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Iran: On Carrots, Sticks and Knives By Oren Kessler

Three months ago, I took a leap into the unknown. After eight years as a journalist and analyst in Tel Aviv, I moved to London to establish a Centre for the New Middle East at the Henry Jackson Society. At the time I wouldn’t have been able to tell Wembley from Wimbledon, Norwood from Norbury or Gospel Oak from Honor or Burnt or Royal. Then two weeks ago, I found myself in Westminster (that’s about halfway between Gospel Oak and Royal Oak, if you’re counting), trying to coax a dozen sceptical members of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to get serious about Iran.

I knew it would be a tough crowd. In the previous session, Jack Straw, the ex-foreign secretary and head of the Iran-Britain Parliamentary Friendship Group, dismissed the notion that the Islamic Republic is a threat to world peace. He lamented that the US foreign policy establishment – egged on by AIPAC and Bush-era neocons – had a “pervasive vulgarity” that required a “demon.” That demon was once the Russians, he said, and now it’s the poor Persians. “It is not about foreign policy analysis,” he said, “they have a psycho-political need.”

Having just visited Tehran, Straw assured the esteemed panel that the Iranian capital feels much like Madrid – you know, aside from the religious police and bodies hanging from cranes – and that if the mullahs twist the wording of nuclear agreements it’s because “they have a long tradition of poetry … ambiguity is part of their popular culture.”

A week before, Sir Robert Cooper, an LSE lecturer and former top UK and EU diplomat, assured the esteemed panel that Iranians are “people of enormous charm.” Committee chair Sir Richard Ottaway responded with the obvious conclusion: the problem may well lie in Washington rather than Tehran.

I don’t doubt Iranians are charming (I wouldn’t know – as a dual American-Israeli citizen, my travel options in Iran are rather circumscribed). I do, however, doubt that it’s insufficient appreciation of that charm that has poisoned the well of Iran’s relations with the world. Quite the contrary: the West is so charmed by Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani – his ready smile, passable English and Glasgow PhD – that it overlooks the inconvenient truth that Iran’s execution rate, already the world’s highest, has shot up since his election last year. Or that “election” means something a bit different in the Islamic Republic, where the mullahs barred 99% of candidates from running for president. Or that homosexuality is a capital crime in Iran, or that women’s testimony in court is, by law, worth half that of a man.

But I digress. What the committee really wanted to know was whether Israel would attack. “Isn’t it right,” MP John Baron asked me, “that ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan had said an Israeli strike would be ‘stupid’?”

“He did,” I replied, before completing the rest of Dagan’s remark: the Jewish state should not attack, he had said, until and unless the proverbial knife is up against its neck. “If, metaphorically speaking, the knife were against Israel’s neck,” I said, “I think Israel would strike, and I think it would have a legitimate reason to.”

Is the knife now up to Israel’s neck? Perhaps; perhaps not. But when going up against Iran, it’s vital to remember that this very dangerous game is played not only with carrots and sticks, but with knives as well.

EDITORS NOTE: Oren Kessler is a research fellow with the Henry Jackson Society.