9 min read
Discussion On Iranian Politics And World View with Dr. Goldberg

This month Platform sat down with Dr. Ori Goldberg, an author of 3 books on Iran, 'Shi'i Theology in Iran: The Challenge of Religious Experience', 'Understanding Shiite Leadership' and 'Faith in Politics in Iran, Israel and the United States'. 

Dr. Goldberg is a lecturer at Reichman University and Tel Aviv University, where he teaches classes relating to religious identities in the Middle East. We asked him about Iran's hatred of Israel, its nuclear program and the recent protests. His answers reflect a view of Iran that diverges from the traditional/mainstream paradigm found amongst the right-wing in the United States and Israel. Dr. Goldberg’s answers present a different framework for understanding Iran and its leaders. We hope you enjoy reading!

Platform Mag: For a number of months now, Iran is believed to have amassed enough enriched uranium at 60% purity, and could convert this stockpile rapidly to weapons-grade purity of 90% in a matter of weeks. Yet, CIA Director William Burns said that it was the assessment of US intelligence that Iran’s supreme leader hasn't made the decision to resume Iran’s weaponization of its nuclear program. Do you agree with this assessment? If so, what could be Iran’s motivations for refraining from undertaking these efforts?

Dr. Ori Goldberg: What could be Iran's motivations for weaponizing the bomb? Iran has absolutely nothing to gain from pursuing a bomb at the moment. It is focused on winning points with the diplomatic community, through behavior that brings stability and strengthens its image as a potential "responsible adult" in the region. It has also been making a credible case for another agreement with the United States. 

The final thing we need to remember and it may seem trivial, but it isn't. The decision to make the bomb is a political decision. The underlying assumption of your question is that Iran wants to get the bomb as soon as it can. Why do they want the bomb? Ask Israelis and they'll tell you, "because it seeks the destruction of Israel", ask right wing political experts and they'll tell you "because Iran wants to enforce its hegemonic desires". But since the decision to go for the bomb is a political decision, it has to be made by a political figure. In this case it's the Supreme Leader and he hasn't made that decision [to go for the bomb] yet, because of a large number of very rational and justifiable political reasons. If this was any other country but Iran, no one would assume they'd be running towards the bomb. It doesn't make any sense for the Iranians, which is why they haven't done it yet.

Platform Mag: So in other words, you believe Iran views the decisions on their nuclear program reflect their political, not religious motivations. So do you believe there's any credibility to Khamenei’s fatwa (a religious ruling for muslims) declaring that acquiring nuclear weapons is prohibited in the Koran?

Dr. Ori Goldberg: This whole fatwa debate, whether it exists or it doesn't, is a distraction that is used by everybody for their own reasons. That's not what motivates the Islamic Republic. Khamenei doesn't do things because Khomeini ordered him to do so. Does it make sense that there might have been a fatwa written? Possibly, but that's neither here nor there. Any fatwa is usually viewed with context, any legal/religious decision can be reversed. So the fatwa by itself is basically meaningless. Khamenei may have wrote something like that, not because he was a great humanitarian, rather because legally speaking (according to the Koran) there'd be a high number of bystanders they’d kill [if they were used]. 

Still though, the religious ruling is irrelevant, it adds a whiff of exoticism to our air of understanding about Iran, by reinforcing the idea that Iranians are primitive barbarians that don't operate according to logic. Look at my answer to your previous question. There's this assumption that the basic assumptions of realpolitik don't apply in the case of Iran, why? Because they’re crazy. The idea that they make political decisions because of a fatwa is just another attempt to portray them as crazy, because the issue of fatwas is irrelevant for understanding decisions by the Iranian government.

Platform Mag: So in your view the Iranian government makes their decisions for political motivations only, even though they are a theocratic regime?

Dr. Ori Goldberg: Yes and I’ll take it a step further. They make political decisions that are extremely rational just like any other state. The most dominant facet of their theocratic nature is that they make these decisions through coalitions. No one does anything alone, especially not the supreme leader. He has a lot of power, but he became and stayed [as] the Supreme Leader because he has been a skilled coalition builder. Nothing in Tehran gets done on the sole whim of a single ruler and that's part of the theocracy. Why? Because a theocracy maintains a strong communal element, even amongst the leadership. They make decisions through consultation and communication and they never just assume complete authority. In a theocracy, people know that true authority only belongs to God.

Platform Mag: In September of 2022, the death of Mahsa Amini sparked large scale protests across Iran against the regime. Lately though it seems they have lost momentum and have largely died down. In your opinion, how close did they come to overthrowing the Iranian government?

Dr. Ori Goldberg: Not particularly close but that wasn't the great achievement of these protests. I think the greatest accomplishment of these protests was to make clear to the leaders of the Islamic Republic that a sword hangs over their heads. I think the rules of Iran did not really understand the level of public discomfort with the regime. The message has sunk in now, for the more pragmatic elements within the leadership and even for the hardcore revolutionary conservatives. They understand they aren't safe and that their revolution may be followed soon by another. Up until the revolution, they had become smug and overconfident of their indestructibility and these protests made them understand that there is a powerful element of opposition within the general population. 

