"Protests of Azerbaijanis have changed the face of Iran" 
    Israeli expert Vladimir Mesamed talks to Caliber.Az

    INTERVIEWS  03 March 2023 - 17:15

    Vadim Mansurov

    The Middle East has long been considered one of the most conflict-ridden areas in the world. Due to its geographical position, Azerbaijan is directly or indirectly involved in geopolitical processes in the region, playing its own specific role. Vladimir Mesamed, the expert in Iranian studies, and researcher at the Asia and Africa Institute of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem shared his views with Caliber.Az on the potential threats in the Middle East and the vectors of Azerbaijan's involvement in the developments in the region.

    - At a joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in Berlin, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said Iran was like a "cancerous tumor" and that Tel Aviv was considering military action in connection with the situation. Cohen, referring to Iran's nuclear threat, said sanctions were one option to "solve the problem". As a second way, he said, Israel was considering military intervention. So what do you think Israel will choose - sanctions or a military strike, will it attack itself or ask its allies for help?

    - The phrase "cancerous tumor" by the new Israeli foreign minister, Eli Cohen, is reminiscent of the language Iran itself uses against Israel. Iranian leaders have been very generous with these labels, calling Israel a "cancerous tumor", a "Zionist state", and a "Jerusalem conqueror" - mainly to show their intransigence and fierce confrontation. And everyone knows that Iran before and after the Islamic Revolution are two countries with very different attitudes towards their neighbours in the region. The rhetoric has changed, the times have changed, and now Tehran is finding more and more insulting definitions for Israel, which now seems to be responding in the same way. It is clear that such irreconcilable relations can hardly be improved or in any way reconstructed because the clerical regime flatly denies the existence of Israel.

    Today our new leaders, such as Eli Cohen, are trying to figure out what to do about it. The foreign minister is absolutely right - something has to be done about Iran's military threats, especially with its nuclear project, which has been underway since 1974, but which took dangerous shape after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the country decided to build an "Islamic nuclear bomb", which Ayatollah Khomeini called for back in the 1980s.

    The Iranian nuclear project has evolved rapidly since then, but the military part can be dated to about 1995, when Russia signed an agreement with Iran to complete the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, effectively giving Tehran the ability to develop nuclear weapons.

    And with Iran's withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2019, its nuclear programme is being pursued vigorously. This is what prompted the decision to negotiate with Tehran, either to update the JCPOA or to sign a new agreement that could force Tehran to moderate its ambition to join the "club of nuclear-weapon states". But it is now clear that the JCPOA is dead rather than alive, and the question is what to do about it.

    In my opinion, Israel's sanctions policy is unlikely to bear fruit, and there are already a great many of us who are explicitly saying that we should move to a military solution to the issue. To be clear, a military solution does not mean war against Iran, it means eliminating its nuclear infrastructure. Israel is working under this plan on a variety of fronts, such as weakening the Iranian nuclear programme, shutting down the uranium enrichment facilities, which has been done repeatedly in recent years, and preventing nuclear development through hacking attacks, such as in 2010, when the Stuxnet virus was launched, which nullified uranium enrichment. There has also been a targeted crackdown on Iran's top nuclear specialists. But this did not bring tangible results, which is why we began to call for a military option. Though by and large, this will not solve the problem either, as the Iranians have gained experience and can already rebuild what has been destroyed. Nevertheless, a military strike is on Tel Aviv's agenda and, apparently, in connection with this there have been two joint Israeli-American exercises, in January and February this year, in which the methods of bombardment of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure were practised.

    As I see it, the only true ally we have is the US. Biden has repeatedly said that the US will not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons. Obviously, there is a military solution, but I do not know whether Washington will do it or just pay lip service to it. In any case, Israel has always said that it can act alone. Again, I cannot say whether Israel is now ready for military action. But the risks are growing. Teheran states that it has reached a high level of 84 per cent enrichment of uranium from which it is a direct route to a nuclear bomb - another 6 per cent and a nuclear product ready to be used. Report surface that the West agrees to continue negotiations with Tehran, and even a mediator - Oman - has emerged. As it is known it was the Sultanate of Oman that facilitated the signing of the Vienna agreements of 2015, so maybe its mediation activities will bear fruit now. But in any case, the issue must be resolved - Iran's transition to nuclear weapons ownership must be prevented.

    - How do you assess the current rather tense relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, is a military conflict possible between them?

    - Iranian-Azerbaijani relations are an interesting issue: the countries are so connected, imbued with a common religion and worldview from a historical perspective, with practically one ethnos living here and there, that logically they should have become closer as soon as Azerbaijan gained independence. But alas, this has not happened.

