Maintain political and diplomatic pressure on the heinous regime in Iran
Par Frédéric Encel
Frédéric Encel, is professor of international relations and political science at the PSB Paris School of Business and lecturer at Sciences Po Paris. He spoke on April 26, 2023 at a conference at the initiative of European Strategic Intelligence And Security Center (ESISC) at the Brussels Europe Press Club on the situation of the Iranian regime, seven months after the uprising. Frédérice Encel took a look at the geopolitical dimension of the Iranian crisis. Here is a transcript of the gist of his speech.
I think that looking at, studying, analyzing realities objectively is absolutely essential for a geopolitical scientist, of course, knowing two things.
First point, realities are changing. Ultra realism or the famous political realism, you know, the Prussian case which goes well with it, which is very virile, in reality, it's a view of the mind, it's a bias which often blinds those who are claim to be ultra realistic, because realities change and sometimes very quickly.
Second point. The sensitivity of oppressed populations, it weighs, it plays. It is an element of geopolitical understanding. By dint of cynicism and looking exclusively at the princes, especially when the princes are ultra repressive or totalitarian, there too, we are blinded.
Regimes of this nature only drift towards totalitarianism
This is why I will begin my remarks with this very simple introductory word which I believe, moreover, to be quite objective: we are dealing with Iran with an ultra-repressive regime which is drifting, which in some way aggravates the repressive conditions inherent to his own ideology. Unfortunately, this is a fairly traditional scenario. Rare are the political regimes of an authoritarian nature in history, these authoritarian regimes - and it is the professor of political science who tells you - that drift towards democracy. There, I have to say, unfortunately, it's something you hardly ever see. In general, the drift of these regimes, it goes rather, it concerns a real totalitarianism and this is exactly what is happening in Iran in recent years.
First, the geopolitical, geostrategic situation of the Islamic Republic of Iran today, it is a country that finds itself in real strategic solitude. I agree that we insist on the resumption of diplomatic relations with Riyadh, it is an objective fact, but many observers are mistaken in speaking of new cooperation or alliances. As Camus said, "To misname things is to add to the misfortune of the world".
Between Saudi Arabia and Iran, we were in a technical state of war. Not an open war, but technically we were at war. I remind you that Iranian drones hit Saudi oil installations a few years ago, just before the Covid. It's a little bit what we call an extremely belligerent situation. We have gone from minus five or minus ten to zero or one, that is to say diplomatic relations, of course, but we are not yet in a real warming with the Sunni states.
I think that this real warming or all-out cooperation, as many observers predict, will not take place for four reasons. The first, I'll say it quickly, there is an institutional rivalry that we too often forget. The Islamic Republic of Iran seeks to flourish, seeks to demonstrate that its functioning is good and it seeks to demonstrate it throughout the Arab Muslim world. It will have escaped no one here that Saudi Arabia itself is seeking to develop what it considers to be a very, very good model and that these two states, institutionally, are poles apart. .
True all-out cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia will not take place
The second very hard rivalry, much more prosaically moreover, is that which concerns energies. I speak under the control of Gérard Vespierre, but on the economic level and in particular energy, we have the second, third crude reserve in the world with significant gas reserves too. I'm talking about Saudi Arabia and Iran, it's hardly less. In other words, if the Saudis saw the international sanctions linked to Iranian nuclear power lifted, Saudi Arabia would suffer from competition or new competition. I recall that before 1979, Iran was the third crude producer in the world and the fourth or fifth producer of natural gas in the world. So would see this competition become fierce. It's really not in the interest of the Saudis, it's not in the interest of the Emiratis, it's not in the interest of the Kuwaitis, it's not in the interest of the Bahrainis and I pass you a few other producers in the region.
The third point on which I do not believe in a real warming of relations between Tehran and its Sunni Arab neighbors or Sunni Arabs more generally is the Sunni/Shiite rivalry. I know very well that it is exploited, but it is not because religious themes are exploited that it does not constitute biases and tools of geopolitical analysis. The instrumentalization of religion for the benefit of politics has existed since the dawn of time, but it is not because we clearly perceive that there is a political or politician or partisan interest there, that it does not exist, that it does not create the conditions for religious and theological competition.
And finally, the old cultural rivalry. First of all, I am not an expert on this rivalry. Others here are more so than me, between the Arab-Bedouin world and the Persian world. That's the first point.
Second point on the United States and the West. In Vienna in 2015, there was a very clear, very clear desire on the part of the Americans, with Barack Obama in particular at the time, but also of the Europeans, to turn the page and start a new era with Iran. The president at the time was, no doubt wrongly, perceived as a real reformist and the regime was perceived, again in my opinion wrongly, as being able to regenerate, modernize, calm down in some way.
Westerners today have less interest in making a deal with Tehran
Everyone was, to put it very clearly, on the starting blocks. Everyone wanted to do business with Iran. There, the level of technicality, the level of engineering, the Iranian socio-educational level are high, very high. That is universally known. Consequently, a market of 80, 90 million consumers was considered to be necessarily an extremely lucrative market. For that, it was obviously necessary to lift international sanctions. I didn't say US sanctions. I said "international sanction" since 1ᵉʳ January 2007 with a series of series of sanctions decided at the time, under the aegis of the UN, by the 5+1, that is to say Moscow and Beijing too. Moscow and Beijing have always voted for these sets of nuclear-related sanctions.
