Iran Interview: the Shia-Sunni Conflict, Israel, Nuclear Weapons, and Investment

Iranians wave Islamic flags while chanting against the al-Qaida inspired Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, during a rally in central Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, June 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Iranians wave Islamic flags while chanting against the al-Qaida inspired Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, during a rally in central Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, June 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 2, No. 7, July 2014.      

In this July 20 interview with the Journal of Political Risk, Dr. Yeganehshakib discusses how the present conflict in Iraq will affect Iran’s role in the Middle East and its relations with the United States.

Reza Yeganehshakib  holds a Ph.D. in history with a specialization in World and Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). He received a B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering from Iran Azad University, and an M.A. in history from UCI, where he serves as a Research Associate at the Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies. Dr. Yeganehshakib is a member of the Middle East Studies Association and the International Society for Iranian Studies. He is affiliated with the Persian Language Institute at California State University, Fullerton and was previously affiliated with the National Iranian Oil Company.

Question: How is Iran intervening in the conflict in Iraq? 

RY: Iran has had a very good relationship with most of the post-Saddam governments in Iraq, with the exception of that of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. The majority of the members of the anti-Saddam opposition lived in Iran for a long time, including the Shi’ites and the Kurdish opposition, as well as several Sunni groups. Now that Saddam is gone they are in power, and most of them still keep a good relationship with Iran. Many of them have Iranian wives or their children married Iranians while they were in Iran during the Saddam dictatorship. The Shi’ite ones also share the same religion as the majority of the Iranians, and many of them went to Iranian religious schools. So, overall they have very strong ties. After the overthrow of Saddam, Iran, the opposition groups, and the U.S. worked closely with one another to secure post-Saddam Iraq. Therefore, it makes complete sense that the Iraqi government would now go to Iran for help. On the other hand, these close ties between the majority Shi-‘ite Iraqi government that is in some sense totalitarian (majority Shi’ite and not giving Sunnis key roles) do not make Sunnis happy. So, the Sunni minority has good reason to be angry with the current government of Nouri al-Maliki and his supporters, Iranians and the U.S. This is one of the most important aspects of the conflict.

Question: Do you think that Iran will send troops to Iraq? 

RY: No, I don’t think that Iran will send troops. Iran and the U.S. are now both enemies of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Levant), or ISIS. Many of the Iranian leaders also see this current conflict in Syria and Iraq as a part of a bigger plan to expand the Shi’ite-Sunni sectarian war to destabilize the region, make people skeptical of religion (in the long run), and drag Iran directly into the conflict. Iran doesn’t want to be involved directly in this conflict. The U.S. is also reluctant to get involved directly, because of how its original actions in Iraq are seen today domestically. Several top Iranian decision-makers also the present conflict as a conspiracy by the U.S. and Israel to expand the sectarian conflict into the Iranian borders. Iranians also think that this is the joint Israeli and U.S. plan to destroy the Iran-to-Hezbollah bridge (crossing over Iraq, Syria, and eventually Hezbollah in Lebanon). This is what Iranians also call the “Axis of Resistance.” So, to them, breaking the so-called axis of resistance (resisting Israel hegemony over the Middle east, “Mehvar-e Moqavemat” in Persian) is the main reason for destabilization of Syria and Iraq by using ISIS or other Sunni terrorist groups such as Jibhat al-Nusra (the Victory Front). Therefore, I think that Iranians will send military experts and weapons for Iraqi government but will not directly interfere. I think that Iran will send several domestically manufactured drones to Iraq and then provide Iraqi government with intelligence and then the Iraqi military will send airplanes and helicopters to demolish the ISIS brigades via air strikes. Iran has several drones that they made and can carry bombs and missiles such as Mohajer class, Karrar bomber, Fotros, Ababil, etc. But Iran will send those only for gathering intelligence and not making the attacks. The Iraqi air force will carry out the attacks.

Question: What do you think about Israel’s repeated threats to Iran with regard to the Iranian nuclear program? 

