Wide speculations about the possibility of military confrontation with Iran and Israel’s military intentions seem to be the order of the day. The debate on Iran has now found its way from mainstream media to leading academic institutions. Earlier this week at the University of Toronto a panel of experts discussed the increasing tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the West over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program and analyzed the tensions from a number of angles. The panel, entitled “The War on Iran: Necessity or Illusion?”, was organized by CORE and AGORA, two student organizations at the University of Toronto, and featured three distinguished experts on the topic: Ramin Jahanbegloo, Payam Akhavan, and John Duncan.
Ramin Jahanbegloo, an international figure known for his work on non-violent resistance and change and professor of comparative politics at the University of Toronto, emphasized on the importance of the issue for both Iranians in Canada and the larger Canadian population as a matter of national interest with a potential to impact the Canadian economy. Jahanbegloo argued that if Israel decides to launch a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, it can do so without consultation with key Western powers as Tel Aviv views Iran’s nuclear program as a vital national matter with potential to impact Israel’s very existence.
John Duncan, Director of Ethics, Society & Law Program at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, approached the issue with a brief history of the British involvement in Iran’s oil industry and the struggle for nationalization of Iran’s oil industry by former Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq and how the U.S. and Great Britain worked together to reverse Iran’s nationalist threats against Western colonial oil interests in a coup code named Operation Ajax. The reward for the U.S., Duncan argued, was access to Iran’s oil fields for the next three decades to come.
Payam Akhavan, internationally acclaimed human rights lawyer and associate professor of international law at McGill University in Montreal, presented his case about the ongoing tensions by arguing that even the very talk of war is detrimental to sustaining peace and stability in the region, which gives the Islamic Republic the chance to “indefinitely repress” the aspirations of Iranian people for some form of democratic transformation.
Jahanbegloo’s other key argument was the difficulty of discerning the consequences of war once it breaks out. He attributed this difficulty to the large number of international players on world stage. “We not only have key international players such as Canada, the U.S., and Europe, but also other important ones such as China, Russia, India, proxy players working in the interests of Tehran like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan, where the West has significant military presence”.
Duncan started by focusing on Iran’s geopolitical weight by drawing a geopolitical and geostrategic picture of Iran and its significance in global energy markets and international affairs. He argued that Iran faces serious strategic threats in its neighborhood from regional actors, including nuclear-armed actors, that are mainly U.S. allies; and that Tehran is subject to strict military embargo for modernized weaponry. He also drew attention to what many view as Western hypocritical nuclear policies. For Duncan, Iran does not see itself deserving “punching below its weight class, but sees itself fit to punch in the top weight class in the region”.
Duncan chiefly argued that while Tehran does not have a military capability to project power in its region, Israel will find it very difficult to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities in a desirable way because Tel Aviv lacks the required logistics unless it is aided by the United States. He went on to say that in light of Iran’s turbulent relationship with the West defined primarily in the context of subjugation to Western powers and breaking free from that subjugation in a major social revolt (Iranian revolution of 1979), Iran has the capacity to “punch in the region’s top weight class but not militarily, rather according to its own independent nationalist lights”.
Akhavan focused on displaying what long-standing geopolitical calculations and rivalries meant on the street level. For Akhavan, the removal of Saddam Hussain–whose regime kept an undeclared and reluctant alliance between Israel and Iran–was a pivotal moment in the Middle East that gave birth to the current strategic rivalry and quest for regional dominance between Tel Aviv and Tehran. So, according to Akhavan’s argument, when we take a closer look at the behavior of the Iranian regime we see a kleptocracy rather than a messianic and irrational regime hell bent on destroying the West and its allies in the regime: “It is the dimension of how power is maintained in what is now a militaristic mercantile state that buys the allegiance of the top ranks of the IRGC to maintain the status quo”. Referring to the 1980s as a precedent in which widespread execution of political prisoners, including assassination campaigns of Iranian dissidents in European capitals took place, Akhavan demonstrated how an external conflict during this period (Iran-Iraq war) played easily into the regime’s hands to suppress any slightest sign of dissent at home.
Akhavan emphasized that should military conflict take place involving Iran, we should be prepared for the specter of a far worse situation in which Iran and the entire region could disintegrate into a state of chaos forcing us to wish for the return of present day.
Another important part of the panel was characterization of the regime and its geopolitical calculations by each panel member.
Jahanbegloo dismissed notions of lunacy with regard to Iran’s leadership and called regime survival and regional dominance as its key long-term objectives. He also emphasized that a war with Iran would devastate democratic aspirations of Iranians for a free and democratic Iran.
For Duncan, Iran’s independence from great powers is a thorn in the eyes of Sunni monarchies, especially when one takes into consideration the fact that Middle East’s crucial energy reserves are in Shiite populated areas, mainly in southern Iraq, eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, and Iran, which is a Shiite theocracy. Therefore, according to Duncan, for the Saudi leadership, the United States is the enforcer of choice for maintaining the status quo in the region.
Akhavan, for his part, emphasized on how existence of an external enemy is the lifeline for what he called a bankrupt regime, which, in the face of great internal pressure, uses the debate and the very thought and talk of military conflict as an insurance policy for its survival.