Gareth Porter discusses Obama's possible Iran options with The Real News Network. Veteran IPS investigative reporter Gareth Porter recently spent 1
December 23, 2008

Gareth Porter discusses Obama's possible Iran options with The Real News Network.

Veteran IPS investigative reporter Gareth Porter recently spent 12 days in Iran, interviewing Iranian leadership figures. He discussed with them their expectations of the Obama administration, the geopolitical situation in the region and their own hopes for Iran. Gareth has written a series of articles for IPS exploring his findings, but I also got a chance to ask him some questions in amongst his busy schedule. Perhaps the most important impressions he came away from Iran with are that most people there truly believe that their nation's nuclear program is a peaceful one and that "the Iranian leadership is prepared to enter into full-scale serious negotiations on the full range of issues with the United States, provided that it gets signals from the Obama administration that it intends to break with key elements of the Bush administration’s policy."

Here is that interview, in full.

Cernig: We often hear that the Iranian people love America even if their rulers do not. Does your experience agree with this?

Gareth Porter: Certainly people in Tehran are very friendly to Americans on a personal level. I think the viewpoint about “America” is much more variegated, however, depending on political views about both domestic politics in Iran and U.S. policy.

C: We also hear that Iran's rulers use opposition to America and the West as a patriotic lever to stay in power. Is this true, and how does the Bush administration's policy affect Iranian feelings about their leaders?

GP: There is no doubt that President Ahmadinejad has exploited nationalism and popular perceptions of U.S. and Western aggressiveness toward Iran – especially over the nuclear issue – as part of his appeal to his base of practicing Muslims in smaller cities and in the rural areas. That appeal does not work very well in Tehran and other larger cities, however. As for the Islamic regime more generally, I do not have the impression that it depends on hostility toward the West to remain in power. Certainly there have been times (e.g., the early to mid-1990s) when the regime was consciously seeking to improve relations with the West over a considerable period of time, and that strategy was evidently adopted in the belief that the economic benefits of a reduction in tensions would benefit the regime rather than harm it.


In the West we hear a lot about denial of free expression in Iran: expression of religion, sexuality and even fashion choices. Is it as bad as we are told? How do the Iranian people feel about any government strictures they live under?

GP: In Tehran and other large cities, a large majority appear to feel strongly about the importance of freedom from interference in choices having to do with dress and personal opinion – even while observing the traditional Islamic practice of hijab (modesty), which requires woman to have at least headscarves to cover their hair. I was told that the Ahmadinejad government carries out periodic “fashion police” actions in limited areas and for limited time periods, to show its core constituency of strict Islamic activists that it is still keeping faith with them, while seeking to minimize it in large cities in order to avoid provoking too much anger.

C: The Iranian economy appears to be in a mess. How does that affect everyday life and how do Iranians feel about it?

GP: Especially with oil prices plummeting, the Iranian economy is headed into a deeper difficulties, which will significantly increase unemployment and accelerate inflation. Up to now, the impact of Iran’s economic problems on daily life have been buffered by subsidies, particularly for gasoline, which sells for the equivalent of ten cents per gallon. Those subsidies are now under severe pressure, and there are discussions about terminating them for the first time. We can look for more popular discontent in the coming year over the economic situation.

C: Should America and the West be pursuing regime change in Iran? If so, how in your opinion would it be best to do so?

Regime change in the strict sense of the term – i.e., destroying the Islamic Republic of Iran, is simply not an option, because there is no broad political movement representing an alternative at present. One cannot spend twelve days in Tehran without the conviction that this is not a society on the edge of revolt.

Some political figures have begun using the term “regime change” to refer to changing Presidents. I don’t think there is anything Washington can do affirmatively to help one candidate against another. On the other hand, any military threat or other overt pressure or actively anti-Iran policy on the part of the United States is bound to help the ultra-nationalists. As the reformist former Vice-President Mohammad Ali Abtahi observed in his interview with me, the last major effort by the Bush administration to rally Sunni Arab regimes against Iran was played up in conservative newspapers and helped supporters of Ahmadinejad rally their base in the March 2008 parliamentary elections.

C: Do common Iranians think Iran's nuclear program is aimed at eventual weapons development, or is it peaceful? What are their reasons for thinking as they do ?

GP: I have only press accounts to rely on in this regard, but it appears most people believe it is for peaceful purposes. This is primarily because of the strong current of nationalism that has been exploited by the government, particularly since this became a high-profile international issue since 2002. Obviously Iranian government propaganda campaigns have contributed to public opinion on the issue.

C: What do Iranians think about American allegations that Iran is supplying weapons to militants in Iraq, which are then used to kill American troops and Iraqis? Does the Iranian leadership offer any evidence or argument to the contrary or do they simply deny the allegations?

GP: I don't know what the average Iranian thinks about this issue. The Director of the Iranian foreign ministry's think tank denied that Iran was "favoring special groups regardless of the central government" and did so without my asking the question and in the context of the extraordinary historical importance of having a friendly central state administration in Iraq based on a common Shi'a orientation with Iran. The overriding Iranian concern with the stability of the present Shi'a regime in Iraq is, I believe, the most convincing argument that Iran has not sought to use Shi'a militias to subvert the government.

On the other hand, I believe there have been military ties with the Sadrists in the form of training and financial support -- as a deterrent to U.S. attack against Iran -- and that this has had both positive and negative implications from the point of the view of the al-Maliki regime. I believe Iran has been able to argue with the al-Maliki regime that there has been a net benefit to its ability to consolidate its power from the Iranian ties to the Sadrists.

C: What, from your experience, are the Iranian leadership's true foreign policy objectives and ambitions? How does the average Iranian view those ambitions?

GP: One has to make informed guesses about the hierarchy of Iranian objectives. I believe Iran’s primary objective is to maintain a regional political-military situation which minimizes threats to Iran’s territorial integrity and to the Islamic regime. But a close second is undoubtedly to have its status as a regional power recognized through new regional institutional arrangements as well as through a formal agreement with the United States. Its third highest objective, I would guess, is to eliminate the constraints on its economic development from U.S. and other Western financial sanctions, but competing with that would be maintaining strong popular support in Islamic countries – and particularly in Sunni Arab countries by being the leader in support of Islamic causes against Israel and U.S. military power in the region.

I don’t know how the average Iranian views Iranian foreign policy, but certainly there is no unanimity about that.

C: In your opinion, if the Obama administration is genuine and honest about wishing full, open negotiations with Iran will the current Iranian leadership negotiate genuinely and openly too?

GP: I am convinced that the Iranian leadership is prepared to enter into full-scale serious negotiations on the full range of issues with the United States, provided that it gets signals from the Obama administration that it intends to break with key elements of the Bush administration’s policy. I noted in the first of my series of articles that there appears to have been a serious debate over the likelihood of Obama’s sending such signals, with the pessimistic view clearly now on the offensive and the optimistic view very much on the defensive. That suggests that Iran will be taking a wait and see attitude and will make no move of its own suggesting an eagerness to negotiate absent evidence from Washington that the pessimists have gotten it wrong. But I would emphasize the debate in Tehran is not over whether Iran needs to negotiate with the United States but over when those negotiations should take place – i.e., under what political circumstances.

Crossposted from Newshoggers

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