Israel, Syria and the world through Iranian eyes
Smadar Perry has an illuminating conversation with an well-placed academic in Iran, who shares his thoughts on – and interest in – Israeli society, as well as the true powerbrokers of the Middle East, his own country and America's reversal on the nuclear agreement.
"Let's put our cards on the table," he says. "Even if you keep bombing, blow things up or try something else, you won't be able to oust the Iranian forces, call them 'experts,' call them 'advisers,' or simply 'Quds.' I believe that in Israel you know exactly what is going on, exactly who is in Syria. You have maps, you exchange information with foreign sources, and I assume you also have agents there. In any case, neither side is going to give in. I assume that Israel will continue bombing, so we will be more careful and there will be surprises from our side."
What kind of surprises?
"I really don't know, and even if I did, I wouldn't tell," he answers. "I really love my country."
The speaker is a very senior figure in Tehran's political and academic life, who holds an important university post. The dialogue between us takes place on the explicit condition that not one of clue as to his identity is revealed, and certainly not in an Israeli newspaper. So what can I say? He has an excellent reputation in his country, and he cultivates a wide professional and personal circle of friends. His wife comes from a privileged family, and they have three children. The eldest, surprisingly, in studying in the United States and comes and goes on family visits to Tehran, without any problems or fear of arrest. "Don't forget that our upper echelons studied in higher education institutions in America or Europe," he says in fluent English. "I studied in the United States and returned immediately after. I assume my son will finish his studies and will not stay a moment longer."
The unnamed Iranian academic is an impressive man by all accounts, a fascinating interlocutor who knows just what he can say and what to omit.
"Look," he says, analyzing the situation to Israel's north, "there is a close daily relationship between certain elements in Iran and senior Syrian army personnel, and you cannot bring in people or deliver shipments without prior coordination. So it's not right to say that Syria is 'Iran's playground,' or that things are happening on the ground without consultations with the Syrian commanders. It is certainly true though that the level of coordination is diminishing because of the fear of leaks to the Israeli side. Those in the know in Iran are taking into account that you're keeping a very close watch on Syria."
"But what do you want with a failing state like Syria?" I ask. "You don't even have a common language or mutual interests."
"Who cares about the internal situation there?" he quickly replies. "We need a foothold inside Syria, to have entry channels, bases of power. Even the cautious dialogue we have with the Russians is very important. Ask me who is stronger in Syria, the Iranians or the Russians, and I will tell you that the Russians are stronger, but we are the allies that Assad trusts."
Once again, the Iranian street has awakened, and over the past year they still pinned their hopes on the West, after a wave of demonstrations that followed the collapse of the rial. They included harsh slogans against the regime, criticizing their involvement in Syria, Gaza and Lebanon.
"Within Iran, there is a clear division of roles and powers: The people are not permitted and are unable to follow the events in Syria. There is simply a process that goes over their heads, between Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force, and his group of senior commanders, and the office of the Supreme Leader Khamenei. Suleimani, who is a very powerful and fascinating figure, has direct access to the leader's office, and it is there that he decides on affairs in Syria, among other things."
And what about the Russians? "There is almost total separation between the Iranian forces and the Russian forces inside Syria, and the Russians are primarily located next to the seaports. The Iranians, shall we say, are increasing the Syrian army, but also taking care of other interests. Please note that there is a language barrier – the Russian don’t speak Persian or Arabic at all. And yet, they manage. They have either learned the language or speak English. "
The Russians, he immediately hastens to add, are very careful not to approach us or disturb the Iranians there. "Each side keeps to its own territory." How much of the information ultimately arrives at the Syrian president's palace? Now he laughs. "I believe that Bashar Assad has sent people to spy on both the Russians and the Iranians. Everyone gathers information on everyone else, for no side can afford to be taken by surprise."
My interlocutor shifts the conversation to he topic of Saudi Arabia. "What has been happening there since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is very good for Iran, and we believe the time is coming when Saudi Arabia will try to make an unofficial move in our direction. By the way, it is true that the number of executions in Iran is greater, but there has been no international outcry about this like there was in the case of the Saudi journalist," he says with satisfaction.
"I enjoy watching President Trump try to get close to them, while the media and the Democrats find more and more evidence that makes it clear he should keep his distance. This gives me a glimmer of hope that in the end the Americans will have to turn to the Iranians and begin a relationship with us."
What about the possibility of an open confrontation between Iran and the IDF on Syrian soil?
