Playing for Time? Strategic Flexibility in a 'Post-ideological' Iran

As Iran approaches what many see as the threshold of critical capability, friends and foes remain divided on its ultimate goal. Have the revolutionaries finally grown up?

With the Obama administration trying to persuade the U.S. Congress to hold its fire and not pass a package of tough new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, the friends and foes of adopting a wait-and-see approach with Tehran are girding themselves for battle over a key dilemma: Does Iran’s new president really herald a new day in the ways that matter most?

Far from it, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been arguing on an almost a daily basis: Its march toward a nuclear weapon continues unabated. But when leading Iran experts on Thursday grappled with what really is new in Tehran and what’s just cosmetic, not all of them agreed with Netanyahu’s insistence that nothing substantial has changed with the inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rohani almost three months ago.

“A lot has changed in Iran, and it is meaningful strategic change, at least in terms of the Iranian elite, though he who thinks that it will change the centrifuges, needs to wait a long time,” said David Menashri, one of Israel’s leading experts on Iran, speak at a conference called “Iran at a Crossroads” at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “There is a process of change, and even the more radical forces are going through change. It’s not just the revolutionaries that are growing up, it’s also the revolution. Iran is not a crazy country, it’s a thinking country.”

A key part of Rohani’s platform is to get to some kind of understanding with the West, and to end the punishing economic sanctions, he noted.

“The mandate of Rohani is to get a compromise on the nuclear issue and to end the sanctions,” Menashri said. “Our response was, ‘Nothing has changed, nothing has changed.’ We repeated this mantra in a systematic way,” said Menashri. “The Iranians I know don’t hate the West and don’t even hate Israel. Israel doesn’t really occupy the thoughts of the Iranian people as much as we think. An Iranian doesn’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘What can I do today to wipe out Israel?’”

Since last month’s UN General Assembly, Rohani has been on something of a charm offensive with the West. In turn, Netanyahu launched his own campaign to warn the world not to be wooed by the warm-and-fuzzy vibes emanating from Tehran.

Last week, talks in Geneva between Iran and six world powers over Tehran’s nuclear program ended on what was deemed a “promising note,” with Iranian officials expressing optimism that differences could be resolved. Earlier this week, an important Iranian lawmaker said that Iran was limiting its uranium enrichment to 20 percent, a move considered important because Iran needs to go well beyond that amount in order to produce a nuclear weapon. To many of the countries in the P5+1 – the Security Council member plus Germany – it certainly sounds like Iran is ready to cooperate.

In Tel Aviv, however, things always look a bit different. There are the explainers, whose expertise on Iran provides a window into the political and socioeconomic environment which enabled Rohani to be elected, and the alarmists, who sketch out an Iran ever bent on achieving a nuclear weapon – one ultimately run by a Supreme Leader who see Jews and Israel as the root of all evil.

“The election of Mr. Rohani says something important about Iranian society and politics,” said Iranian-born scholar Mehdi Khalaji, who was visiting Israel from the U.S., where he now lives and works as a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace.

“The overwhelming majority of the Iranian public will reject any decision which exposes the country to a military offensive,” Khalaji said. “So Rohani promised the public that by changing the policy on various issues, including the nuclear issue, he will prevent an attack.”

A full 70 percent of the Iranian population was born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and is therefore “extremely post-ideological,” he noted. “They don’t want to have a better life at the cost of violence. Their parents tried this, and it was not good. People just want a better life, an ordinary life.”

The alarmists - they would probably prefer to be called the realists – also weighed in with their analytical expertise, painting a less-than-optimistic picture. In these assessments, a friendlier Iranian president does not equal regime change – nor does it indicate, thus far, a tempering of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“The message of Rohani to Ahmedinajad is that we need to recalibrate everything – you went too far and now we’re paying in the currency of sanctions,” said Dr. Emily Landau, a nuclear expert at the INSS. “The Supreme Leader said clearly that there is strategic flexibility, but it doesn’t change his ultimate goal”– a nuclear weapon. “Iran is still playing the same tactical games we know well,” she added. “The right question is, ‘Has Iran has finally switched gears from its military direction?’ I don’t think there’s any reason to lower the pressure of the sanctions until we see the Iran is really changing its direction.”

Ephraim Asculai, also a nuclear expert at the INSS, said that if Iran makes a breakthrough in its weaponization program, it can produce a bomb within four to six months. It would take another fours month to a year to create the capacity to deliver it. “They are artists at buying time,” Asculai charged. “It’s great to smile and to speak English. But as the time passes and they’re talking to the West, at the same time they’re assembling centrifuges and enriching and enriching. They’re getting to critical capability and that’s the most dangerous situation of all.”

Uzi Arad, the former head of the INSS, noted that Iran’s top echelons of power long believed that obtaining a nuclear weapon was its insurance policy against external threats – that it would ensure Iranian’s security. But by advancing toward that ability, it becomes as threatened as it is threatening.

“It may be that Iran will have the protection certificate it wanted, but will be more threatened,” Arad said. Iran with a bomb “is a reality that is not preferable for any of us. It’s also not preferable for the Iranians, but apparently they don’t know that yet.”