What Iranian Elites Think: An Inside Look at Views of the West

By , in Islamabad, Pakistan

Israeli hawks are threatening a military strike in order to stop Iran's nuclear program and many Republican presidential candidates in the US also support action. A loose survey of students and academics in Tehran shows that even among opponents of President Ahmadinejad, anti-Western sentiment is strong.

Photo Gallery: Iranian Voices on War with the West Photos
REUTERS

These days, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad agitates against the United States, Israel and the West, all the while presenting himself as a proud advocate of nuclear energy in his country. The deputy chief of Iran's military forces is threatening to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran's enemies. Bombs believed to have been set by Iranian agents have exploded in India, Georgia and Thailand. And, in a show of force, Iran has dispatched warships to the Mediterranean.

Such actions, which are more customary for a major power, dominate the headlines on an almost daily basis. In turn, the West has toughened its sanctions, and Israeli politicians have openly discussed a possible military strike against Iran.

Such reports and statements usually only provide clues about what leaders and experts are thinking. But how do educated Iranians feel about these rising tensions and their potential for triggering a conflict?

Of course, it's difficult to ascertain the views of Iranians. State censorship is tight, and foreign journalists are rarely allowed into the country. Nevertheless, it is possible to make contact with some Iranians. And when you speak with them, you learn something quite surprising: Even if they oppose Ahmadinejad, their radical president, most of these Iranians still view their country as the victim in the current circumstances. They also view the West as an enemy and fail to consider or acknowledge that there are massive differences between hawks in Israel and doves within the Obama administration.

"After 9/11, George W. Bush systematically portrayed Iran as the bogeyman. That's happening again now. I have seen no indication that we are building a nuclear bomb," says one professor in Tehran who, like the others interviewed for this story, preferred to remain anonymous. There is no freedom of opinion in Iran, and saying the wrong thing can stir up trouble -- especially when it has to do with the country's nuclear policies.

Aircraft Carriers, Murdered Scientists and Sanctions

Iran is upgrading its weapons inventory, sabotaging the work of independent nuclear inspectors and installing new underground centrifuges for efficient uranium enrichment. But when asked about these issues, educated Iranians are evasive and merely assert that, despite all indications to the contrary, Iran's nuclear program is geared toward civilian purposes. "We have the right to do this, just like any other country," says one university student in Tehran.

In the media, President Ahmadinejad can constantly be seen gloating over his nuclear program. But many find his claims of only pursuing peaceful aims difficult to believe. Indeed, the mullah-ruled regime has been badgering Israel since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and denying its right to exist. Nevertheless, even seemingly enlightened people in Tehran believe that they are the ones being attacked and that they are surrounded by enemies. In this atmosphere, conspiracy theories abound.

In their heavily censored television broadcasts, Iranians now see images of three American aircraft carriers cruising in the Persian Gulf. On maps, they see how many US military installations are in the region. They hear the government's anti-Western propaganda. What's more, they are also suffering from the sanctions imposed by the West.

The Iranians take note of Israel's military exercises. They hear that Israeli politicians are threatening to launch an attack. They read about the murders of Iranian nuclear scientists. They see that, according to one Gallup poll, 87 percent of Americans view Iran as their No. 1 enemy.

However, people in Iran seem to give little or no thought to the fact that the Obama administration has been warning Israel against unilaterally triggering a risky war in addition to trying to get hawks in Tel Aviv to cool off. But, even among Iran's intelligentsia, the image of America and Israel as the enemy is too deeply ingrained.

"And we're the warmongers?" asks one medical student in Qom in disbelief. He then defends the recent bombing attacks in India, Georgia and Thailand as merely being responses to attacks on Iran. He stresses that there are "enough forces in Iran in favor of negotiating with the West," but he says they have been "severely weakened" by radical politicians beating the war drums in the United States.

Power in Iran is controlled by the mullahs led by Ayatollah Khamenei. Though they represent those who fought in the Islamic revolution, the latter only make up a certain segment of the population. "Instead of buttressing the forces of reform," the medical student says, "the West has merely bolstered the power of the clerics."

An Ongoing War against the Islamic World

Since American forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and launched a war against Iraq in 2003, a record number of people in the region have come to believe that the United States is actually waging a war against the Islamic world in pursuit of its own economic interests. "They talk a lot about democracy and human rights," says one student studying in Tehran, "but that's not really what they have in mind."

According to this way of seeing things, Iran and Pakistan are next on the list after Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington supposedly doesn't dare to enter into open conflict with Pakistan because Islamabad has nuclear weapons. Indeed, even Iranian moderates fully support the idea of having Iran join the nuclear club as quickly as possible. "Still, that's far from saying that Iran will do that, too. Does anyone really know that Iran is striving after a nuclear bomb?" asks the professor in Tehran. "After all, perhaps these findings are, well, just as factual as the ones about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."

What's more, many find it hypocritical that the United States, as the country with the most deployable nuclear warheads, would demand that Iran put a halt to its nuclear program.

Are Threats Counterproductive?

People in Iran and the neighboring countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan are united in their belief that a war would most likely lead not only to the annihilation of Israel, but also to a rupture between the East and West. What's more, they believe it would risk a nuclear confrontation that could endanger the already weakened global economy. In short, according to this logic, war would be insanity.

Nevertheless, politicians continue to get carried away with backing actions that could have disastrous consequences. Indeed, people at the University of Tehran say that Western politicians are no less at fault than President Ahmadinejad when it comes to fanning the flames of war. "Our president continues to call for the annihilation of Israel in order to unite the hard-liners behind him. That's lunacy," says one university lecturer.

At the same time, the lecturer points out, almost all of the remaining candidates in the race to become the Republican nominee in the US presidential race are using calls for a military attack on Iran as a way to display their toughness and determination. The lecturer believes that such rhetoric only shows how the risk of war is being underestimated. "With these kinds of words," he says, "one only weakens backers of democracy in the region."

When asked what kind of backing supporters of democratic principles in Iran would still have if calls for a war against Iran became part of a democratic election campaign, one Tehran student said it would show that "American politicians had once again achieved the opposite of what lies in the United States' interest."

The student also says that Iranians have noted with growing concern how even Western academics and experts are letting themselves be enlisted into this "war of words."

For example, Matthew Kroenig, a 34-year-old Middle East expert and special adviser to the US defense secretary until 2011, titled a recent essay in the respected periodical Foreign Affairs "Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option."

Likewise, Niall Ferguson, a prominent economic historian, claimed in a recent column in the US magazine Newsweek that: "There are plenty of arguments against an Israeli attack on Iran. And all of them are bad." He even ended his essay on an optimistic note, saying: "It feels like the eve of some creative destruction."

All of the students and teachers in Tehran agree that writing things like this is "simply irresponsible." And the majority of people in the West would most likely agree with them on that point. But, even so, both sides continue to view the other as the enemy.

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