By Israel Rojas-Moreno ‘16
How do you overcome years of conflict, decades of tension, and centuries of mistrust? And how does personal experience influence the lens through which you understand the world around you? The recent negotiations between the U.S. and Iran over nuclear weapons prompted ChiBus to explore these questions with your fellow classmates, each with unique perspectives about the situation in the Middle East. (Note: the following has been edited for brevity).
ChiBus: Can you talk about growing up in the Middle East or your general experience in the region?
Gilad: I’ve lived in Israel all my life and spent three years in the Israeli army. As a kid growing up in the 90s, the biggest threat was Iraq. I was in fourth grade when Israel was attacked by missiles from Iraq. As a seven-year-old, I was given a gas mask and walked around it. It was big fun as kids because sometimes we didn’t have to go to school. It was a weird, terrible reality.
Hoda: I was born in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. I remember that every neighborhood had an underground shelter to go to during bombings. All the windows were taped shut to protect people from any shattering glass. Looking back, I remember growing up alongside the industrial growth of Iran… the first time potato chips were sold, just one flavor, then many different flavors. I remember ice cream entering the market, first one flavor, then many more flavors.
Jake: I’ve got nothing. Pretty normal Midwestern childhood. But as a Naval Officer, I did encounter two versions of Iranian naval forces when passing through Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. The Iranian Navy was very cordial and professional and shared our primary concern of safe navigation. The geopolitical stuff took a back seat. But when we got to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy, it was very different. There was less of an emphasis on professional militarism. That was very interesting, seeing two very different forces and not just one monolithic organization.
ChiBus: What about experiences related to the regional conflict or consequences of the conflict?
Hoda: I grew up in Tehran and my family still lives there. The sanctions have been going on since the revolution that took place in 1979. But the last 4-5 years of sanctions have really crippled the ordinary people who live in Iran. Many small businesses have been shut down, and any import/export with foreign countries has been severely limited. As sanctions have gotten stricter, even new industries and manufacturing companies have shut down and crippled the economy in Iran. I’ve seen how it’s been affecting unemployment and eroding the middle class. Rich people associated with the government have become richer, but the poor and powerless have become poorer and poorer.
Gilad: Before the revolution, Israel and Iran were pretty close partners. But for the last twenty years, Israel has suffered attacks from the Northern or Southern border by Hezbollah and Hamas, organizations that – according to the U.S. State Department – are funded by Iran. Any Israeli civilian has been drastically affected and when we think about nuclear negotiations, its not some Cold War power scheme. It’s a real life problem. There are no gas masks for nuclear missiles.
ChiBus: How do you think the negotiations affects the situation?
Jake: The deal improves the situation. A lot of conflict between the U.S. and Iran is unnecessary and is based on really not being able to understand each other. But two things have happened recently that have made it possible to create peace in the region: the election of President Obama and the election of Hassan Rouhani in Iran. The elections have changed the tenor of the relationships and allowed for some cooperation in the region. There is an Iran backed militia fighting against ISIS in coordination with U.S. air strikes. That’s unprecedented since 1979.
Hoda: The deal with Iran would help the lives of ordinary people and would keep Iran’s nuclear program in check. Iran has a lot to lose if they deviate from the deal and go after nuclear weapons.
Gilad: Do you think these negotiations will actually deter Iran from getting nuclear weapons or is the assumption that they’re going to get them anyway and at least this way they’re at least cooperating?
Jake: I do. There are two ways to look at this situation. If you support the agreement, you’re betting we can trust the Iranian government. If not, you’re betting Iran will find some way to cheat. I fall in the first camp because of my experience in the Persian Gulf… seeing that there was this group of people that were professional naval officers just like me. Seeing people within the Iranian government who are willing to make peace. The election of President Rouhani has brought more moderate voices to the forefront. I would not be this optimistic if Ahmadinejad was still president.
Hoda: Funny you say if Ahmadinejad was in place, none of this would be possible. There is a joke in Iran: every time Ahmadinejad comes on TV to give a speech, more rounds of sanctions will follow. So the majority in Iran are relieved that Rouhani is now in place.
