By Patrick McGrath
To celebrate the publication of a new book on Iran and its relations with the world, Iran in the International System: Between Great Powers and Great Ideas, the IIP hosted a panel discussion on January 30th featuring multiple authors from the book on the current situation in Iran in cooperation with the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies and the Austrian Orient Society. The panelists focused on their respective chapters and areas of expertise, including nuclear proliferation in Iran and the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran’s economic history, and Iran’s relations with China, India, and Russia. The discussion also touched on recent developments, including the assassination of Iranian military official Ghassem Soleimani, missile strikes by Iran against Iraqi military bases, and the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane by Iran.
The introduced was provided by Mitra Shahmoradi, artist, painter, poet, and co-editor of the volume, and Bert Fragner, researcher and professor of Iranian studies at the Austrian Orient Society. The panel featured co-editor and author Heinz Gärtner, researcher and political scientist at the IIP and the University of Vienna, and authors Erzsébet N. Rózsa, researcher and university lecturer of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs/Institute for World Economics, Mahdi Ghodsi, economist at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, and Mher D. Sahakyan, researcher and university lecturer of the China-Eurasia Council for Political and Strategic Research. The event was moderated by Marylia Hushcha, research assistant at the IIP, and Director of the IIP Stephanie Fenkart and President of the IIP Hannes Swoboda welcomed the audience to the event.
Shahmoradi delivered an introduction in German and Farsi on society and culture in Iran today, and Fragner discussed the role of ideas across Iran’s history, including the struggles for freedom, revolution, and constitutionalism. Hushcha then introduced the book and provided an overview of the primary topics covered, including Iran’s relations with the US, Iran’s economic development post-1979, Iran’s relations with Eurasian powers, and Iranian societal changes following the Revolution.
Gärtner, the first speaker on the panel, discussed regional security and Iran’s position in the Middle East as well as the fallout from the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and its impact on nuclear proliferation and the global arms control regime. He noted that the agreement was a masterpiece of negotiation and traced the origin of the ongoing crisis to the US withdrawal. Further, Gärtner highlighted the increased potential for military escalation between the US and Iran after Iran’s announcement that it will no longer comply with the JCPOA and will move towards acquiring a nuclear weapon. While the JCPOA is at the center of the current debate, the underlying cause for the crisis is ultimately hegemonic competition between Iran and the US.
Turning to the economy, Ghodsi addressed Iran’s economic outlook, the economic impact of sanctions and the JCPOA, and the effect of domestic policies. Iran’s high level of human capital, vast energy resources, and growing population are key strengths, but the inflation, recession, lack of capital, poor economic growth, and high degree of centralization in the country reflect long-standing economic mismanagement by the government. Although the government blames sanctions for the current economic situation and ongoing protests, Ghodsi noted that the government’s failure to seek peace with the outside world and its dependence on oil have hindered the country’s development.
Examining the role of competing Eurasian powers, Rózsa spoke about Iran’s relations with India and Russia and areas for cooperation and competition. Iran considers itself a key regional power in Asia, and it has sought to improve relations with its neighbors to the East after being continually rejection by the West. While Iran aims to leverage its energy resources as a basis for future cooperation, particularly with India and China, its relevance in Asia is ultimately limited and partially dependent on the presence or absence of the US in the region. Regarding Iran’s relations with Russia, Rózsa focused on the role of technology, the arms trade, energy, the Caspian Sea, and Syria, while in regards to India, she underlined India’s desire for great power status, energy, strategic competition with China, terrorism, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). She noted that Iran’s relations with the two countries can ultimately be characterized by convenience, mutual cooperation, and distrust without a deep strategic alliance.
Focusing on Sino-Iranian relations, Sahakyan highlighted China’s five key interests in maintaining the stability and inclusion of Iran in the international system. First, China is interested in Iran for its energy resources, particularly in the areas of oil and nuclear energy. Next, it aims to include Iran both as a partner for transportation and communication links as well as a key ally in its BRI in the region. Fourth, it views Iran as an important export market for its goods, as evidenced by the increase in trade between the two countries in recent years and growing customs cooperation. Lastly, it is interested in Iran as a hedge against growing US influence in Asia. The re-imposition of sanctions following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA has threatened Sino-Iranian economic cooperation, and thus China has aimed to maintain dialogue with all sides and engage in political and diplomatic efforts to ensure stability.
Questions raised for the panel focused on the state of Iran’s military, the impact of the downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane in Tehran, economic privatization, Iran’s relations with Israel, and the possibility for another revolution in Iran. In their concluding remarks, Gärtner noted the need for confidence-building and regional arms control to avoid military confrontation in the region, while Rózsa expressed skepticism about another revolution in the near future.
At the end of the event, Shahmoradi read one of her poems in German and Farsi with musical accompaniment by Pejman Parsmehr on the santur.