Iran: dangerous or just misunderstood?

March 19, 2012

By Thomas Lowe

International disagreement on the aims of the Iranian government was well represented on the discussion’s panel. Does Iran seek regional hegemony? Are its motivations aggressive or defensive? And the pointed question at the heart of the debate – what will Israel do next?

Martin Fletcher, associate editor of The Times took the reigns.

Author and contributor to a number of leading newspapers, Christopher de Bellaigue says we need a little more empathy.

“We wilfully misunderstood Iran then and we are in the process of wilfully misunderstanding Iran now. We have to make that leap of imagination – put ourselves in the shoes of our opponents… If we say that they are bent on Israel’s destruction then frankly I’m not convinced. If we think that they want to shore up their authority – I find that much more convincing.”

Ran Gidor of the Israeli embassy in London accepts that if Iran developed a nuclear weapon it would be unlikely to drop it on Israel tomorrow. His immediate concerns are different.

“A nuclear Iran would be better placed to destabilise the entire region. It’s not about hegemony… It’s putting together the trajectory of Iranian behaviour since 1979 plus give the Ayatollah weapons of mass destruction… the formula is a catastrophic one.”

In this Gidor found a sympathetic, if nuanced, ear. Former Italian Ambassador to Iran, Roberto Toscano seeks the middle ground. How should Israeli fears that Iran would be able to exert its influence differently with a nuclear weapon be addressed?

“Iranian regional hegemony is not acceptable but Iranian exclusion is not possible. Can you have some politically enlightened diplomatic tool to exclude hegemony and to allow for inclusion? This is the name of the game.”

And Iranian economic exclusion, says Iranian-American writer Azadeh Moaveni is allowing the government to push the narrative that Iran is being humbled by the West.

“I think that the actual reality of sanctions is being felt so acutely in almost every Iranian’s daily life and… that resentment is now being squarely directed at the West… there’s a feeling that Iran is being persecuted in a way."

One member of the audience asked a simple question completely passed over in the first half of the discussion: Would a strike against Iran be legal anyway? Yes, says Gidor.

“According to the acceptable definitions of self-defence under international law that would include, sometime a pre-emptive strike if and when the threat were considered to be imminent… This is why familiarising ourselves with the technicalities is so important… to determine first of all how imminent is the threat and secondly what should be done about it.”

Finally, and unsurprisingly, the elephant-in-the-room question of Israel’s own weapons capacity would not budge.

 

 

Another blog post about this event written by Richard Nield can be found here.