I see the deal working for two reasons. The deal is not just with the U.S.. Russia, China and other countries also back the credibility of the agreement. If Iran does start cheating or sabotaging the deal, it would negatively impact its relationship with Russia and China. During the sanctions, those were countries Iran could turn to. If Iran did cheat, not only would Iran lose the relationship it is creating with the U.S., they would embarrass Russia and China internationally. The other reason is financial. In the first round of negotiations, Iran got $7 billion in sanction relief. Iran gets another $30 billion if the deal goes through. A third reason is that Iran is giving daily access to the five plus countries to monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities. People can observe and monitor as much as they want in that regard.
Gilad: I’m obviously way more cautious. I tend not to focus on the terms as much as the goal. I’m very much afraid of Iran’s intentions. I see a country with flowing access to oil or solar power putting a lot of effort and resources into alleged civilian nuclear powers. At the same time, Iran is also putting a lot of resources into developing its military strength. I’m thinking the sanctions would have been lifted years ago if Iran had stopped investing resources into nuclear development. Another thing: why build below ground? Why buy missile defense systems? I’m afraid, and the only reason I can think of is military use. The problem is, there’s no way back. Hopefully I’m mistaken. If that is the case, great. But if that is not the case, I’m worried two years from now you will see a headline, like with North Korea, saying now Iran has a nuclear bomb.
Hoda: [U.S. and Israeli intelligence] reports published in the news show Iran is not making a bomb. Also, Iran is a signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, whereas Israel is one of the few countries that has refused to sign.
Jake: I want to jump in with two points from a military perspective. Yes, Iran has absolutely been building up its conventional forces in the Persian Gulf. However there are many potential adversaries that have Iran scared right now. There’s good reason for Iran to be building up its military from a purely defensive capabilities point rather than for offensive capability. Like Israel, Iran sees itself as alone in the region. Many gulf countries have made no secret about open hostilities with Iran. In Saudi Arabia, they were talking about preparing for a potential conflict with Iran. Also, North Korea wound up with a bomb because we couldn’t reach an agreement with them; it is a great example of what can happen if agreement fails.
ChiBus: Talking about North Korea, why would it be any worse for Iran to have a nuclear bomb?
Gilad: Iran wouldn’t use a nuclear weapon against Israel. That would be dumb. But what happens if Hezbollah gets a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb. Then you have an organization with no flag behind it and no one really responsible. If one of those bombs explodes in Israel, how do you respond? Second: once Iran has nuclear bomb, what is Saudi Arabia going to do? Egypt? Those countries will ask for protection and develop or buy one on their own. Then you have a fully nuclear Middle East. The reality of the region is, countries fail. Syria used to be a pretty stable superpower. They had very advanced weapons and now all those weapons are held or divided across a few regimes and terrorist organizations.
Jake: I agree, that is the nightmare scenario. Which is why we should prevent that from happening and why I think this agreement is precisely the way to do it.
ChiBus: What is the alternative in Iran if there is no agreement?
Hoda: The alternative is not for Iran to abandon its nuclear program, but for America to abandon diplomacy and potentially prepare for an assault against Iran. These nuclear negotiations would prevent Iran from reaching a nuclear weapon and would prevent the U.S. from starting another war in the region. Iran’s internal dynamics are very complicated. Everyone from outside might see Iran as one cohesive group of people saying death to Israel, death to America. But the reality is that there are very different political groups. The general public doesn’t want war, they want Iran to economically prosper, they want an opportunity for people to grow and have a good life in Iran.
ChiBus: The elections of Obama and Rouhani were mentioned... what about the re-election of Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu?
Gilad: I’m actually against Netanyahu, but on the Iranian conflict a big majority of Israeli’s feel similar to him. He is deeply concerned with the developments and seeing the way he acts and talks against those negotiations definitely gets me more concerned.
ChiBus: Closing thoughts?
Jake: I’m optimistic. We all want the same thing, a peaceful Middle East. This agreement is a step in the right direction.
Gilad: Absolutely agree [about peace], but I’m deeply concerned this is not right way to go.
Hoda: I’m on same boat as Jake. The current deal restricts Iran’s nuclear program and allows the U.S. to have an ally in the region.
Booth World View is a new series of student perspectives on contentious issues.