Steven Spiegel: How do you see rapidly moving developments on the Iranian foreign policy front in terms of Iran’s relations with the rest of the world?
David Menashri: Since the election in Iran in June, and probably before, we have been witnessing a desire for change in Iran.
And actually the result was the election of [Hassan] Rouhani. I could have, you know, chosen greater reformists in Iran than Rouhani. But he was the consensus of people who wished to bring about a change in Iran.
I think there was a real desire among the young generation of Iranians to go to a new face. There was disappointment with the realities of life in Iran after almost 35 years of the Islamic revolution.
I lived in Iran the last two years before the collapse of the shah’s rule. And I can tell you that I don’t believe that this was about the Islamic revolution. It was about guaranteeing better life of the people, the young generation, for the children of Iran, on three issues: better welfare, greater freedom and dignity for the people of Iran. And it’s an example that one of the slogans of Rouhani in the election was, “I’m going to give back to the people of Iran the value of your currency of Iran and the value of your passport.” I think it’s very interesting that he speaks about the value of the passport.
Iran has been isolated in the world. There was tremendous pressure, and the sanctions were really making life bitter for the people of Iran.
And since the election of Rouhani, we could see that they signaled that they want change. … For the president of Iran even to speak over the phone with President [Barack] Obama was a great step forward.
Now I don’t think that Iran is willing to give up everything and go entirely in a new direction. But I think the signal is we are serious about their desire to go in a new direction. They have permission from the Supreme Leader to go to this direction. But they don’t have much time.
SS: Who made out better?
DM: I think that the Iranians gained more because they made some concessions on the nuclear program that is, by and large, reversible. The concession that the West has done toward Iran with the sanctions, with unfreezing assets, it [will] be much more difficult to reverse.
So I think that the Iranians have good reasons to be happy. And when they see the Israeli statements, they are even more happy because the public diplomacy of Israel convinces them that they’ve made a good deal.
SS: Some have even suggested that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu went a bit overboard as a favor to President Obama for that very point that you’ve just made.
DM: Imagine that Israel was making statements about how wonderful is the agreement. I can assure you that the reaction in Iran would have been different.
SS: How can the United States assuage Israeli concerns?
DM: It is important to make sure that the level of sanctions that have been removed or perhaps unfrozen would not be touched. That will really give the Iranians the opportunity to continue their policy.
And one more point that was missing in Geneva: I didn’t hear much about human rights in Iran. It’s not something you have to do for Israel. You have to do it for the Iranian people.
Why has the issue of human rights not been raised during this negotiation? The negotiators should have shown their moral values confronting Iran and spoken also about the need for Iran to modify its policy toward its own people.
SS: What are the red flags in this deal?
DM: What worries me is not the six months into the agreement, it’s the collapse of the West’s willingness to confront Iran if they don’t follow what they promised.
And we have had that experience with Iran — that they promised and they did not deliver. Rouhani was also behind the supposed freezing of the Iranian nuclear program in 2003 and 2005. He was the head of the Iranian negotiations with the three European countries at that time, which came to be the P5+1. And when he was asked in the middle of the election, he was challenged, “Would you stop the nuclear program?” You know what he answered? “Would I stop the nuclear program? I completed it.” And he went step by step to show what has been done in Iran during [the freeze].
Our aim is to make sure that Iran delivers on what they promised. It’s not going to be easy. You are in business with very sophisticated negotiators. And they know how to bargain. Iran is a country with a long history of running an independent state.
So I think my main concern would be not to start criticizing the past, but rather to say, “What can we do to make sure that Europe and the United States are standing side by side, unified in their resolve to not allow this Iranian ideology to possess nuclear weapons?”
I don’t think it’s easy. I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow. But I think that this can happen.
SS: Could we have gotten a better deal in getting more concessions from Iran, particularly in view of how much the Iranians were suffering under sanctions?
DM: It’s a legitimate question. Iran is weak and suffering — why don’t we want to take another step and humiliate them? Because I think that, ultimately, you need to live with Iran in the region, and because I do believe that the Iranian people are entitled to choose their own government. I don’t think that military attack necessarily could have resulted in a better situation, either.
Whenever Iran was faced with a challenge of deciding between interest and survival of the regime and the ideology of the revolution, they opted for their interest rather than the ideology. This is a rational government. They are not crazy. They are not suicidal.
But what I think is important today is to make sure that there is no step beyond what has been agreed in Geneva toward nuclearization. That, I think, is the main issue. It’s not easy to accomplish it.
SS: Perhaps this agreement, then, as dangerous as it could be, is far more ripe with possibilities than continuing the past process of tightening sanctions while Iran develops more nuclear capability? At least this gives diplomacy a chance, and it’s only for six months.
DM: Well, yes, the main test is what will be the result after six months. And we don’t know what could have happened with no deal. But the main challenge today is to make sure that the chance given to diplomacy is not being used by the other side to go in directions that we don’t want them to go.
Listen to the full conversation:
Professor David Menashri, founding director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, is a leading scholar on Iranian history, the politics of modern Iran, Shi’a Islam, the Persian Gulf and history of education in the Muslim world. In the late 1970s, on the eve of the Islamic revolution, Menashri spent two years conducting research and field studies in Iranian universities. Menashri held the Parviz and Pouran Nazarian Chair for Modern Iranian History at Tel Aviv University and has been a visiting Fulbright scholar at Princeton and Cornell universities and a visiting scholar at the University of Chicago, Oxford University and Yale University. This conversation, which the Jewish Journal edited and condensed, was arranged through the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) on Nov. 27, 2013, and conducted by IPF adviser professor Steven Spiegel. A full transcript is available at Israelpolicyforum.org.