Iran in Arab Eyes

Gary Sick is Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and served on the National Security Council under President Ford and Carter. He runs the website Gulf2000.

As you know, Ahmadinejad recently dismissed Manouchehr Mottaki even though he had been an influential member of his entourage. Why this drastic move now? Some say it was because of Mottaki’s comments to Secretary Clinton; others insist it is because A. N. is slowly but surely putting more of his own people in power. What is your take?

It is not always easy to read Ahmadinejad’s mind. He does strange things at times. But this didn’t really come as a surprise to me. He has been serious in bringing Iran’s foreign policy under the control of the office of the Presidency. He has replaced foreign ministry cadres with his own people. Even though the Supreme Leader has told him that he can’t do that or appoint official representatives, A.N. turned around and made those people his advisors on the regions of the world. He has been in competition for power with the Supreme Leader. As I understand it, this is a message to Khamenei. A.N. is involved in a competition with Khamenei himself over how much influence he should have. In fact both Mottaki and Salehi were on the short list when A. N. became President in 2005. A.N. favored Salehi at that time but the Supreme Leader gave the job to Mottaki. I see this as competition for internal power. I would say that A. N. is trying to establish the presidency as a far more influential institution than it has ever been.

The U.S. navy, in its formal statements and correspondence, has been addressing the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf. We know this is a point of contention and it infuriates Iranians from all walks of life. Why has the U.S. military/navy chosen to do this at his time? Isn’t it wrong and against geographical history to change the name of a place or a major waterway that has been called the Persian Gulf since the ancient Greeks?

I can’t explain why the U.S. Navy at this particular moment has done so but the U.S. military has official relations and bases throughout the Gulf region. It has support facilities and military agreements with every single state on the Arab side of the gulf. And all of those countries without exception refer to the gulf as the Arabian Gulf and have done so as far back as the days of Nasser, who did it to poke at the eyes of Iran. This proved to be effective. Nothing infuriates Iranians more than to refer to the Persian Gulf differently; this is a universal sentiment, from the monarchists to revolutionaries to Revolutionary Guards. They all agree that the body of water should be called the Persian Gulf. I call it the Persian Gulf as well. But the US navy is operating in a military environment, with the support of the Arab states who refer to the gulf as Khalij Arabi, so I assume the Navy is just acknowledging on which side their bread is buttered. The countries they work with use the terminology. The U.S. Geographic Board of Names, the organization that officially prescribes names of the geographical places all over the world, has not taken this action; for many years they have called it the Persian Gulf and they still do.

What do you think of the cable in WikiLeaks about King Abdullah’s statement on Iran?

Of course this is nothing new. We have long known that most Arab governments are scared of a nuclear Iran. At the same time, the Iranian government doesn’t really care about such opinions. Do you think such leaks create more friction between Iran and its neighbors? In his commentary, the Lebanese journalist Rami Khouri called the Arab leaders pitiful when it comes to Iran and I quote: “The most shocking revelation—not a revelation, really, as many of us had warned about this for decades—is that Arab governments that have spent hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars on buying American and other foreign arms still find themselves totally helpless, vulnerable, and fearful in the face of what they see as growing Iranian power and influence in the region. The assorted Arab leaders who are quoted as asking the United States to hurry up and do something about Iran’s growing nuclear technology capabilities reveal an apparent inability to care for their own countries and citizens.”

I meet Arab leaders and journalists at various conferences and I assume it is not just the leaders of Arab states who are concerned about Iran; but it is the general consensus about this. To me there is a real irony in all of this. Why is it that Iran has so much influence and power? My answer to that is: the United States. After 9/11 we went into Afghanistan and scattered the Taliban, who were Iran’s enemies, and then turned around and invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein, who was Iran’s worst enemy to the west, and suddenly Iran was left with no natural enemies except for the U.S. Needless to say, having gotten rid of all their enemies, Iran’s influence and power grew dramatically. They didn’t have to do a thing; we did it for them. I think that we should be honest and start with the acknowledgment that we did this. And then even if we didn’t intend to do it we did it, and then we should ask ourselves how do you do something about a situation we created. A lot of the concern in the Arab world about Iran is not just about the nuclear issue. I think the main thing they are really concerned about is Iran’s Shi’a background and its influence in their respective counties. And this is doubled because Iraq now has a Shi’a government in place, so that for the first time in centuries Iran’s influence has a Shi’a voice. It is also ironic that the Shi’a government in Baghdad was put in place by the United States.

A number of Arab states privately say that they really wonder if this is not a plot by the U.S. to make Iran the number one country in the region. To most Americans that sounds like insanity. The U.S. after all spends a lot of time fighting Iran by putting pressure on the country, but the Arabs look at the growing influence by Iran and the spread of Shi’ism, by way of Hezbollah and through the relationship with Syria. National Security Advisor Brzezinski called it the arc of crisis, from the Mediterranean all the way to Iran. I think most Arab leaders are very much concerned about Shi’a influence and dominance. Basically these are Sunni dominated countries and they consider the Shi’a population second class citizens and have treated them as such; they have always been very nervous about their large Shi’a populations. Shi’is are a majority in Iraq and in Lebanon; they have considerable influence in Syria; they also have outposts; they are probably a majority in Bahrain, and in Saudi Arabia Shi’is sit on top of the oil fields, so these regimes have reason to be concerned. If these Shi’a groups were to assert themselves more forcefully, it would be a net loss for the Sunni Arab dominance in the Middle East. I think the concern is about that aspect in addition to the nuclear issue.

