The heightened focus on the Middle East with the advent of the Arab Spring has left one country in particular in the spotlight: Iran. Although Iran has not been the host of a revolution this past year, it has attracted attention of American foreign policy makers while creating tensions with its neighbors. Michael Adler Former Correspondent in Vienna for Agence France-Presse News Agency and Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, and Barbara Slavin,  Author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and former Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center   addressed these issues surrounding Iran at a Wilson Center on the Hill event on October 14, 2011.This discussion was moderated by Kent Hughes, director of the Program on America and the Global Economy at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Michael Adler discussed the dynamics of U. S. foreign policy and Iran, particularly after the reports of a plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. Adler explained that the United States is using this plot to get others to rally for sanctions and “step up pressure” against Iran. He noted that diplomatic negotiations with Iran so far have not yielded significant results; the meeting of the permanent five of the UN Security Council with Iran in Istanbul yielded nothing but frustration.   Iran said that it would refuse to talk until sanctions were lifted and Russia told the United States that little progress was made and that further talks were needed. Although Iran has declared that its nuclear program is for energy purposes only, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has noted that is data show a “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear program.  The United States has been pushing for an international sanction ruling and is actively trying to convince others that action is needed. Meanwhile, Adler mentioned, that the IAEA has used “soft” language in its reports, such as “There are indications that…” rather than out rightly declaring that Iran is using its nuclear capabilities for military purposes.

Barbara Slavin continued the discussion with a focus on Iran’s relations with its neighbors in light of the Arab Spring. Slavin explained that the countries involved in the Arab Spring may not develop strong relations with Iran because they do not want to jeopardize their relationships with the United States. If these countries look up to a regional leader, they will be most likely to choose Turkey over Iran, because Turkey’s political model is more attractive, according to Slavin. Iran has been “strategically lonely,” as its population is predominantly Persian and Shia in an Arab, Turkish and Sunni region. Iran is not a major member of any military organization and since 1979.  Its most successful relationships have been with Hezbollah and Syria. Iran has become “bothersome” to Iraqis, after it dumped cheap consumer goods in Iraq. Polls over the past decade indicate that Iran was most popular regionally in 2006, when it was considered a champion against the United States and Israel. Now, only 6 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population and 14% in Morocco have a positive view of Iran. Bahrain has also recently accused Iran of rallying unrest. Iran does not have financial strength, and its leaders often use “inflammatory rhetoric” to hide internal instabilities.  Though worrisome, Iran’s nuclear program is not too strong.

Both speakers agreed that sanctioning Iran’s central bank would not be a proper means of pressuring Iran into a nuclear agreement, especially while oil prices are high. Adler explained that these sanctions would have a negative effect on the countries who conduct business with Iran. . Slavin continued that these sanctions would make life harder for Iranians, not necessarily the leaders alone. Slavin said that Iran uses a sort of “hedging strategy” when conducting its international affairs; as an isolated country, it does not know who will win a given conflict, so it gives support to the Taliban, Hezbollah, and other such groups. “This has been a strategy that has served the Islamic Republic very well,” she said. Adler added, “They develop the capacity to make a weapon, which gives them a certain prestige. By not going forward to the breakout to make a weapon, they avoid being attacked, and that is perhaps one of the greatest hedges of all.

Drafted by: Rebecca Anderson

Kent Hughes, Director, Wilson Center on the Hill