BPR Interview: Rose McDermott

Iran’s relationship with Israel is…delicate, to say the least. And recently, with Iran’s significant increases in nuclear activity, the Israeli attitude is extremely defensive and fearful. Iran is also playing defense in attempts to stand by their past administrative decisions, but with their failing currency and impending additional sanctions from the European Union, they’ve had no choice but to come to the drawing board with a plan to ease international concern over their nuclear program, inter alia. Rose McDermott, Professor of Political Science here at Brown, sat down to discuss Iran’s nuclear program and Israeli foreign policy from an International Relations perspective.

BPR: What’s your take on the situation today, and do you see any escalation in the short-term?

Rose McDermott: There has been some escalation led especially by Netanyahu. The problem is, the way that I read the UN reports, they’re getting close to building a nuclear weapon, 90% or so, but there’s still quite a bit of play there to how close they actually are. Once you have a weapon you have to think about the delivery systems available, too. There will be constraints on how far and how accurately it can be launched. Now, it is to my understanding that Netanyahu has been leading the charge in terms of a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons. It is also to my understanding that the Israeli military and public opinion do not support this, and that the Obama administration is against this. And Netanyahu still thinks it’s a good idea. My understanding from U.S. military sources is that it is not trivial to just start bombing this area – it’s deep in a mountain and would take a month of heavy attack, which of course will lead to retaliation and military conflict. That’s the escalation that concerns me. The Israelis want American support – without the US, it’s much harder – but I don’t think Obama is going to do this before the elections. Whether or not Mitt Romney would support Israel is unclear. If you read his policy statements and listen to him, it looks like he would be more supportive of more aggressive action towards the Iranians, but frankly, I just don’t find the sophistication of his take on IR to be – at all – above the threshold of what I would expect. So I hope that he would take a little more advice before taking action, but you just don’t know.

BPR: You mentioned the possibility of Israel taking unilateral action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Do you think this will happen?

Rose McDermott: I was more concerned about this and thought there was a higher probability about a month or so ago. I’ve seen some ratcheting back that makes me more optimistic and that leads me to believe they wouldn’t take military action, at least in isolation. I don’t feel that means they won’t in the next 9 months – I don’t really have a clear sense of that. It’s been very clear from recent reports that the sanctions are starting to work in Iran, and that in particular the currency has fallen precipitously.  I think that’s caused a series of economic and political and personal hardships. The question is will that translate into political pressure on the regime, and I don’t think we know that yet.

BPR: Regarding a regime response on the sanctions, Iran released earlier this week a 9-point plan saying that they would at least come to the table and discuss their nuclear situation. As a result, crude oil prices dropped dramatically. Later, though, many Western leaders downplayed the report because of Iran’s requirement of a temporary lifting of sanctions. But do you think Iran’s introduction of this plan is at least a sign that they may be backing off?

Rose McDermott: I think the fact that they introduced the plan shows that they want to reach an accommodation because the pressure from sanctions, I would imagine, is making the leadership concerned that their own population will start to overthrow it. So, whether or not they will actually reach an accommodation is unclear. The fact that they’re at least willing to begin talks makes me think that they’re concerned about their own domestic pressure base.

BPR: You talk about the application of psychological models to International Relations in your POLS 0400 class. Do you see that coming into play here, either with Benjamin Netanyahu or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Rose McDermott: It’s interesting that you mention that. I saw a report on Ahmadinejad that Jerrold Post [of GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs] had done at a conference I was at this summer, and he had performed a pretty extensive personality assessment of Ahmadinejad. I don’t know if it was for the CIA, but it was definitely for the intelligence community. And it was interesting, but the problem is that I’m not clear that he’s even the central decision maker in this series of calculations. I think it’s really the religious leadership lead by Ayatollah Khomeini, and I think we don’t know as much about that leadership and specifically that kind of decision-making. I think it also depends on how one interprets the part of the Koran that talks about how one shouldn’t engage in violence against innocent others and whether or not the Iranian leadership understands that as an extension over nuclear weapons and wholesale violence. But that’s where the real decision-making lies, in my opinion. So knowing something about Ahmadinejad is interesting but unfortunately does not tell us everything we need to know. I haven’t seen assessments about Netanyahu, but he’s obviously a very complex case. Having grown up in New York, definitely of a family who had their own notions about the pressures for survival that Israel and Jews were under in general, and he clearly internalized that sense of concern. I’d say that his concern manifests in his aggressive ways to protect Israel.

BPR: There are of course several factors that characterize the Israel-Iran relationship. Religious, socioeconomic, and historical factors, one might argue, make the relationship so delicate. But do you also see this as a pure fight for regional hegemonic power, a neorealist power struggle even?

Rose McDermott: I don’t see it that way. You pointed out the historical factors, especially with Iran and the US and how we supported the Shah well past the point of favorable outcome for us. So there is good reason, I think, why the Iranians would distrust the Americans. But there’s good reason, I think, why the Americans would also have hostile feelings against the Iranians. Of course, there is also a deeper history of the Jews and the Persians that goes back to King Cyrus, but that’s the 14th century. So it’s not a set of populations that cannot get along – they should be able to get along. Granted there have been other things that have happened recently, some religious and some cultural, some geopolitical, that have made the relationship even tenser. But to the extent that realist issues are at play, it’s just about the power of nuclear weapons and who gets to have them. It’s also about the argument some people make that Israel should be the only nation in the region to have nuclear weapons. Because of what, though? Because they’re the democracy? Because they’re the country that we get along with? There needs do be decisions made about what’s okay. Now, if you get a balance of power in the region, and the Iranians get nuclear weapons, it changes the dynamics. I think each actor needs to decide whether they think that’s a good change or a bad change. Obviously, American foreign policy has its view. But larger realist arguments could make a claim that a balance of power makes hostility less likely, so it depends on what kind of conflict you see as the main driving force behind these issues.

BPR: If you were in President Obama’s position, considering an IR perspective, what would you do in this case? Would you support Israel militarily and bilaterally against Iran?

Rose McDermott: This is a good question, and for the record I’d hate to be president – I think it’s an awful job to face. But, yes, if I were in this position, I would tell Netanyahu some form of, “Do whatever you want, but don’t expect us to back you no matter what.” And then I’d go to the Iranians and say, “Do whatever you want, but if you attack Israel, you’re over.” And I’d make clear that the US is the broker for peace – not the broker for war. I just don’t think that the Israelis in any reasonable military calculation would go ahead with an attack if they knew the Americans would not unequivocally come and save them. And I also don’t think the Iranians would attack the Israelis if they knew that an attack on Israel meant the entire might of the American military on their heads. So the Iranians may decide that the bomb has better places to go.

BPR: To what extent do you think the Iranians are aware that the US has Israel’s back if they are attacked?

Rose McDermott: Oh, I think that the Iranians believe that the US will do whatever Israel wants them to do. I think they overattribute the amount of power that Israel has over the US, and that’s not to say that Israel doesn’t have any power over the US – it definitely does. But the US is not a puppet of Israel any more that Israel is a puppet of the United States. I think that they’re very close and have an often-manipulative relationship, especially when you throw in electoral politics, but there’s no puppet relationship here. I think there are a lot of conspiracy theories in the Middle East about the US, and one of those theories is that the US has a Zionist alliance that is impenetrable, which, of course, is not the truth.