Professor Ali Ansari, founding director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews and one of the world’s leading experts on Iran, gives his view on the ongoing conflict and the prospects of war.
What kind of impact will the recent verbal outbursts from Iranian leaders have on the tensions with Israel?
I think the outbursts reinforce the view that Iran’s attitude to Israel is deeply ideological rather than political and is now moving in directions which are explicitly anti-Semitic rather than anti-Zionist. This was most obviously witnessed in Vice President’s Rahimi’s lengthy exposition on the Talmud. It would appear that Iranian leaders have thrown what modest caution they had to the wind. It won’t make much substantive difference in political terms, but it will reinforce the Israeli argument that what we are dealing with here is an aggressively anti-Semitic regime.
Do you think Iran is playing its cards the right way? If not, what should they be doing instead?
Not at all. Iran has not played its cards well for much of Ahmadinejad’s presidency when any goodwill created under Khatami was effectively discarded. The current policy of the Iranian regime is driven by rigorous confrontation with the United States and its allies, and there is little nuance in this approach. Even Iranian politicians not known for their liberalism have criticised this approach as too ideologically rigid to be of any practical use.
For how long can this conflict go on? Can you see a point when the Israelis decide to strike even if the status quo remains in check?
I think we are now settling in for a seige in which Western economies are pitted against the Iranian economy. Iranian politicians are convinced that the West is on the verge of collapse and vice versa. Time will tell which economy is weaker!
Will there be a war involving Iran in the next 5 years?
I am sanguine about the prospects of military conflict partly on the basis that a hot war would very likely have devastating consequences, many unpredictable, which render any sort of pre-emptive strike unlikely, while at the same time military conflict would simply disrupt the unfolding policy of sanctions which are now taking effect. If anything the hardliners in Iran – for dubious and mistaken reasons of their own – think that a military strike would be both containable and desirable in terms of their own political survival. For the rhetoric from Israel, my sense is that this was for the purpose of ensuring the implementation of sanctions. There is enough vocal opposition in Israel to the prospect of a strike to make this unlikely. What we have to worry about in the near to medium term is the possibility of an ‘incident’ sparking off an escalation in for example the Persian Gulf.