RY: I think that the Israeli government will keep the idea of an Iranian threat alive. Iranians have pursued anti-Israeli policies by helping anti-Israeli groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad and others in the past. But now Iranians and Israelis have one common enemy: the Jihadists including Takfiris and international terrorists from all around the globe who are rapidly expanding toward Iranian borders as well as Israeli and Jordanian borders. Iran may be Israel’s enemy but at the same time, it is also an enemy of ISIS and Jihadists. And, from the Israeli perspective, Iran is a reliable and stable enemy while Jihadists are unstable and unpredictable. If they get close to Jordan there is no reason to think that they will not attack Jordan or Israel. The Iranian government has helped the Kurdistan government in various ways and is willing to increase its help in the future, especially in the areas of intelligence and military capacities. The help also continued after the ISIS crisis because Kurdistan is between ISIS and Iran. Therefore, while Israeli parties whose votes and whose U.S. support depends on the idea of the “Iranian Threat” may keep the idea of the Iranian threat alive but may also start to negotiate or cooperate with them in the near future as the U.S. has done in the past in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other hand, the U.S. was successful in signing massive military contracts with the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region by highlighting and dramatizing the idea of the “Iranian Threat.” Without the fear of the expansion of the Islamic Republic and Shi’ism, Saudi Arabia would have never signed the $60 billion contract with the U.S. to purchase weapons, nor would the other Arab countries have spent several billions of dollars on American weapons. This fear also makes Arab Sunni countries and Israel think of a common enemy, Iran. This idea of a common enemy (Iran) was promoted and supported among the U.S., Israeli, and Sunni Arab countries; however, the recent transformations in the Middle East, especially after the so-called “The Arab Spring,” proved the fragility and unreliability of such an idea. The social, political, and economic conditions in almost all of the Arab countries hit by the Arab Spring are worse. The radical Muslim militia and terrorist organizations are more powerful. Half of Syria and Iraq is in turmoil. All this shows that Iran is not the common denominator for U.S., Israel, and Sunni Arab countries for unification and alliance. There is also a relationship between domestic politics and the prevalence of the idea of a foreign threat in the media of the U.S., Iran, Israel, and Arab countries; the more the government talks about the foreign threat, the less they talk about inflation, unemployment, and the terrible housing sector in all of these countries, particularly in the Iranian and Israeli media. Moreover, several right-wing parties in both Iran and Israel use the idea of a foreign threat – an Iranian threat for Israelis and the conspiracy of the “Zionist regime” for the Iranians – to remain in power. This idea has been promoted so much that for some of these parties it has transformed from an election-winning slogan to their raison-d’etre, without which they could disappear from their countries. So while propagating the popular perception of an existential threat is necessary for the political survival of these groups, an actual war or a direct military confrontation may also dramatically damage their survival as well.

Question: What is your conclusion about the meeting between the U.S. and Iran on this topic?

RY: As I mentioned before, Iran and the U.S. used to have greater bilateral cooperation. Not only did they work together in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and al-Qa’eda in 2001 and in Iraq after 2003, but they also did even before then. Iran-US negotiations on releasing American hostages in Lebanon and the Iran-contra affairs during the Saddam war with Iran were other parts of the history of the post-1979-Iran and U.S. cooperation. During the Iran contra affair, the U.S. had the Israeli army send weapons to Iran during the Iran-Iraq conflict, particularly anti-tank and anti-helicopter missiles. So, there is no reason not to think Iran and the U.S. (even Israel) cannot work together to resolve the ISIS issue. Even those Iranian officials that think the whole ISIS affair is created by the U.S. will agree on helping the Americans to resolve the instability issue in Iraq. The Iranian officials who may agree on cooperating with the U.S. in Iraq do this not only because they want to save the Iraqi government but also because they want to use the Iraq-ISIS issue as a powerful card in their nuclear negotiations with P 5+1 groups. If the Iranians and the Americans can work in Iraq now, there is a significant chance that the Iranian nuclear issue will be resolved and therefore that the international sanctions and for the U.S. sanctions against Iran will be lifted.

