in that country are clearly linked to the Western campaign against Iran. The United States and its regional allies (mainly Qatar and Saudi Arabia), who are determined to unseat President Bashar al-Assad, are in fact trying to cut off Iran’s only more or less consistent ally in the Arab world.
Complete regional isolation of Iran is one of the goals of pro-Western regimes in the Middle East and an outcome of the so-called Arab Spring.
Will there be a war with Iran in 2012? Will the United States support an Israel strike against the backdrop of the U.S. presidential campaign?
I don’t believe there will be a full-fledged war in 2012, or in the following years, for that matter. The cost of a war against Iran – both political and economic – would be too high even for the United States. The current situation in Iraq shows that the United States has failed to really stabilize that country.
Libya cannot be ignored either. That country is clearly sliding into political chaos following the western countries’ aggression. It is going down the path of Somalia, and this is aggravated by the direct, violent pressure of Islamist organizations.
The United States will hardly be able to keep Iran under control – a country with a population twice as large as that of Iraq and far more diverse, both ethnically and religiously – there are Iranian Azeris, Kurds, Baluchis, Ahwazi Arabs, etc.
In these circumstances, a full-scale invasion like in Iraq or Libya is not an option. Israel is not likely to attempt it either. Its most recent experience of fighting Hezbollah (in 2006) has shown that its defense force, the Zahal, is totally unprepared for operating on this scale.
Moreover, the geopolitical consequences of a military operation against Iran are difficult to predict. Iran is a major hub in the Greater Middle East. Once shattered by an ill-advised military operation, that country will spread instability to adjacent states with similar ethic and religious problems, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, resulting in a regional conflagration and damaging the economic interests of Western multi-national companies.
This also suggests that the West would prefer to slowly undermine the clerical regime. The U.S. 5th Fleet is deployed near Iran, while its carrier-led groups are patrolling the Gulf. These efforts are aimed at bleeding Iran financially by forcing it to invest in costly defense projects rather than in economic development.
At the same time, the possibility of targeted strikes against Iran’s nuclear and key military facilities cannot be discounted. Such strikes would fit neatly into the policy of slowly undermining the regime, as they would further weaken Iran’s economic and technology capacity.
Israel could attempt such a strike, even if it would be less effective than a U.S. strike. However, I do not believe the United States would risk such an operation before the presidential election or support Israel’s actions, for that matter. Even in case of a small-scale strike, the consequences need to be weighed thoroughly – all the more so as not all people in Israel are confident that this move will be effective or advisable.
What is Russia’s policy toward Iran? Will it change in the event of a military operation against that country?
Russia has dual position on Iran. On the one hand, the last thing Russia needs is an unstable situation close to its southern border, which will certainly happen if NATO invades Iran. In addition, Russia has a long-standing relationship with Iran on nuclear projects and arms deals. At the same time, Russia is wary of nuclear technologies falling into the hands of international terrorists and used against Russia amid escalating political instability in Iran. Also Russia doesn’t want to strain its relations with the West by expanding cooperation with Iran. This, I think, is the reason for the multiple delays of the Bushehr power plant’s startup; Russia has been involved in the nuclear power plant project for nearly 20 years.
One should also bear in mind that Russia and Iran are potential rivals on the global gas market. Iran is a country that has no long-term allies. It is primarily focused on its own geopolitical interests. If Tehran could benefit from allying with Russia against the West, it would do so; if the situation changes, Iran’s international goals will change too. Russia should not count on a long-term partnership with Iran.
It follows that Russia’s policy towards Iran should be based on political pragmatism. As long as there is no proof that Iran’s nuclear program includes a military component, Russia will continue cooperating with that country, with Tehran paying in dollars for weapons and equipment for Bushehr. If any proof is found, Russia will join the international community and be done with it.
Along the way Moscow will continue lobbying against a full-scale military operation which could damage Russia’s interests. Iran’s destabilization could create a host of humanitarian problems in Russia, something it is probably not ready to address at the moment. Therefore, if this problem is taken up by the UN Security Council, the Russian leadership is most likely to take the position it held in 2003 before the U.S.-British operation in Iraq. And, like nine years ago, its warning will not be heeded. Judging by the last few years, the United States and its allies do not seem to need the leading international organization’s approval for their actions. And Russia is not in a position to harshly oppose them, especially on a matter like a military operation against Iran.
But to reiterate, I believe a U.S. operation against Iran is highly unlikely in the near future.
What position would Azerbaijan take in this conflict? Might it plan to annex northern Iran, an area populated by ethnic Azeris?
Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have been strained lately, largely due to the growth of Azerbaijani-Israeli military cooperation (recently the two countries signed a $1.6 billion deal for the supply of Israeli anti-aircraft and anti-missile equipment as well as drones and high precision weapons). However, despite all that, I am confident that Azerbaijan will remain neutral if war breaks out.
Azerbaijan’s army is unlikely to join any international anti-Iran coalition and will certainly not try to annex Southern Azerbaijan. The main focus of Azerbaijan’s army is the standoff with Armenia and the return of occupied territories (this is what they claim, at least). Therefore, Azerbaijan is unlikely to distract itself by trying to seize a large piece of Iran. It simply does not have enough resources for that, I believe.
One should not forget that, in case of a war in Iran, Azerbaijan will face the same, if not greater, humanitarian challenges and threats as Russia. Azerbaijan will have to accommodate new refugees from Iran while it is still busy with those from Armenia, to deal with Shiite extremism and with the threats of famine and diseases spreading from war zones.
Azerbaijan is unlikely to be an ardent supporter of a military operation against Iran, although the United States will certainly try its hardest to persuade Azerbaijan’s leadership.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.