In 2018, Trump breaks the treaty or more exactly, withdraws from it, rendering the treaty a hollow shell in a way. And all these commercial hopes crumble very quickly. And today, when we talk about returning to Vienna to negotiate these ten years of interruption of uranium enrichment by Iran, we are much more annoyed. And we are annoyed for a very simple reason, which is that the Islamic Republic of Iran has since turned, to a large extent in any case, towards Russia and China. We'll see, I'm not a prophet at all, we'll see what the future holds for us.
In other words, the Westerners today, finally, would perhaps have less interest in their eyes to make a deal with Tehran insofar as the market would finally be less buoyant.
I would add a point there too which seems fundamental to me, and that is that in the United States, we are much more suspicious than in the time of Barack Obama as regards the real will, as regards the capacity, the real will, as for the sincerity of the Iranian regime to implement the interruption of uranium enrichment, since in recent years, we have seen that Iran has reached much higher thresholds than before.
The Israelis will not allow Iran to obtain the atomic bomb
Third and penultimate point, we are dealing in the region with hostility towards this regime and its potential ability to obtain the atomic bomb from a country called Israel. I don't know Iranian society well. I know Israeli society well. I am not at all in the secret, very sincerely, contrary to what many people fantasize, but I know something.
The Israelis will not allow Iran to obtain the atomic bomb. In recent years, coup after coup, the Israelis have demonstrated that they have a certain number of capabilities and accomplices in the country and that they have control from their own territory or from the territory of neighboring countries, by chance, like that, I heard about Azerbaijan, allowing to strike very hard, maybe decisively, maybe not, at least for a while, Iranian nuclear capabilities.
Je suis à peu près convaincu que le régime iranien est composé, à la tête du régime iranien, nous avons des fanatiques, ça, c'est sûr, mais pas nécessairement des imbéciles. Je le dis souvent à mes étudiants, je le dis urbi et orbi, donc je le dis aujourd'hui aussi, malheureusement, les fanatiques ne sont pas toujours des crétins. Ça serait beaucoup plus facile. De toute façon, il ne resterait pas longtemps au pouvoir, par définition. Ils seraient peu nuisibles. Je suis à peu près convaincu qu'à la tête de la République islamique d'Iran, nous avons affaire à des gens qui savent qu'ils ne pourront pas obtenir la bombe à cause des Israéliens et qui, par conséquent, jouent d'une épée de Damoclès en carton, si vous voulez, vis à vis des Occidentaux, façon « Retenez moi où je fais un malheur », « mais surtout, retenez moi », au sens où, perdu pour perdu, parce que je pense qu'ils savent qu'ils ne l'auront pas, ils cherchent à monnayer cette épée de Damoclès, donc cet enrichissement de l'uranium, contre la levée des sanctions.
Un régime aux abois
C'est un régime qui a besoin de cash cruellement parce que, je pense que ce régime est aux abois, pas seulement à cause des jeunes femmes qu'il martyrise parce qu'elles souhaitent se libérer, mais ce régime est aux abois parce qu' au sein du territoire de la République islamique d'Iran, il y a des forces centripètes extrêmement importantes qui sont des forces qui non seulement ne supportent plus la répression, qui ne supportent plus le soubassement idéologique de ce régime et qui, par ailleurs, souhaitent de façon beaucoup plus générale, je crois, obtenir un minima, une forme d'autonomie. Je pense aux Azéries, je pense aux Kurdes, bien évidemment. Je pense dans une certaine mesure aux Arabes du Sud-ouest du pays, je pense aux Baloutches et peut être à d'autres populations plus minoritaires. Là, nous avons affaire à un régime qui a d'autant plus cruellement besoin de cash qu'il aura pour nécessité d'« acheter », en quelque sorte, la paix civile ou en tout cas l'absence de contestation trop forte vis à vis de lui-même dans ces territoires. Ce cash abondant, il ne peut l'obtenir que par la levée des sanctions.
Je pense que s'il ne l'obtient pas, par le processus que j'ai évoqué, il finira par chuter. Non seulement il chutera parce que la population, pas seulement les jeunes femmes, mais beaucoup de soutien aux jeunes femmes comme on l'a vu ces derniers mois, ne supportent plus, ne supportera plus ce régime, mais il aura face à lui plus seulement des citoyens en tant que tels, des humains en quelque sorte de façon générale, mais des forces confessionnelles, ethno confessionnelles, linguistiques, communautaires ou religieuses qui lui seront virulemment hostiles. C'est la raison pour laquelle je crois qu'il est plus important que jamais, que tous les démocrates, que les humanistes de manière générale dans le monde, quelle que soit leur coloration politique et leur sensibilité, maintiennent la pression politique, diplomatique sur ce régime odieux, ne serait-ce que pour démontrer et pour montrer et démontrer aux gens qui se battent au quotidien en Iran aujourd'hui qu'ils ne sont pas seuls.