Iran: The Implications for Security in the Middle East
Dr. Werner Fasslabend
Member of the National Assembly of Austria
Why does an Austrian speak on Iran? For one thing, Austria and Iran were both neighbours of the same state—the Ottoman Empire—for centuries. Iran was one of our neighbor’s neighbors, and a neighbor’s neighbor can be your best ally. In addition, Austria and Iran used to have a good relationship, and there are still some worthwhile contacts. Finally, Iran’s strategic situation is just fascinating. So I am going to make a few statements about Iran’s strategic situation and position according to the way I see it.
In a geopolitical sense, Iran connects the Caspian Sea region and the Indian Ocean (specifically the Gulf region). It separates the Turkish-speaking people in Minor Asia and those in the Caucasian region from the Turkish-speaking people in Central Asia. It also links the Arabian and the Indian worlds as well as the Middle East and Central Asia. Today Iran is probably the only center of gravitation, beyond Turkey, between the Mediterranean and the Chinese and Indian border. It probably is also the only country from the Mediterranean to the Chinese and Indian border that is outside U.S. influence.
Iran is a key player regarding energy: In a long term aspect it ranks number 2 in gas and number 3 in oil because it has between 9 and 10 percent of the global oil reserves and between 18 and 20 percent of the global natural gas reserves. But Iran also controls at least a little of other countries’ energy supplies. Iran neighbors on the Caucasian region and can interrupt or even block the Strait of Ormuz, which means it can interrupt or block transport of oil from the Gulf region.
Iran is also a key player within the Muslim world. It is the center of the Shiite community, which includes about 10 percent of the entire Islamic population, and therefore has great influence on the Shiite majority in Iraq and also on big groups in Afghanistan. Militarily speaking, Iran probably is the only counterpart in the Middle East to Israel.
Iran is also one of five or six countries that is very close to having a nuclear bomb, which is a major issue between the Western world and Iran.
POSSIBLE STRATEGIES FOR DEALING WITH IRAN
The question about Iran is, which kind of strategy should the Western world use to meet Iran? I think there are two possibilities: A strategy that encompasses primarily the nuclear issue and a strategy that encompasses the importance of the country, for example, regarding energy and other fields.
As far as the first strategy goes, international analyses differ little on how long it will take Iran to produce a nuclear bomb. The Israelis tend to think in terms of two or three years, but most experts agree with the American point of view that it will take between five and seven or eight years to develop one. I agree with this American point of view. So at least it seems that there is no urgency for an immediate military strike. Of course, there have already been military preparations, but expert opinions vary on whether or not it will be possible to destroy the nuclear plants that are below ground and well bunkered. I am not an expert, and there are few experts who can say. But this is of great importance when considering a military strike.
The consequences of such a strike would be very severe. A strike would certainly unite the Iranian nation behind their government, and probably unite most of the people of the Muslim world. This would provoke military action against Israel and America, on both the conventional and the sub-conventional levels. Israel is of course within reach of Iranian missiles but it would also be exposed to strong reaction from radical Islamic organizations such as Hammas, Hezbollah, and the Jihadists, with which Iran is linked. A strike would also cause the start of significant asymmetric warfare against the United States. I really was amazed when I learned the very high standards that Iranian armaments have. They are not far behind the West and have excellent engineers.
A military strike would also most likely end the presence of American or Western troops in Iraq. A long-term political consequence would be that the Iranian people would be driven into Chinese arms, which would negatively affect cooperation in the future.
What is the alternative? I think it is necessary not only to concentrate on the nuclear issue but to see Iran as a big question, one of the hottest spots in the world and one of the most interesting strategic questions for the future. So I think we need not only an agreement on the nuclear issue but we also need a great strategy for a long-term program.
REACHING AN AGREEMENT
How can we reach such an agreement? I’ll start with a few remarks on conditions as I see them.
I have the firm impression that Iran will not renounce pursuing uranium enrichment. They don’t want to be dependent: They have been isolated from the Western world for two and a half decades, they led an in the end successful war against Saddam Hussein, and they are self-conscious. So even if they don’t have the will to produce a nuclear bomb, they will not accept any rules from the outside that tell them they can’t get near it. This is my very strong impression.