Probably what's most concerning for Iran’s leaders is that most of the protesters were young people. They may not have been strong enough to replace Iran’s government with their own coalition, but they have time and can afford to play “the long game”. Thanks to these protests, the Iranian government is now more aware of that and this message has not been lost on its recipients.

Platform Mag: To what degree is the younger generation opposed to Iran's regime?

Dr. Ori Goldberg: I think there were a lot of older members that were opposed to the regime as well, but I think the recent protests exposed fault lines that were age-based. The younger generation of Iranians don't approve of the regime. It isn't that they have specific alternatives in mind, but they don't like the regime and the general consensus amongst those observing Iran is that this wasn't yet a full fledged revolution, it was an experiment. It was them testing to see how far they could go in intimidating the regime and gauging reaction of the regime when the population pushes back. I think the young protesters learned a lot, but they ended it poorly with the attempt to bring back the Shah’s heir to build a coalition. It turned out to be quite ridiculous and there's still a huge gap between Iranian domestic opposition and Iranian exiles. There's a long way to go before the domestic opposition within Iran is able to mount a credible challenge to the regime. Still, this is the closest they've come to regime change since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

Platform Mag: Yes and much of the political analysis of the recent protests have pointed out that these have the largest support base of any of the prior protest movements (for example the Green Revolution in 2009) and also the most comprehensive.

Dr. Ori Goldberg: Yes, that’s true, there have been demonstrations and protests since 1979 but these past protests were the most ideological and comprehensive that they've ever been. If Iran’s leaders look at their history, they would see a concerning curve. The discomfort and outrage within Iran is growing rapidly and systematically and that is something that the leadership is now well aware of.

Platform Mag: How likely is it that Iran’s regime will manage to stay in power in the next five years?

Dr. Ori Goldberg: I think that if Iran’s leaders move cautiously and slowly, it's quite likely the regime will still be around in 5 years. I don't see any other option that is credible enough to make that happen and the opposition within and outside Iran is not mature enough to launch a coordinated effort that would be necessary if it were to be successful. Again, there is a huge gap between the Iranian diaspora and its population. So given the level of public anger against the regime, Iran's leaders are much safer than they might be, if there was a realistic replacement.

Platform Mag: A few days ago, Iran’s morality police have recently returned to the streets as a “countermeasure against hijab negligence”, according to a police spokesman. Do you believe it's likely that the restoration of this unit could act as a catalyst for the resumption of protests against this regime?

Dr. Ori Goldberg: I think the restoration of this unit is like a “trial balloon” for the leadership, to gauge the level of hostility that this will bring about. After the protests there's been a new status quo in Iran. People are doing more of what they want and religious compliance and enforcement are becoming more lax. The government has never commented on this shift but there is a de-facto change that is happening. This new step is more of a publicity measure. If the leadership acts stupid and allows this new policy to be used by the reactionary and populist elements in the regime, then yes, the protests might be renewed, but that’s a long way away though. I think this is a way to tell the would-be demonstrators, “we’re watching you” and to mess with their heads.

Platform Mag: It is little secret that Iran’s leaders have long hated Israel, often declaring their desire for the destruction of Israel and funding proxy groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and the PIJ that are dedicated to destroying the Jewish state. What is behind the passionate hatred that Iran’s regime harbors against Israel?

Dr. Ori Goldberg: I don't know if I’d necessarily agree with the way you characterized the state of affairs between the two countries. Iran is careful to talk about the potential destruction of Israel only in response to continued measures of Israeli aggression. I don't think the destruction of Israel is anywhere on Iran’s to-do list. I think Iran does view Israel as an enemy and the hatred has been stoked by both sides over the last 30 years. 

Imagine a Martian observer that has just arrived on earth and was asked to analyze the state of relations between Israel and Iran. One country has hundreds of nuclear weapons with a broad variety of methods which are ready to launch and carries out assassinations on the sovereign territory of the other country, sometimes with UAVs (Unmanned Aerial vehicles). The other country doesn't have nuclear weapons or assassinate Israeli citizens in the middle of Israel or strike Israeli territory. So again, if you were a Martian observer and you were asked to name the aggressor, I don't think you’d name Iran. 

What stands at the heart of the hatred? It’s based on ideology, and a radical interpretation of Iran’s struggle against imperialism. Israel is seen as the prime example of the vanity and corruption that came from imperialism. There’s also a decades-long struggle that has built up the hatred between the two countries. I don't think there's that much hatred there, just a very intense struggle. So it's a classic example of a “it takes two to tango” scenario. Israel has played a part in the deterioration of relations between the countries, just as much as Iran has. The hatred started ideological, Israel was seen as a colonialist stooge of the West and a prime example of how imperialism has stolen Muslim land. These days, that isn’t the main reason anymore for why Iran hates Israel. 