Question: What does the current conflict mean for investors in Iran?

RY: Because some investors perceive this conflict as a contagious disease that may be transmitted to Iran and others think that Iran is already indirectly involved in the conflict, many feel hesitant to invest in Iran. With this in mind, waiting in the short term to see how Iran handles the situation may provide a good initial investment strategy. If Iran can prevent ISIS infiltration into Iran and keep Iran safe, it may prove to investors that Iran is safe and stable. Similarly, if Iran does not directly get involved in the conflict in Iraq, this may also be seen as a positive development that encourages them to invest their capital in Iran. Moreover, if Iran can use its influence on Iraq and cooperate with the U.S. and at the same time use this cooperation in his negotiation with P 5+1, it may be able to resolve the nuclear issue and lift the sanctions sooner. This also may increase the flow of investments into the Iranian market and also allow Iran to be incorporated into the global market.

Question: Is a general Shiite-Sunni war breaking out in the Middle East? 

RY: The Shiite-Sunni war has been a continuous dynamic in the region for the last 15 centuries, although of course violence has escalated recently. Look at Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran and everywhere that Shi’ite and Sunnis live next to each other. It is very probable that a general war will break out unless the major supporters of each side realize that the conflict threatens their very existence. In other words, Saudi Arabia and Iran may only come to an agreement to control the conflict once they foresee the conflict being dragged within their borders, threatening their oil exports, and/or interfering with their oil production process and investments. The conflict could be controlled at a level that the parties keep fighting at limited areas with limited capabilities so that the threat from one side remain alive to the other side, both sides keep the idea of martyrdom alive, and justify their rules by emphasizing the other side’s “misleading” beliefs.

Question: What is the state of the Iran negotiations, and will the war in Iraq/Syria affect these negotiations?

RY: It seems that the negotiations are moving forward, however fragilely. U.S. officials recently announced that a group of 15 U.S. officials are going to take part in the sixth round of negotiations in Vienna. This group is unique because it has several significant American foreign policy-makers such as William Burns (Deputy Secretary of States), Wendy Sherman (undersecretary of state for political affairs), Jake Sullivan (national security advisor for Vice president Joe Biden), Robert Malley (a director at National Security Council), Adam Szubin (Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Department of Treasury), Richard Nephew (Principal Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the Department of State), Mustafa Popal (Afghani-original Foreign Service Officer at the Department of State). Secretary Kerry also made some positive statements about achieving an agreement with Iran in his interview with Washington Post recently. It seems that both sides (Iran and P 5+1) do want to achieve an agreement, especially since the U.S. and the European powers are aware of the influence of Iran in the region and the possible help from Iran that may prevent Iraq from falling into the hands of the ISIS. It appears that the West is also concerned about the danger that this conflict may pose for U.S. allies in the region. Some of the most secular countries in the region, like Azerbaijan, which is also a close ally of both the U.S. and Israel, is experiencing an increase in tension along the Sunni-Shi’ite religious divide. Although the war may not be transmitted to Azerbaijan, the idea of Shi’ite-Sunni contrast has been developed dramatically since the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011. Imagine what may have happen if civil war spread to countries like Turkey, Albania, and Azerbaijan which are allies of the U.S. and in which the West has already started massive investments to use as transit paths for energy resources. The Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), for example, is one of the most famous and ambitious of these projects and consists of thousands of miles of gas pipeline carrying Azerbaijan gas to Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Albania, and Italy. The security of the region, as well as the security of global energy supplies – particularly this pipeline that has been built as a rival to Russia-Ukraine-Europe pipeline – is important to the U.S. and allies. Although this pipeline may not supply a significant amount of gas to Europe to compete with the Russian supply, this project is a strong and positive signal from the U.S. and the West to the transit countries that they are U.S. allies and the U.S. will protect them. Iran also can help the U.S. to fight with ISIS and other jihadists in Syria and Iraq or at least help to confine them in these regions. Of course for all these, Iran seeks U.S. cooperation as well to resolve the nuclear issue.

