Iran has a history of acting pragmatic when it has its back against the wall, but this should not be confused with moderation, experts told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
Prof. David Menashri, a leading Iranian expert and the founding director of The Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Sunday that the Islamic Republic is in constant tension between its ideology and its interests.
“Almost in each and every case of conflict between ideology and interest, interest won over ideology,” said Menashri, who is currently a visiting fellow at Princeton University.
The question is what price it had to pay to uphold its ideology, he said, adding, “If the price was too high, they would change their policy.”
He mentions the decision by former supreme leader ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to accept a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), even, he said it would have been sweeter to drink poison than accept a cease-fire with former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But there was no choice.
In this case, the Iranian regime came to an agreement with the US, the “great Satan,” which ideologically it is committed to opposing.
“At this stage, Iran has not given up on its ideology, but it compromises whenever necessary – heroic flexibility is what current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls it,” explained Menashri. “Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani are not moderates.”
Menashri goes on to argue that a key turning point occurred when the Obama administration did not uphold its redline relating to the use of chemical weapons by Syria in October 2013.
Tehran closely observed how President Barack Obama did not punish the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and drew the conclusion that the US would act in a similar way with it. Hence, the Iranian regime decided it could gain more through negotiations than through confrontation.
In addition, the regime picked up on the fact that Obama did not support the mass protests in Iran in 2009.
Iran is driven by ideology, he adds, and follows it “as far as you let them, but when there is a clash between ideology and interests, and they have to pay a heavy price, they will reconsider their policy.”
Despite the accord, Iran is not going to stop its anti-Israel or radical policies – it was only about the nuclear file, he said, adding that it did not include compromises in other areas such as its anti-US or anti-Israel slogans.
The biggest achievement for the Islamic Republic in this deal was gaining international legitimacy to the regime and its nuclear program, he said.
Rouhani had promised two things, to return the value of the Iranian passport and that of the currency. And it appears that Iran has achieved these goals as the country has gained a new found dignity as well as an interest by many countries for economic ties, said Menashri.
Regarding Israel, the Iran expert said Israel made itself the leading force against the agreement and so far “this policy failed – Iran is the big winner and Israel the big loser.” Iran has become more accepted and Israel has become more isolated and less relevant on its Iran policy, he added.
Menashri does not rule out the possibility of greater internal change in Iran, possibly pressured by civil society and led by the younger generation that pushes for pragmatism on other issues. But this may take more time, he said.
Shahram Chubin, an Iranian-born scholar who is a nonresident senior associate at the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace organization, echoed Menashri’s comments on the pragmatism of the regime, adding that the Expediency Council is “empowered to trample on anything, including theology.”
The council is a powerful body whose members are appointed by the supreme leader, which it advises.
“In describing enemies as foes of Islam they preclude compromise as being a compromise with evil, which is clearly not possible,” said the former director of studies at the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
“Having said that, good versus evil precludes compromise. But regime survival dictates any measure.”
The Israeli-Palestinian issue is seen as a Muslim concern requiring Iran’s involvement, however, there are many Muslim issues including those in Chechnya, Myanmar and elsewhere that it chooses not to get involved in, he said.
By getting involved in the Palestinian issue, the regime intends to demonstrate its leadership role.
However, Chubin asserts that Iran would be flexible not only on the nuclear file, but also when it comes to the Palestinian issue and coexisting with Sunnis.
If the alternative becomes too costly, Iran adjusts its policies.
Regarding the nuclear deal, Chubin attributes it to a number of factors such as the 2009 demonstrations, the drop in oil prices, the Arab uprisings, sanctions and general domestic dissatisfaction.
“Khamenei has walked away from his own, earlier decisions more than once and with the deepening sectarian rift Iran may hope to divert attention again to Israel, but that issue has become a secondary one for most Middle Easterners since 2011.”
“Without it what is left of Iran’s Resistance Front/Islamic revolutionary model?” he asks