    Despite all the economic difficulties, Iran is quite a developed country in the Middle East, which could, as a good neighbour, help Azerbaijan to become an independent state after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For instance, it ranks 11th in the world on missile technology development and 7th in nanotechnology. But unfortunately, there is no rapprochement between Iran and Azerbaijan because of the difference in their current ideologies, which even puts them on different sides of barricades. Iran cannot accept Azerbaijan as a secular country open to the international community, as a state where the Azerbaijani ethnos is predominant and where national culture is developing. Everything is different in Iran because the country has become rigid in the Islamic way of development. It does not accept the West, while Azerbaijan is open to dialogue with the whole world. In particular, they cannot understand and accept the establishment of diplomatic relations between Azerbaijan and Israel, which even aggravated Azerbaijan-Iran relations. Tehran is openly angry and hostile towards Baku, as the terrorist attack on the Azerbaijani embassy vividly demonstrates.

    Meanwhile, even the current religious leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, is of Azerbaijani origin, and the Azerbaijani trace is very visible in science, culture, and other fields in the country. Take for example the two greatest Iranian literary figures of the twentieth century, of which Iran is so proud - Samed Behrengi and Shahriyar - both also have Azerbaijani roots. In this context I do not believe that there can be a war between Iran and Azerbaijan - the link between the two peoples is too obvious. I think this is understood in Tehran as well.

    - How would you characterize the internal political situation in Iran? Can the mullah regime be overthrown as a result of popular uprisings, for instance by obtaining a leader for the protesters in the person of Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former Shah? What role could the Azerbaijani population of Iran play in this?

    - Iran is going through one of its most difficult periods of development. Popular unrest in recent months suggests that scattered protests and actions have gained new strength, and the country appears to be on the verge of a revolution. Mass protests are sweeping the country, with thousands arrested, some seven hundred dead, and injuries beyond counting. And although this wave of protests started under the slogan of equal rights for women, the movement very quickly took the form of open civil disobedience. The Iranians who took to the streets are now demanding the overthrow of the clerical regime. We can say that the protests have already changed the face of Iran: many women have given up the hijab, regional foci have emerged in the country that do not accept the authority of the mullahs, and cultural figures like filmmakers, writers, and others are joining the protests.

    The situation is complicated by the fact that there are serious economic problems in the IRI because of the sanctions, the level of corruption in the country is high, and the national currency - toman has broken the threshold of inflation expectations, reaching a ratio of 52 thousand tomans to one dollar. In other words, there is a real question of the survival of the system itself.

    I believe that despite the fact that the protests are subsiding, a change of power in the country is inevitable. Unfortunately, we cannot talk about the activity of the opposition - it simply does not exist, it was forced out of the country a long time ago. Iranian opposition members reside in Europe and the USA. In general, millions of Iranians left the country after the Islamic Revolution. However, this is a very serious, albeit remote force, the backbone of the Iranian opposition, which is now forming around the prince, the son of the former Shah Pahlavi. He is being promoted as the likely leader of the opposition, and although anti-monarchy sentiment is deep in Iran, the pro-monarchists are also gaining strength today. So far, however, it is difficult to say whether Reza Pahlavi will be able to lead the protest movement and whether he will be able to lead the masses, but one way or another, this movement is complicating the existence of the Iranian regime and may lead to some kind of turning point - a new principle of power.

    The fact is that the ethnic factor plays a big role in Iran, and speeches and protests of Azerbaijanis there drain the Islamic system of all its strength. The Iranian Azeris, who are deprived of their national culture and language, are actively undermining the regime of the mullahs, demanding education in schools in their national language and that it be allowed to develop. Their rights are being severely trampled, not even allowed to give their children Turkic names. The Iranian Azeris, in particular, have been struggling for years to improve the ecological condition of Lake Urmia as their symbol and to restore their national holidays, which have been introduced and then amended. And this dynamic of struggle inspires civil unrest among citizens across the country.

    - What are the prospects for Azerbaijani-Israeli cooperation with Netanyahu's return to power?

    - Azerbaijan is Israel's strongest, most loyal partner in the post-Soviet space, and the two countries' cooperation is largely driven by two very important factors. The first one is that Azerbaijan helps Israel to solve oil supply issues. There is even a saying in Israel: "Four out of ten cars in Israel run on Azerbaijani fuel".

    At the same time, the opposite vector of cooperation is directed from Israel to Azerbaijan. Advanced technologies, developments in agriculture and many other things are coming to your country. We must acknowledge the significance of military-technical ties, which to some extent helped Azerbaijan win the 44-day liberation war. And we have finally eliminated the asymmetry of many years when we had an Israeli embassy in Baku, and we had no Azerbaijani diplomatic representation. Now, this mishap has been eliminated, and I think our relations will develop even more intensively because there are no obstacles to this. Netanyahu himself, who is forming now a new government, did very much for the development of our relations. Just remember his visit to Baku in 2016, when a number of defence contracts were signed. Obviously, a new stage of relations between our countries is beginning, and we in Israel warmly welcome it.


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