A Tale of Two Conferences

There have been a handful of interesting Iran-related news items over the last week: an Iranian vessel harassed an American warship in the Straits of Hormuz, Iran tested its new S-300 missile defense system, AHMADINEJAD JOINED TWITTER. Of these, the first two are notable by virtue of their normality. Iran has been conducting missile tests and harassing U.S. ships in and around Iranian waters for years now, but there was a good bit of noise made following the “On Notice” designation from now ex-national security advisor Mike Flynn that maybe this was the “credible threat” that was going to scare Iran into toning down its aggressive antics. Maybe not. It’s still business as usual.

There was, however, another Iran-related news item from the past week. It did not take place in Iran, but in a conference hall in north Tel Aviv. Last Thursday, Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) held a conference entitled “Iran in a New Strategic Era in the Middle East.” The event description stated it sought to  “focus on Iran in a changing Middle East, which includes a new administration in Washington.”

As far as Israeli think tanks go, INSS is considered a moderate outfit. Far more so than, say, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. It operates similar to large American institutions like Brookings or Carnegie, employing a handful of fellows on a variety of topics, ranging from area specific to broader policy. As the name implies, it is a bit more focused on topics related to national security.

Thus, this is the third time in the last sixteen months that the INSS has convened a conference on Iran. In December 2015, it held one entitled “Iran after the Nuclear Agreement: What Next?” Then, six months later in June 2016, it held another event on “The Iran Nuclear Deal, One Year On: Nuclear Economic and Regional Implications.”

The attendance at these events was notable. I went to the one in December 2015. The room was so packed I had to sit on a spare podium in the very back because every single chair was occupied ten minutes before the opening statements even began. This was a real accomplishment in Israel, where people are rarely on time for anything. A picture INSS tweeted out from last week’s event shows a similar crowd. Clearly, people are interested.

These events are a useful barometer for Israeli expert thinking on Iran. Since the conferences feature similar panel topics, they provide a crude measure of how the discussion of Iran in Israel has evolved over time. Take, for example, the panels from the December 2015 and March 2017 conferences that focused on the United States’ relationship with Iran. Fifteen months ago, the opening panel on “The Significance of the Nuclear Agreement – An American View” featured

  • Robert Einhorn: Brookings Institution, former special advisor to Hillary Clinton at the State Department
  • Thomas Pickering: former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs
  • Daniel Kurtzer: former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, now Princeton professor
  • Eli Levite: Carnegie Endowment and former Deputy Director of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.

These are all former top-level government officials who worked in diplomatic fields and are now employed at well-respected think tanks and academic institutions. Most of the panel expressed support for the nuclear deal, which at that point had been agreed upon but not yet implemented. Ambassador Kurtzer went a step further in his analysis, observing that the Israeli government’s all-out effort to prevent a deal appeared to signal its abandonment of diplomacy as a tool for international relations altogether. Needless to say, this view proved very unpopular in subsequent panels.

In contrast, this year’s opening panel entitled “Iran and the United States – what can be expected from the Trump administration” was significantly different in both content and tone. It included Emily Landau, a hawkish proliferation expert from INSS (see her Twitter feed for a sample of her views), as well as TWO representatives, Mark Dubowitz and Mary Beth Long, from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a neoconservative lobbying group with strong ties to the Israeli right wing that has been advocating regime change in Iran for years. These panelists did little to dispute Kurtzer’s claims from the past conference. Instead, they offered a declarative affirmation that Israel is not currently interested in diplomacy on this issue.

As the opening presentation, conference planners must have been looking to focus on the evils of Iran. The panelists took turns condemning “the Ayatollahs” running Iran, warning about Iran’s desire for “hegemonic aspirations” for “territorial expansion,” and urging a more hardline stance from the Trump administration. Dubowitz mispronounced the name of the Iranian hardliner newspaper, calling it “Kahan” instead of Kayhan. Long, claiming that Iran only “responds” when it feels “territorially” or “internally” threatened, argued that the United States needs to do more of both. Landau followed by saying it was a mistake to treat Iran like a diplomatic partner at all, and that the P5+1 (permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) needs to treat any discussion moving forward as what she called a “game of compellence” rather than a negotiation. It sounded oddly like a call to return to the George W. Bush style of Middle East “diplomacy”: demanding concessions under the threat of war.

By far the most interesting moment came when Mary Beth Long said that she “believes that the Iranians are doing everything they can to violate the agreement behind the scenes.” She based this assertion on a mischaracterization of a German intelligence assessment that came out last summer, which reported on Iranian efforts to procure nuclear-related technology in 2015, i.e. before the deal was implemented. No one corrected her on this point.

To be fair, at both conferences, other panels later in the day featured presentations by  Iran-focused specialists such as David Menashri and Raz Zimmt. But they received relatively little media attention compared to those who vilified Iran and the danger it poses. (They were not mentioned in the Jerusalem Post write-up of the event.) Furthermore, at least in 2015 when I attended the conference, most other participants quickly dismissed nuanced views of Iranian politics and society in favor of continued use of monolithic stereotypes.

It may make sense in the age of Trump to invite more hawkish commentators to offer their predictions on the future of American-Iranian relations. After all, that is the present line of discussion in both Washington and Jerusalem. As a respected think tank, INSS could make a more valuable contribution to international understanding if it configures its conferences to foster a more informed debate: one driven by a nuanced understanding of the country and its leaders rather than the promotion of an ideological agenda.

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