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Ali Ansari: “The Status Quo suits Iran”

23 May 2007

Ali Ansari is Reader in Middle Eastern studies at St Andrews University in Scotland. He is one of the UK’s foremost experts on Iran, and has recently published Confronting Iran (Hurst, 2006).

Madrid11: How would you describe the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah?

Ali Ansari: Iran helped found Hezbollah, has funded it, and continues to provide logistical support. What the Iranians have is access and an intimate relationship, but not one that is causal. They are like cousins.

There are no instructions that are being sent from Tehran. In reality, all this is done by consultation and negotiation. In most cases, Hezbollah will take actions on its own accord.

Madrid11: What, in your view, does the current Iranian leadership make of this crisis?

Ali Ansari: There is no real evidence that Iran directly instigated the crisis. Equally, though, there is also no doubt that they want to make the most of it. After all, if Hezbollah survives, Iran’s prestige will grow.

Iran has no interest for this crisis to spill beyond the Lebanese arena. They are quite keen on Hezbollah staying intact. I was repeatedly told by Iranians that the function of Hezbollah was to be a deterrent. They know very well that the safety and security of Israel is America’s Achilles’ heel.

The Iranian reasoning has been that Hezbollah would prevent the Americans from attacking Iran. There is no way, therefore, that the Iranians would allow Hezbollah to completely disappear.

Madrid11: The primary aim for the Iranian regime is for Hezbollah to survive?

Ali Ansari: Yes. Hezbollah can claim victory simply by surviving. The level they have to reach is considerably lower, though at the moment, of course, they are doing better than merely surviving.

Madrid11: What do you think about the idea of a Shia axis?

Ali Ansari: There clearly are Shia links across the regions, though this has been exaggerated, especially by some of the Sunni regimes in the Middle East. In fact, as a result of these exaggerations, the creation of such an axis has, to some extent, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Madrid11: Do you think there are any differences or splits between the Iranian president and the rest of the government?

Ali Ansari: There’s no doubt that Ahmadinejad holds more hardline views than many in the regime. He plays to a domestic audience, but he likes to play it to the Arab street as well. At the same time, there are many within the Iranian leadership who would want to reign him in.

For example, dispatching volunteers to help Hezbollah in Lebanon is something that Ahmadinejad would very much enjoy. But the reality is that only sixty people have signed up so far, which – in a way – highlights the lack of popularity of Ahmadinejad’s views in Iran.

There’s a lot of rhetoric, but when it comes to doing something about it, the Iranians are far more cautious. They are a status quo power, because the status quo suits them. They are not anxious to disrupt too much.

Madrid11: How do you think the West should approach Iran?

Ali Ansari: The West, and the United States in particular, need to take Iran far more seriously. First, we need to get more specialists working on a country this size. Second, there needs to be a proper policy in terms of engaging with Iran – not necessarily engaging the government but engaging with the country as a whole.

In the United States, the choice seems to be between utter neglect – that is, a containment strategy – or bombing the place. They seem to be the only two options available.

My argument has been that Iran is far too important to be so simplistic. The United States and the West have all the resources at their fingertips, so they should be able to think things through in a much more constructive way.

They can afford to be bold. I am struck by the fact that there is no leadership, neither in Britain nor in the United States. Iran is a problem, but there are means and ways – including a strategy of engagement – that could yield much better results.

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