So what else can we do to reach an agreement? Iran has some needs. They have big problems in transport capacity. For example, their Boeing fleet is very old and problematic and they need investment capital for oil and gas production because they must renew their industry. Therefore you could say that in negotiating with Iran we should offer bigger carrots—it is what I think should be done to reach an agreement. Iran now has about 68 million people but 70 percent of them are younger than 30; the UN estimates that in 10 years Iran will have 87 million people and in 20 years 120 million people. So what they need is jobs and jobs and jobs, and they know they can’t manage this problem by themselves. So I think the most attractive promise for them over the long term would be to provide job opportunities for them. Of course there is the question of whether or not you can make investments in their system because it may change.
CURRENT CHANGES IN IRAN
I want to be careful about making a prognosis about Central Europe, but I really do know the situation there. However, I do not speak the Iranian language and I have not lived there for a long time, so I can only offer my impressions. At the moment there is no strong opposition in Iran, almost nobody. After the failure of their reformist camp under President Katami, there is a sort of political apathy. People are removed from politics, they tend much more to be interested in the consumer world. But there are several areas that could be very interesting for the future.
One is that, in Iran, there is a theocracy, a religious system, but the people are becoming more and more removed from it. The clerics, at least in the big cities, are losing authority in a way I would not have believed possible. Sometimes people kid about the clerics in public, something I never would have imagined only two or three years ago. This may be a hint about what could happen in the future.
Another interesting point revolves around three groups: Students, women, and minorities. Students in Iran are eager for change. They want freedom and jobs, which could certainly be a basis for change, especially a change toward more liberal attitudes.
Women have always had a very strong position within the society and now they are very well educated and self-conscious. If you understand that half the students at the university are female, then you can see that the situation in Iran is absolutely different from Arabian countries. However, when you look at the picture in the streets in Teheran, you can only see black clothes, with a few beige ones or grey ones. I cannot imagine that women in Iran will renounce beauty and color for ever. They will not renounce color. So given the fact that they are half of the students—and this is probably the most revolutionary element— this could be quite interesting in the future.
Minorities, especially the Kurds and the Arabs, are also an interesting group to watch regarding the future. The ethnic position of the Kurds in the northwest and the Arabs in the southwest has changed a great deal due to the new development since the end of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. The new situation in Iraq has brought much more freedom for the Kurds, in fact, they are now almost autonomous. An also the Kurds of Iran are proud of the position Kurds have reached in Iraq—especially the fact that their leader Jalal Talabani became President of the State. I believe this is a very sensible group and probably the Arabs in the southwest are the same, though I don’t dare really make a prognosis and I will not predict a schedule for possible change.
IRANIAN THOUGHTS ON CURRENT GLOBAL SITUATIONS
Iran backs the democratic development in Iraq. The Iranians are happy about it, and say they are very content with American policies in both Iraq and Afghanistan because they help them quite a lot. The Iranians also have very strong links to the Shiite majority, and so far they are very happy about it. They think that the terrorist events involving the Sunnis in Iraq will last about another two years and that after that they could be controlled.
On the other hand, they are skeptical about whether the Americans really want a solution to the Palestinian question. They are waiting to see what will happen in the near future, but they do not plan to oppose the peace process. Still, there is a great deal of emotion involved.
One interesting point of economic information is that the Iranians want to become China’s number one oil and gas supplier. Up to now that has been Japan, but, very honestly, their intention is to win the Chinese people over; they have already started some cooperative projects involving railroads, building construction, and so on. They also have made some arrangements with India. For example, they deliver annually 10 million tons of natural gas to China and 7.5 million tons to India. Because they are isolated from the West they are concentrating on getting links to China, India, and East and South Asia.
To sum up, military intervention in my judgment would probably bring chaos and unpredictable consequences not only for the Middle East but for global security and the long-term energy supply. Therefore I think we need to produce a long-term strategy that will get the different systems working together in some way. I think it will be necessary for the West to try to create much more of a “win win” situation for both themselves and the Iranians. If we try to control Iran and limit them and tell them what they should do, I think we will not be very successful. But if we try to find a “win win” solution economically, try to find them jobs, and develop their oil and gas sector, I think we could be successful.
One thing I am sure about. Neither the Americans alone nor the Europeans alone can handle this problem. It is much too big. We definitely need a combined strategy and a combined effort—anything else will not be successful. If we look to the past, there are many links between the Western world and Iran. In the future we should try to link them together again, and it is worthwhile to start to do that now.