Tag Archives: Iranian Foreign Policy

A U.S.-Iran War: Sure, Why Not?

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

17 January 2012

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

U.S. and Israeli officials are claiming that Iranian leaders’ increasingly bellicose rhetoric is an indication that the sanctions are working. Some argue that Tehran is now feeling the effects of the sanctions. Soon, it will compromise on the nuclear issue.

Never mind that all the talk about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and then using them against Israel and the West is almost identical to the justification for the Iraq War ten years ago.

And never mind that, just like Iraq, the sanctions against Iran were meant to prevent another war in the Middle East.

But who knows, maybe a war between the United States and Iran won’t be such a bad thing. Here’s why:

–          Crude oil prices will not skyrocket. The world economy will not collapse.

–          There won’t be any nonsense about “rallying around the flag” in Iran. Iranians won’t support their unpopular government just because their country’s being bombed.

–          In fact, it is very likely that the reformists in Iran will gain new ground because the government won’t be able to respond to domestic and international pressure at the same time.

–          The war might even help to start another revolution in Iran.

–          With regime change and their country looking more peaceful than ever (just like Iraq!), Iranians will be grateful to the United States and the international community so much so that they will award lucrative oil and natural gas contracts to American and European companies.

–          There won’t be new insurgent groups springing up in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world because Muslims won’t be angry over another Western war against a Muslim nation.

And if you agree with any of the above, you should read about the world a little more.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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The Paradox of Iranian and Western Paranoia

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

15 December 2011

Turkey Shooting?

Things are going badly for the Middle East these days.

Last month, a high-ranking general in Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) warned that, if the United States and and/or Israel attack Iran, they would retaliate against NATO’s missile defense radar in Turkey. General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who is in charge of the IRGC’s ballistic missiles, said the following: “If any [attack] is staged against Iran, we will target NATO’s missile shield in Turkey and will then attack other targets.”

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, calmly urged Turkey to refrain from deploying the missile shield. But Member of Parliament (MP) Hossein Ebrahimi, who is Mr. Boroujerdi’s deputy in the commission, followed General Hajizadeh’s line by arguing that Iran has a “natural right” to hit targets in Turkey.

Although Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi tried to downplay the hostile remarks yesterday, it is doubtful whether Iran can put the genie back in the bottle.

Putting Oneself in Iran’s Shoes

In order to make sense of Iran’s foreign policy behavior, we need to understand the psychological trauma of three invasions in the twentieth century – the most recent and bloodiest at the hands of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The Iran-Iraq War, which started in 1980 and ended 8 years and nearly 800,000 dead Iranians later, is a constant reminder to Iranians that they cannot take their security for granted. When Saddam attacked in 1980, the United Nations did not condemn the aggression. When Saddam used chemical weapons against the Iranian military throughout the war, the world simply watched.

Today, as far as the Iranians are concerned, there is nothing to protect them from a similar fate. That is the primary reason why Tehran may develop nuclear weapons at some point. That is also the reason why Iranians do not want Turkey to station a missile defense that could neutralize their still-conventional missiles.

But whatever gains that Iranian leaders are trying to achieve, threatening Turkey only worsens their already fragile position. Just as international threats and sanctions have only intensified Iranian resolve to continue with the nuclear program, threats against Turkey will have a similar effect. While Turkish people and their leaders have repudiated claims that NATO’s missile shield would help to protect Israel, Iranian threats might force them to reconsider their position and keep the missile defense.

Iran, Israel, Turkey, United States: The Four-Way Mexican Standoff

If threatening Turkey is so foolish, then why are Iranian leaders doing it? Much of it has to do with Syria, Iran’s erstwhile ally. While Ankara supports the uprisings against Bashar al-Assad, Tehran is throwing its weight behind the Syrian President. Geopolitics is the pure and simple reason: Without Syria, Iran would have significant logistical difficulties in supporting Hezbollah and HAMAS, its most effective deterrents against Israel. But with the NATO shield in Turkey keeping watch over its missiles, a weakened Hezbollah and HAMAS would diminish Iran’s leverage against Israel. And such a development may make an American and/or Israeli attack against Iran more feasible.

The scene resembles a Western movie with Israel, the United States, and Iran pointing guns at each other’s heads. Turkey, for its part, looks like the semi-puzzled cowboy that would rather walk away from this mess. With millions of lives in danger, that is really the only smart option.

But how can the standoff be defused? The first thing to do is to understand the respective parties’ insecurities. With nearly 150 thousand U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and NATO bases in Turkey, it would be hard to convince Iran that it is not surrounded by hostile countries. Nevertheless, and despite the negative effects of recent allegations that Iranian agents tried to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, the Obama administration needs to signal to the Iranian government that it has no interest in escalating the current situation (assuming, of course, that cooler heads still prevail in Washington).

Iran should also understand the other side’s concerns and refrain from brinksmanship. Although the recent IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program is not the damning document that spells doom-and-gloom (as some media outlets purport it to be), the parts on the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program is worrisome. For the sake of peace, Iran has to come clean with its nuclear program sooner rather than later.