"Firstly, there is no immediate reason for war. Secondly, both sides are more comfortable continuing what they are already doing. You will continue to strike from the air, and we will continue to establish ourselves inside Syria. Here and there Russian forces have comments regarding our presence, and we know how to deal with that. You also get comments from them, and are careful not to release it when you do. As it seems you have lost the upper hand in your Russia connections. Note that the Russians tried to distance us from the Israeli border a few months ago, but since then they have not mentioned it. Sometimes our side changes the deployment of forces, such as what happened on the Syrian Golan. Or, for example, we carefully go out with the Iranian experts and take care that they will not be recognized on the ground."
I ask him what he knows about Israel, and his eyes widen.
"I know who your politicians are, listen to reports about your military plans with great interest, but I am most interested in learning about life in Israel, how the society is structured, Sephardi versus Ashkenazi," he says, exhibiting an impressive amount of knowledge. "Adults and young people, trends, culture, even your legal world fascinates me." He does not see a big difference between young people in Iran and young people in Israel.
"In Tehran, like in Tel Aviv, we like contemporary music, good food and parties, and I more and more recognize a desire to shake off the old generation. The young girls, for example, go out in the street dressed modestly, and when they go to parties and private events it turns out that underneath they were wearing modern clothes."
The gray man
According to my interlocutor, about a quarter of Iran's population officially belongs to the conservative stream, while another quarter, mainly young, are affiliated with the liberal and rebellious stream. "Among them are the 'gray ones,' some of whom favor the old-fashioned, traditional one, and some who follow the new, albeit with less flamboyance. They hold demonstrations against the establishment that are mainly related to the harsh living conditions, but that does not mean that the demonstrators are part of the modernists. They are protesting against terms of employment and salaries. "
What stream do you belong to? It is an obvious question.
"I would say that I am religious-modern, in the gray realm. I pray, I follow the commandments of religion, without becoming extreme, and keep in close contact with my children and their contemporaries, but I also have an open line to the other side too."
My interlocutor tells me that it is allowed to be critical of the regime in Iran to criticize: "All of them, except for Supreme Leader Khamenei or the senior commanders of the security services," he says.
The establishment, he explains, has total control and ensures that no one takes them by surprise. "There are informants everywhere. I believe they even know where and when the young people's secret parties take place and only make arrests only when they cross the line." In his eyes, the regime's hand does not rest too heavily on the shoulders of its citizens. "Yes, in Iran they jail people who brutally fight against the system, but many times they are released quietly, with a commitment not to repeat the act that led to their arrest. Yes, there are also innocent people in prisons. In general, you are likely to be thrown in jail if you are seen as a threat to the regime. It's just as bad as being a drug dealer."
Meanwhile, Iran's balance of power has shifted again. President Hassan Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have suddenly vanished. You don't see or hear from them and Supreme Leader Khamenei is essentially saying, "I told you so."
My companion concedes that "not everything is good in Iran, and there is great disappointment, especially among the young people, and the feeling that the move with the Americans (the Iranian nuclear deal) has failed."
Now it's the turn of the military commanders to set the tone, I say.
I completely agree with you. The regime is keeping (Rouhani and Zarif - SP) in its pocket for a situation in which there are developments in the dialogue with the American administration. Look, Trump's announcement that he was renouncing Obama's policy and banning anyone doing business with us, was a painful slap in the face, It's true that Iran can handle the sanctions, but life is much more difficult. It is not a good situation. "
Instead of the United States and European countries, he explains, we got China. Oil exports to China stand at 700,000 barrels a day, about a third of the country's oil.
"But I do not like them," he admits. "We have no common language, they have no interest in trying to solve our problems in the world or in really getting close to us. The just want to do business at a good price and to get some sort of foothold. I prefer the Americans, and I believe they will come, on their own terms."
He breaks off for a moment, to quote a passage from a poem written by the Iranian poet Azita Ghahreman (who now lives in Sweden):
We stand back to back
to contemplate darkness
and the chirping of rain,
the rain eases
a new season dawns
we turn our heads
to contemplate Spring
but find we no longer know one another.
"Did you understand that?" he asks. "In my opinion, this is the precise essence of life in Iran: At one point you are up and one point you are down. You have to preserve your optimism at all times, look around you and look for solutions."
"And do you see yourself in it?"
"My situation is good within Iran, I have full freedom of movement, my family is well placed and I can contribute to the poor."
Most importantly, he adds, Iran is a beautiful country. "As you move away from the center of Tehran, you come across breathtaking beauty and warm, wonderful people. My children flee Tehran at every opportunity, go skiing in the winter and visit cafes and markets in the spring and summer. If only we were a little more Western, it would be perfect."