You said in your blog, “I do not believe that WikiLeaks is practicing journalism. I regularly read the latest revelations from the National Security Archive, which releases U.S. government memos and cables, some of them quite contemporary, acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Although that information is informative and enormously useful to me in my work, I do not regard it as journalism.” Why do you think this is not journalism? And do you think WikiLeaks has endangered U.S. national security?

Most of what has been revealed is pretty bland. If you had actually written that in a newspaper or if an American diplomat had gotten up and made a public statement with this information, people would scarcely have noticed. But most of what has come out is pretty much what we already know. I am a great admirer of the National Security Archives which declassifies American documents; a huge number of diplomatic cables have been declassified by them. They sometimes publish them in book format. On the whole I don’t think this is journalism, to take information written by other people. I don’t think they regard themselves as journalists. WikiLeaks is doing a similar thing in a different way. They assemble this mass of material and publish it. That does not mean that they can or will be prosecuted. What annoys me most about WikiLeaks and Assange is that they have claimed this noble purpose that they are going to actually interfere with government trying to create conspiracies that might take us into another war. I am all in favor of breaking up government conspiracies. I have been reading the material on a regular basis and I have not seen a single revelation thus far that gives any indication that there was a government conspiracy. There might be things that are embarrassing to the government but a conspiracy to take us to war, I just don’t see it. I will use their material (WikiLeaks); I have no compunction about that; I will look at it to see if there is anything there to find useful just as I do with NSA material. But I think they have been put on a kind of pedestal that they don’t deserve. There is a lot of gossip there and it might be exciting for some people but it does not tell us anything the political structure of a country or its ability to do whatever it is trying to do. I am underwhelmed by WikiLeaks. I am really not impressed. Their claim to save the world is not credible.

What about the current state of human rights in Iran? There is more depressing news, arrests of anyone and everyone. What should the U.S. administration or the European Union and others do or say in this regard that has not been done so far? How can the government of Iran be held accountable for the ongoing abuse?

I have been associated for a great deal of my life with Human Rights Watch and other HR organizations. These are organizations that are dedicated to trying to improve the situation of human rights throughout the world. I strongly support their objectives. You tell the world that this government or this group of people is doing such and such a thing. Of course they prefer this not to be known. But you can investigate and get your facts straight and then you release it to the rest of the world to shame those governments. What is called name and shame. The U.S. government is certainly capable of doing that and I am a strong supporter of identifying how Iran is mistreating its citizens. At the same time, I personally think that it is a recipe for disaster for the U.S. government to interfere too much. Intervening in the internal affairs of Iran in the past has always been disastrous. I am in favor of keeping a spotlight on Iran and Iran cares about this. It is embarrassed when the world looks at cases of human rights abuses. A good example is the stoning of the woman who was first charged with adultery. There was world-wide protest, the world made her into a celebrity, and it was stopped. But at the same time, we cannot solve all of Iran’s problems. We can’t even solve our own problems.

As we are getting close to the end of 2010 and with the beginning of the New Year, do you believe Iran and the US will reach an agreement on the nuclear issue? And what is the role of Israel in all of this?

I am modestly pleased that the US is sitting down with Iran to talk. I think it is difficult to be optimistic especially with Iran’s changing policy. At the same time I hear Dennis Ross and his colleagues vaguely mention negotiations but actually focus more on pressure and sanctions. So I find it troubling to see that the U.S. government is putting more emphasis on sanctions rather than finding a resolution. I have been in favor of negotiations for many years but in my view we have never done this very seriously. I would like to see more creative effort by the U.S. but I also look at it from a realistic point of view. Iran is in the midst of an internal struggle and a far-reaching shift within its own government—from what used to be a clerically dominated society with a constitution to dominance by the Revolutionary Guard and a militarized society. That is where Iran is headed. It is a very sad state of affairs. I can’t say whether the new rulers of Iran or the potential leaders or the people around them, a very narrow-minded clique of people who believe in the divinity of this government, will be in a position to make decisions on negotiating with the U.S. I would like to see the U.S. more open to negotiations. Some progress has been made but I would like to see Iran taking steps in that direction as well. It is a two sided game. Israel is playing a role by getting attention focused on Iran. That is the role they play. Sometimes it is constructive and other times it isn’t. But it appears Israel is not involved in those negotiations. I think we have to find a way. I have some degree of optimism while there are certainly days when one becomes cynical.

In this country, there has been tremendous pressure on President Obama. The House finally passed the Tax Bill. Do you think in 2011, Republicans and Democrats will be even further distant on issues?

It’s hard to imagine anything else. What we have seen for years has been a kind of warfare. Signing off on the tax bill and the extension of benefits was a huge breakthrough. One may not like the conditions but it was an enormous accomplishment. My guess is that if the tax bill stimulates the economy, something that all economists predict over the next two years, it will enhance Obama’s hands. He has also shown that he can work with the Republicans. So we have to wait and see. When the Republicans were out of power in the Congress and in the Senate, they adopted a policy of doing nothing but oppose everything. Now they have the House and the Senate is very close. They are going to be held responsible and saying No to everything is no longer a strategy.

First published on

Meet Iranian Singles

Iranian Singles

Recipient Of The Serena Shim Award

Serena Shim Award
Meet your Persian Love Today!
Meet your Persian Love Today!