Most important, Iranian leaders should stop jeopardizing their country by forcing Turkey to the Western side. Attacking Turkey would only give the United States and/or Israel the pretext that they need to strike at Iran. While a unilateral Israeli attack would not have the desired effect, a sustained U.S.-led NATO action would be extremely hurtful to Iran. And although Iranian threats to shut down oil shipments from the Persian Gulf would also be extremely destructive for the world economy, Iran would emerge from such a scenario in the worst possible way.

To paraphrase an old saying about paranoia, just because Iran, the United States, Israel, and Turkey are paranoid does not mean they should start shooting at each other. In fact, it would be best if they could all slowly holster their guns and step away from each other before they cause irreparable damage to the world.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: The Third Way in Iranian Politics?

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

March 15, 2011

He is seen as “unstable,” “ultra-conservative,” and “fanatical” by many Westerners. Five years ago, the Sunday Times Magazine had called him the “Apostle of the Apocalypse.” And he has done much to contribute to that image with his offensive remarks about Israel and the Holocaust.

His domestic woes are numerous as well: He faces a bloodied but nevertheless powerful reformist camp that demands economic, social, and political liberalization. The hardliners, on the other hand, struggle to keep things exactly as they are in the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, according to a leading expert, the prospects of Iranian economy look “bleak.”

In this context, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to be recasting himself as the “third way” in Iranian politics; a pragmatist. In fact, since his disputed re-election in June 2009, Mr. Ahmadinejad has done much to underscore his pragmatic side.

For example, rumor has it that he tried to reach an accommodation with the opposition amid the post-election protests in June 2009. And, according to some Wikileaks documents, he may have paid a personally high price for it.

Recently, Mr. Ahmadinejad took the unpopular – but quite necessary – decision to lift government subsidies on gasoline, electricity, and foodstuffs to divert the funds to infrastructural projects.

Also a testament to his pragmatism, Mr. Ahmadinejad still negotiates with the international community over his country’s controversial nuclear program.

Of course, the President of Iran also shows his socially conservative side from time to time. For example, four months ago, he called for Iranians girls to marry at the age of 16.

But the evidence for Mr. Ahmadinejad’s pragmatism is becoming too great to ignore – especially if we look at his closest political partner, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. In July 2009, Mr. Ahmadinejad appointed Mr. Mashaei, a former political advisor and his son’s father-in-law, to the post of first vice president. This was a very important move because Mr. Mashaei, also a pragmatist, is pretty much hated by the hardliners – the folks deemed close to Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Many reasons exist for Mr. Mashaei’s hard time with the hardliners: In 2007, he attended a ceremony in Turkey, where women performed a traditional dance (public female dancing and singing is still forbidden in Iran). Then, in a shocking episode in 2009, Mr. Mashaei pointed out that Iran’s problems were with the Israeli government and not the people of Israel, whom he considered “Iran’s friend.” In the Iranian context, that comment has extremely pro-Israel overtones but Mr. Ahmadinejad never chastised his subordinate.

Thus, no surprise that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei struck down Mr. Mashaei’s appointment as first vice president in July 2009. But a defiant Ahmadinejad stuck to his guns and asked his first vice president to stay on board as chief of staff.

That was hardly the end of it: In August 2010, Mr. Mashaei made extremely nationalistic remarks to a group of Iranian expatriates: Iranian culture, according to Mr. Mashaei, had saved Islam from “Arab parochialism” after the Islamic conquest of Persia in the late 7th century. Mr. Mashaei’s words were so out of line with the hardliners that even Ayatollah Mohammed-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s “spiritual mentor,” condemned them. Another hardline cleric berated Mr. Mashaei for his “pagan nationalism.”

Now, the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei duo is preparing to host Iranian New Year (Now Ruz) ceremonies in Persepolis, which disturbs the hardliners for its subtle emphasis on the country’s pre-Islamic past. Rumors in Iran have it that dozens of heads of state and government will attend the festivities, a party that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s reformist predecessor Mohammed Khatami could have only dreamed of hosting.

Ahmadinejad and Mashaei: Can the Dynamic Duo Prevail Over Both the Hardliners and the Reformists?

To be sure, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is hardly the radical reformer that Iran badly needs or the bold bridge-builder that the West desperately wants. If anything, his boldness on Israel and the nuclear standoff has worked against Iran as well as the West. More important, profound tensions exist between the Iranian people’s desires and their country’s political and economic realities. Down the road, those tensions may become too insurmountable for a pragmatist to resolve.

Nevertheless, it would not be too foolish to expect a few more surprises – pleasant as well as unpleasant – from Iran’s controversial president before the end of his term in 2013.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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Iran Nuclear Talks in Istanbul: Greatest Beneficiary is Turkish Tourism

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

January 25, 2011

The city of Istanbul needs no detailed introduction: It served as capital to the Roman, Eastern Roman, and Ottoman empires for nearly 2,000 yearsand it is the only city to span two continents. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to the P5+1 group and the Iranian government for their choice of Istanbul as host for the nuclear talks and the publicity that the city received. It will be good for tourism.

