Iran, Israel and the West: Is there a way out of the crisis?

Possible alternatives and the perception of the spiral of violence discussed in Berlin by German-Iranian political scientist Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Israeli journalist and peace activist Hillel Schenker at the invitation of German IPPNW and the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation.

Moderator: Does the Middle-East face an armed, nuclear conflict between Israel and Iran? In the public discussion there are only three options: military action with conventional weapons, a nuclear attack or a continuation of the sanctions policy against Iran.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad: From the beginning, the West has used coercive diplomacy against Iran. This strategy aims not to towards a balance, but to a de facto capitulation of the Iran. From the Iranian perspective this means a security deficit, which is enforced by the neoconservative wars of the last decades through the increased military presence of the Americans in the region. Due to the fact that the West didn’t take into account the legitimate security interests of Iran, coercive diplomacy has failed. The lack of any solution to the conflict has led to a continuing escalation.

Moderator: What are the effects of the sanction policy of the West in Iran?

Ali Fathollah-Nejad: Sanctions have made legal trade illegal. The situation in Iran has dramatically tightened in the last few months. The prices are rising and the currency has lost nearly half of its value. It is the population who has to pay the price of the sanctions. The elite own the resources, means of production and ways to withstand the sanctions. With this enables them to expand their power position compared to the civil economy and society. A civil society under the pressure of an authoritarian regime on one side and on the other side the sanctions and menace of war. Overall the policy of the West in the region pushed forward the militarization process of state and society. Instead of running towards an armed conflict, the focus should be on the process of balancing interests and perspectives for security and collaboration. It is alarming that there are no clear signals for de-escalation and conflict-resolution, and this is true for Germany as well.

Moderator: Which are the reactions of the Israeli population on the debate around a possible attack on Iranian nuclear facilities?

Hillel Schenker: In Israel everyone is frightened of the possibility of Iranian nuclear armament. Public opinion surveys show this. For example the Israeli population was asked how they would react in case of a nuclear armament of Iran. 25% of the questioned answered they would possibly leave the country. Another survey shows that the majority of Israelis would be for giving up the Israeli nuclear weapons and becoming a part of a nuclear free zone if this would prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

Moderator: Is the statement from Iran that they are only interest in nuclear energy is the civil use convincing?

Ali Fathollah-Nejad: Based on its geography, its demography and its long cultural history Iran has a particular place in the region. The country has a quasi natural geopolitical influence. An important component of the strategic thinking of Tehran is that a nuclear bomb is counter-productive for their strategic interests. If Iran went nuclear, it is probable that other states in the region, states which Iran is not friends with, like the countries of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf such as Saudi-Arabia would get nuclear weapons. A nuclear stand-off would lead to the loss of the natural geopolitical importance of Iran.

Moderator: Which options about the Iranian nuclear program are discussed in the Israeli public?

Hillel Schenker: In the public discussion there are currently two strategies of how to deal with the Iranian nuclear program. One idea is an Israeli or American or coordinated nuclear attack against the Iranian nuclear facilities. A large amount of military experts expect that this will lead to a spiral of violence in the region with a lot of civilian victims without leading to success. Another option would be a combination of sanctions and negotiations. But there is a third: direct negotiations between the two parties on neutral ground. These negotiations should aim to create a nuclear free zone in the Middle East. In 2010 at a NPT (Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty) review conference, it was decided that an international conference should be held to create such a nuclear weapons free zone. The conference will be held at the end of this year, 2012 or at the beginning of next year in Finland, with the facilitation of Finnish Under-Secretary of State Jaakko Laajava.

Moderator: How can civil society help lead this conference to success?

Hillel Schenker: From the point of view of the civil society it is essential that Israel and Iran will be attending this conference. If either does not attend, the conference will be a failure. The second point is the conference should not be a one-time event. It has to be the beginning of a process. Thirdly, all the participants have to recognize that a nuclear and mass destruction weapons free zone and peace in the Middle-East are not mutually exclusive; they depend on each other and they have to take place simultaneously.

From a debate held on April 23, 2012 in Berlin before an audience of over 150 diplomats, politicians, academic experts, students, NGO activists and other concerned citizens, sponsored by German IPPNW and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.