Question: Russia and China are likely making overtures to Iran to pull it away from the West. Is this true, and if so, are these overtures likely to succeed?

RY: The Iranian government before the 1979 revolution had a very good relationship with the West, but only limited cooperation with the USSR. After the revolution, the Islamic government of Iran approached the East only after being estranged from the West. The climax of this alienation happened three decades after the revolution as a result of the sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran approached China and Russia, because it had no other feasible way of cooperating with the European powers and the US. Moreover, during the last 35 years after the revolution, Iran has had massive economic relationship with China while Iran-Russia economic cooperation and trade is limited to only few billion dollars per year. The Bushehr nuclear power plant became operational just two weeks ago after more than 10 years delay from the time Russians promised. The Russians also have a history of not selling the Iranians their weapons of choice, most famously the S300 missile defense system. In addition, during Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) Russian refused to give the Iranians the SCUD middles they wanted. As a result, the Iranian revolutionary guard had to purchase nine of them from Ghaddafi and receive training from North Korea, rather than from Russia. Now the only plausible Iran-Russia deal is Russia’s contract to provide Iran with nuclear fuel until 2021, though there are currently two sets of negotiations going on between the two countries. The first is related to a $20 billion contract to exchange 500,000 barrels per day Iranian oil with Russian goods, while the second is about an $8 to $10 billion deal that would have Iran import 500 megawatts of electricity from Russia while the Russian build a new thermoelectric and hydroelectric power plant, along with its transmission and distribution network, for Iran. Considering the fact that Iran is now exporting electricity to several neighboring countries, these deals may be some attempts from the Iranians and Russians to show to the West and the allies that Iran and Russia are capable of cooperating with each other regardless of the threats from the West. These negotiations, even if an actual deal would never happen, send a signal to the West that especially after the Crimean and Ukrainian conflicts, Russia and Iran are not isolated, are strong, and can manage without the West. Iran also has plans to build new nuclear power plants like the planned 360 MW plant in Khuzestan. On the other hand, based on the agreements achieved with P 5+1 Iran has to restrict its enrichment, particularly by decreasing the volume and percentage of Uranium enrichment. Iran will most probably turn Fordow from an industrial facility to an experimental facility. At present  the Fordow facility produces UF6 up to 5% enriched U-235. It is also very probable that Iran will stop using IR4 and IR5 centrifuges that enriches Uranium 5 times faster than the first generation of centrifuges (IR1), which also consume lots of electrical energy to run. The reality is that Iran will need enriched uranium and will need to get rid of the nuclear waste. Moreover, based on the recent agreements in Geneva, Iran cannot have the enriched uranium facilities capable of producing nuclear fuel in a short period of time, at least until 2021 that Russia will provide the fuel. The Russia government knows this entire story. If Iran remains far from the West, this provides Russia and China with opportunities to get closer to Iran, especially selling their low quality products to Iran by getting advantage of Iran’s being alienated by the West. So, Iranian politicians and decision makers, particularly those from Iran’s new government, do not trust the Russians.  Putin knows this well. Iran’s relationship with China is no better. Iran’s economy is filled with low quality Chinese goods, including weapons such as radars used by the Iran Air Force (IRAF) and anti-ship cruise missiles. As a result, the Iranians have started to build their own, in the same way they did with the Russian missiles they once purchased from Ghaddafi. The Chinese also failed to complete the contracts they signed to develop South Pars Gas Fields in the south of Iran. The Iranian National Oil Company already evicted them from Asaluyeh and South Pars Gas Fields. However, the Russians and Chinese would like to see Iran’s nuclear case remain unresolved so that Iran can continue to be politically distant from the West and closer to them out of desperateness for goods and trade. It is much less probable that the Iranians, even alienated by the West, will get close to Russia and China, because of their poor treatment of Iran in the past.

JPR Status: Interview, archived 7/20/2014.

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