But the latest round of talks achieved little other than helping Istanbul’s publicity and an agreement to meet again soon. The talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) went nowhere this time for the same reason that they went nowhere before: The two sides keep insisting on the same things. Thanks (!) to UN Security Council resolutions (especially Res. 1929 of last summer), the international community keeps pushing Iran to suspend uranium enrichment to have the sanctions lifted. The Iranians tell the world that they would never discuss their right to enrich uranium and add that, for the negotiations to move forward, the sanctions have to be lifted first. It reminds me of the following sketch by the Turkish cartoonist Erdil Yaşaroğlu:

Elephant: "Don't bite!" --- Alligator: "Don't blow!"

Although reports indicate that the Iranian government is no longer interested in a fuel swap, exchanging Iran’s enriched uranium for ready-to-use fuel rods is still a good idea. This can be done in several ways: The Iranians and the IAEA can exchange “the goods” at a neutral location (say, Dubai) at regular intervals. Similarly, a constant chain to maintain an outflow of raw uranium and inflow of nuclear fuel can be established. Under this plan, Iran’s enriched uranium would get stored in a third location (most likely Turkey) while France and/or Russia would provide Iran with the fuel rods. In turn, Iran would turn over the spent fuel to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in order to avoid re-usage (spent uranium can be reprocessed to produce plutonium, also a bomb material).

Once the two sides gain some trust for each other, the United Nations Security Council can lift some of the sanctions against Iran. In return, Tehran can agree to open all of its nuclear facilities to IAEA inspections. If the IAEA confirms that the Iranian nuclear program is “clean” (i.e., no bombs), the rest of the sanctions can be lifted.

And since the international community is so concerned about Iran’s nuclear program and the future of nuclear proliferation, it would be wise to lead by example. To that end, the United States and Russia, which have just re-established a nuclear arms reduction regime with “New START,” should push other nuclear-weapon states to reduce their nuclear stockpiles as well. It’s time to expand nuclear arms reduction to Britain, France, and China while putting pressure on Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea to abandon their nukes.

Do I sound too unrealistic? Maybe that’s because I’m more transfixed by Istanbul’s beauty than I’m frustrated by the slow pace of multilateral diplomacy.

Come visit Istanbul.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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Dear Tehran, Washington, and P5+1: I Know You’re Reading My Blog, So Please Pay Attention

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

January 9, 2011

It’s flattering to see that the parties to the Iran nuclear talks are reading my blog.

In one of my recent posts, I had argued that the most important problem between Iran and the international community was the mutual lack of trust. I had suggested that, in order to overcome the troubled state of relations between Iran and the outside world – especially the United States – the two sides had to understand the historical and psychological underpinnings of their suspicions. As such, in order to build trust between the two, I had advised the Iranians to open all their nuclear installations and had urged the P5+1 group to lift the sanctions and streamline Iran’s application to become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) once its nuclear program was in the clear.

Last week, reports came in that Tehran has invited diplomats from the P5+1 group (except the United States), as well as Turkey, to visit certain sites in Iran and see for themselves whether they are building The Bomb. Unfortunately, the EU countries of the P5+1 group – France, Britain, and Germany – rejected Iran’s offer because it did not include all nuclear facilities and because only diplomats were invited. Both points were quite valid.

Now, as much as I appreciate the two sides reading what I say, they ought to do more.

As per my original proposal, Iran should state its willingness to open all of its nuclear installations – power plants, research reactors, and enrichment centers – if the P5+1 group pledges to lift all sanctions on Iran once IAEA experts (that is, nuclear physicists, chemical experts, engineers, and not diplomats) can confirm that the Iranians are not producing nuclear weapons. The revelation of undeclared nuclear facilities – a uranium enrichment plant in Natanz in 2003 and another one at a military base near Qom in 2009 – has cast significant doubts in diplomatic circles over Iran’s true intentions. Visits to such sites can be meaningful only if carried out by scientists, who know what to look for, rather than diplomats, who don’t.

Another fact that we need to recognize is how a majority of Iran’s current problems spring from its troubled relations with the United States. Most of Washington’s Middle East headaches have a lot to do with its problematic relations with Tehran as well. For 32 years, the two sides have tried to undermine each other through groups such as HAMAS, Hezbollah, the Shia militia in Iraq, PJAK, and the MKO. In the end, the United States and Iran have gained very little by saber-rattling through these proxies.

Thus, in parallel with the Iran-P5+1 negotiations, Americans and Iranians need to start meeting directly and regularly in order to resolve their differences and re-establish diplomatic ties – perhaps preceded by confidence-building measures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. At any rate, America and Iran can only address problems borne out of the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s support for HAMAS and Hezbollah, Iran’s vicious rhetoric against Israel, and a host of other problems if they’re in the same room and if they have functioning embassies in their capitals. The Bush administration had snubbed such an Iranian overture in 2003. It would be foolish for the administrations in the U.S. and Iran to repeat that mistake.

And if the two governments are uncertain about how they can go about doing that, they can just ask me. I’d be glad to help.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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