Iran, not a 'black and white' issue, prof says.

By ANDY LEVY-AJZENKOPF, Staff Reporter, Canadian Jewish News
Thursday, 19 March 2009

TORONTO — The western world needs to recognize that there’s a deepening schism in Iran between its hardline, nuclear-power-obsessed, Islamist theocracy and a burgeoning, liberal, youthful civil society.

So says professor David Menashri, director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University and one of the world’s leading authorities on Iran.

In Toronto last week as part of a speaking tour, Menashri, an Iranian Jew, addressed about 100 people at a luncheon lecture organized by the Speakers Action Group and sponsored by Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University and the Canadian Jewish Civil Rights Association, at downtown law firm Fogler, Rubinoff LLP.

Asked whether Iranians understand the negative image that their country projects onto the world stage through President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Menashri said “yes.”

“People look at Iran in black and white. It’s neither. They have young student movements, a cinema industry, newspapers, Internet. The youth of Iran don’t necessarily agree with the government,” he told The CJN. “But the problem is both they and [opposition] politicians don’t have the power to dictate policy. This is in the hands of the conservative, extremist clerics.”

He added that civil society in Iran is making progress, but not fast enough to effect a change in government policy to  deter it from its nuclear ambitions and steer it toward more moderate rule.

He said the world needs to be “woken  up” to Iran and begin “critical” diplomacy and talks with the state as a preliminary move to isolating it on the world stage, and to help its civil society discover a unified voice so that change can start from within.

“The youth in Iran should be asking themselves if what they see today reflects the goals of their parents during the [Iranian] revolution,” Menashri said, adding that moderate-leaning Iranians have, over the past century, “fought to gain two major things… social welfare and freedom. They have not yet achieved either.”

But what the West sees of Iran through the “apocalyptical” rantings of Ahmadinejad and the tacit support for the president by Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini-Khameini doesn’t reflect the true nature of the country, he said.

“What we see in Iran today… is the bringing into power an extremist [body] that was on the fringes when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power 30 years ago,”he said. “There are many political factions in Iran, [and] Iranian youth are well-educated, active and unhappy with this regime.”

Despite this, there’s little the forces of moderation can do inside Iran, because while many academics, intellectuals and students speak out routinely against the government, these same individuals often end up jailed because the military won’t hesitate to crack down on dissenters, he said.

“There’s a constant struggle between Iranian intellectuals and the regime,”he said, but he lamented the lack of a unified opposition leadership to “confront” Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics.

To illustrate the “perfect description” of the Iranian paradox, Menashri repeated a saying that one of his colleagues in Tehran taught him that states Iranians “have freedom of expression, they just don’t have freedom after expression.”

Still, Menashri insists that dialogue between the United States and Iran could be a major step toward reigning in Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East.

If America successfully enters talks with Tehran, he said, Iran will be perceived as negotiating with “the Great Satan,” something that will sow doubt in all of its proxies.

He said that U.S. President [Barack] Obama is opting “for dialogue, which I don’t have anything against. While it may not lead us anywhere, I think it’s good. It at least sends a clear message to the Iranian and American people that the U.S. sincerely looked for a way to deal with Iran peacefully.”

Such a gesture may make it easier to create a “unified, world opinion” and take “action” against Iran going forward, Menashri said.

“The most important thing is to send a message to the youth of Iran,” he said, because at this stage, the country is “very sensitive”to pressure as civil society grows more powerful and gains more influence.

Though he remains optimistic about dealing with Iran peacefully, Menashri said he recognizes that time “is not in our favour,” and he would have liked to see dialogue established long ago.

“You need to convince Russia, China [to side against Iran]. And who’s going to do it?” he asked. “In my view, people in Iran, ultimately, will not be good for this.”

A belligerent Iran, Menashri said, is not something that should be handled by Israel alone.

Menashri suggested that Iran’s rulers still have no pragmatic reason to accept the Jewish state.

“Ideologically, the Iranian regime doesn’t view Judaism as a nationality,”he said. “Raising the [issue] of Israel is very important to any Islamist leader…to unify the emotions of those [supporters] around them… and retain power. Ahmadinejad used Israel as the ticket to his leadership.”

Menashri said he belongs to the Israeli camp that doesn’t consider Iran an existential threat to his country, but he conceded it’s a “great challenge”to hold that position.

Of all the solutions being proposed to the problem of Iran, the one he doesn’t advocate is unilateral Israeli action.

“In a general sense, the problem of Iran’s nuclear program is not Israel’s alone. I think Israel should speak less about it, because this [perpetuates the idea] that it is Israel’s problem alone,”Menashri said.

“Today, Arab countries’ number one problem is not Israel, it’s Iran. There’s tension between the moderate Arab world and Iran. I’m hopeful that Saudi Arabia, Jordan… will react to the emerging power in Shiite Iran.”