Bruno Tertrais: “I view Iran in the Middle East as being the arsonist turned fireman”

Bruno Tertrais: “I view Iran in the Middle East as being the arsonist turned fireman”

Bruno Tertrais, Deputy Director of the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique of France addressing the panel on “Policy review on Iran” in Paris on June 30, 2017, moderated by Ambassador Lincoln Bloomfield, distinguished fellow and Chairman Emeritus at the Stimson Center, former Assistant Secretary of State for Military Affairs.

His remarks follow:

 It turns out that there’s not one single perspective about the Islamic Republic in Europe, in fact, there are many. But let me note one thing, to begin with. I find it very interesting that discussing the policies of the Islamic Republic has practically—it has almost left the public stage since the nuclear deal of 2015. There’s a lot of implicit thinking in Europe that goes along the lines of the problem solved. Problem solved. Now the problem is that a lot of it is in good faith. Many people on this continent including in this country believe that we have solved the Iranian problem, quote unquote, because the nuclear deal is supposed to be solved, Iran will be reintegrated with the international community, whatever that means. But that’s the usual, those are the usual words. And I think there is a lot of naivete in Europe about the Islamic Republic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not referring to what people in the intelligence services or in the defense ministries or some foreign ministries who really look at Iran, including on the nuclear issue and know what they’re talking about, I’m talking about the broader policy (elite) debate. Even those who criticized the deal are often relieved or happy that we can quote unquote move on. Move on? Hey, after all it was supposed to be a win/win, we’re supposed to do business which is good and that business also supposed to help Iran becoming a “good citizen of the world”. So it’s a win/win, all right? And I insist on the fact that you may call this misguided thinking, but it’s pretty sincere. That’s the reason I call it naïve.

 Now, Iran’s message, the Islamic Republic’s message to Europe these days tends to be very simple. You Europeans have to step in. We can’t count on the United States. The Trump administration is out there to stop the implementation of the deal. You have to step in. Your banks have to guarantee the business of your firms with us. They’re pleading literally Europeans to—I’m using the word “step in” three times because I recently heard a high-level Iranian official use it. Now, is this going to work? I think that in European governments, I’m not talking about the policy elite at large, but in European governments, there’s still some sanity prevailing. Not everywhere, but I think that in this country in particular even though we are playing along with the deal, hey we’re a signatory to the deal, there are very few illusions about what’s possible to achieve with it. But what I find troubling is that so few people in my country and in Europe overall tend to see Iran as a problem for the region.

 The narrative over the past five years, well two years, in particular, has tended to be the following: We Europeans just like many other countries in the world are the victims of jihadi terrorism and the principal source of Jihadi terrorism are the Gulf monarchies. There goes the narrative. Therefore because of some stupid zero sum game in geopolitics, zero sum gaming is the zero degree of geopolitics. But that’s unfortunately still the way a lot of people see the situation in the Middle East or in many parts of the world. Therefore, if Saudi Arabia and Qatar and others are the problems, we have to get closer to Iran. Iran, after all, is close to being a democracy. Has been close to being a democracy for a long time, by the way, it’s like thinking about the future of North Korean regime, oh hey in ten years it will be a better place. As Bob reminded us, this is what people said in ’84, ’94, 2004, and 2014. It’s not getting a better place. Now Iran for all the talk about liberalization and moderation, what we see—and I don’t need to remind this audience—is that contrast between a very educated eager to see the world and get in touch with the world population and a deep state, a security apparatus which is as repressive as ever, and which unfortunately acts against European interests in the Middle East. This is what is really troubling is that this is something that a lot of people don’t see. Europeans tend to have short memories, unfortunately. We French sometimes forget, and again I’m not talking about people in the know, but French public opinion would be surprised if I reminded them how much we were victims of the Iranian-backed and Iranian-sponsored terrorism in the ‘80s, for instance, okay They don’t even remember that. Same regime, and sometimes same people by the way. They confuse moderation and pragmatism. They think that a pragmatic attitude is a moderate attitude. It’s a fundamental mistake. I accept the fact that some in the Iranian system, not necessarily the most powerful people today but at least some powerful figures, are acting as a source of pragmatism. Pragmatism is not moderation. You can maintain the same ideology as a backbone and from a tactical standpoint but with the same objectives act differently. So this is what I find troubling. I view Iran in the Middle East as being the arsonist turned fireman, and there’s a lot to be said about Iranian responsibility indirectly for the rise of Sunni jihadi terrorism, okay? This is something that you don’t often hear unfortunately in this country or in Europe. To his credit, President Macron, since we’re in France and I’m French, has not at this point in time I think has not said anything or acted in a way which would seem to imply that he’s naïve about the situation. I don’t know what he thinks, I just notice that Foreign Minister Zarif was hosted yesterday for a brief working visit in the Elysee this morning. Maybe it’s Mr. Zarif’s plane that we can hear over there. Hope it doesn’t crash, not here, it may crash. But that visit was not publicized in a way that seems to imply any kind of political messaging. So it’s difficult to say what President Macron’s policies vis a vis Iran will be. But knowing what kind of character he is, I would be very surprised if he had the same kind of naivete that I denounced earlier on.

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