Both countries have very heavily armed war machines pointed towards each other and it's a war. One could look at the Cold War and ask what was at the heart of it? You could say it was ideological, which is true to some extent. But after about 10 years or so after WWII, relations between the two superpowers was already a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was self-perpetuating, which in a way, is exactly like Israel and Iran. Which takes me back to your original question and my answer, that this conflict will be decided politically. It's not going to end in an all-out war. It's not practical or in the interest of the Iranians or Israelis, certainly not right now. This will end when leaders from both countries are in the position to be able to stray from this seemingly inevitable course. 

Iranians think Israelis are crazy. They see Israel as a berserker, Iranians are negotiators that like to play the “long game”. Iranians usually don't go through the trouble of perpetuating blatant acts of violence. They operate behind the scenes and are political players. To them, Israel always goes in full force and the Iranians are definitely afraid of Israel’s military might and political instability. It's very apparent to them that a prominent measure for establishing your political credentials in Israel is to be willing to strike at Iran. So they’re definitely deterred, no doubt about it. 

Iran’s nightmare is facing an international military coalition that rallies against it. Iranians, like Israeli Jews, see themselves as being surrounded in a sea of hostile enemies and they’re really afraid all these enemies will join together and try and oust the Islamic Republic or conquer Iran. They see Israel as the most competent potential facilitator of such a coalition. Look at what Israel did with Trump, it was mostly through urging by Israel that Trump decided to withdraw from the JCPOA (also referred to by its nickname the “Iran deal”). So that's why Iran fears Israel.

Platform Mag: This past week, there was a report that IRGC officers from the Quds force met with Hamas officials to discuss how best to exploit the internal ongoing debate in Israeli society over the judicial reforms. It's rumored that both parties resolved not to take any actions that would directly impact the civil strife rocking Israel over the past year. Do you believe it's likely that these two groups agreed on this modus operandi? If so, how invested is Iran in this approach?

Dr. Ori Goldberg: Of course, it's the most sensible way to handle the situation with the overhaul. Right now, Israel is as volatile as it has ever been. Potentially the reigns of power could be snatched by someone whose trigger finger is itching. Israel is a nuclear power, Poland isn't, Turkey isn't, but Israel is. Why would you make an overt bid to intervene in what's happening here? If Israel was your enemy, then you’d feel fortunate that it's doing a great job weakening itself. Unless you buy into the notion that the main goal of Iran and its allies is the destruction of Israel. 

I don't think they think they can destroy Israel. Even the ones that do believe they can do that, are urging caution because Israel may destroy itself. So I think both Iran and Hamas are committed to staying the course with this strategy and watching the outcome closely. A war now would be detrimental to both the IRGC and Hamas. A week ago, there was a rare protest against Hamas, so its not a very stable situation there, its horrible. Iran is improving its situation and the lives of its citizens by pursuing a stable path and is now re-entering the middle east. So there’s no reason right now for Iran and its proxies to engage with Israel.

Platform Mag: In the last few months, there has been increasing tensions at the Northern border with Hezbollah, as both sides have accused the other of violating the terms of the UN mediated ceasefire agreement. Do you believe Hezbollah's increasingly confrontational behavior has the blessing of Tehran? In other words, why wouldn't Iran try to align Hezbollah with this strategy?

Dr. Ori Goldberg: I don't think Hezbollah is doing that at the behest of Iran. Iran doesn't care that much and Hezbollah is not on the warpath. In its view, its mounting a credible challenge to Israel and keeping it on its toes and trying to increase Israel’s confusion. Hezbollah is very clearly refraining from taking any actions that will force Israel to respond in a way that will lead to a war. Could Hezbollah take some action that might lead to a war? It could, but war is never inevitable, it’s the product of choice. What we’ve been seeing are the typical dynamics between Israel and Hezbollah. Hezbollah pokes and probes but doesn't want a war. It's not being confrontational to start a war, it wants to annoy Israel.

Platform Mag: A few months ago, Iran agreed to restore diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, a shocking agreement considering how the relationship between the two nations has been so adversarial. Does this agreement reflect any real thaw between them?

Dr. Ori Goldberg: Sure! Not in the sense that they’ve now become fast friends and they’re going to become united in their foreign policy, but it reflects a realization on both sides that neither country is going anywhere. Both countries understand that they cannot completely neutralize the effect of the other on regional affairs. They understand that they need to come to terms with each other's existence, influence and agendas and both sides are signaling that they have bigger issues to focus on. So this isn't the beginning of a new cordial alliance between them, its an acknowledgement and recognition of the geopolitical reality. It also shows the idea that the Sunnis and Shias are constantly at war, is complete crap. These are serious rational people that understand politics and operate as rational actors. This agreement is a demonstration of their rationality. They really have a lot to gain from this agreement and while it might not signify friendship in any way, it does reflect acknowledgement and mutual cooperation. Which is something Israel has a problem with, because it does not acknowledge reality.

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