A group of high-profile Iranian dissidents visited Israel for a conference with local scholars shortly after the July 2015 signing of the nuclear deal between Tehran and major world powers, an unprecedented move that came as Tehran was being welcomed back in the community of nations.
The precise who, when and where of the conference, convened to discuss how the nuclear deal was being viewed through Iranian eyes, are still being kept secret a year later in order to protect the dissidents and their families.
But it has been revealed that they included former ministers and diplomats, former founding members of Iran’s revolutionary bodies and foundations, former student leaders, current leading pro-democracy and civil society activists, intellectuals, authors, writers, media personalities, and journalists, all of whom no longer live in the Islamic Republic.
The Iranian regime is deeply hostile to Israel. It funds, trains and arms terrorist organizations that seek to destroy Israel. And its leadership routinely encourages the demise of what it calls the Zionist regime.
While Israel has parlayed shared unhappiness with the nuclear deal into the forging of new alliances with Sunni states also opposed to Iranian hegemony in the region, the pact has also prompted dissidents uncomfortable with the West’s embrace of Tehran to turn toward Israel, according to Yossi Kuperwasser, one of the Israeli scholars who participated in the conference and who spoke with The Times of Israel.
“When quite important elements within the Iranian opposition and Israeli experts can meet, this is an indication that if this radical regime was not there, the Iranian people and the Israeli people can cooperate. This was the case in the past and can be the case now, and it is definitely in Israel’s interest to see the Iranians making the best of their potential,” Kuperwasser said this week.
Kuperwasser added: “This message was repeatedly raised by the Iranians themselves. The potential of cooperation between the two peoples is immense.”
Along with Avi Davidi, who edits The Times of Israel’s Persian site, Kuperwasser coauthored a paper, entitled “Iran in the Post-Nuclear Deal Era: Iranian Dissidents’ Perspective,” for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs about the results of the conversation with the dissidents.
That paper, published in March, did not disclose that the Iranian dissidents had been hosted in Israel. But two weeks ago, largely unnoticed, the JCPA posted a video on YouTube with accompanying text that revealed that the talks had taken place here.
Kuperwasser, who was chief of the research division in IDF Military Intelligence and then director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, stressed that the “important” dissidents he met held substantially varied opinions.
The Israeli scholars wrote in their paper that the dissidents were “selected meticulously in order to assure a study of a broad and diverse opinions, views and strategies.”
Despite the diversity of Iranian interlocutors, Kuperwasser said they were in unanimous agreement about what they perceived as the most salient and negative result of the Iran deal: its emboldening of their country’s theocratic regime.
“The attitude of Iranian dissidents towards JCPOA [the nuclear deal] is not always negative. Iranian dissidents are not made of one stripe. They are not against better conditions in Iran of course. But they are worried that the deal will strengthen the regime in the long run, enabling them to have a stronger grip over the people of Iran,” he told The Times of Israel.
He continued: “In a way, the radical group was using the pragmatic group, or more realistic elements in the group like Rouhani, in order to ease the economic pressure. And now it will be easier for them to put more pressure on the opposition and to make sure reform doesn’t happen.”
The large majority of dissidents who met with the Israeli scholars were also of the opinion that the Iranian regime would at some point breach the terms of the nuclear agreement — once it has reaped the economic and political benefits.
The Russian embrace
While the conversation between the Israeli scholars and Iranian dissidents did not provide dramatic new details, Kuperwasser said it put “some flesh” on already well-known information.
For the military intelligence veteran, the most enlightening aspect of the talks was how the dissidents described the Iranian regime’s embrace of Russia. He said the dissident described a deeply pro-Russia stance in the regime, “almost as their best friends.”
Recent manifestations of this tight relationship include Russian coordination with Tehran over the Syrian civil war, Russian contracts to help build two nuclear power plants in Iran, and even permission for Russia to carry out military operations from within Iran, which Kuperwasser said “is really something that goes beyond everything else.”
Davidi, who described meeting the dissidents as an attempt “to see Iranians through their own eyes,” also cited the Russian-Iranian ties as the most important issue discussed.
Davidi pointed out that before the deal was struck, the West had convinced Russia to delay the delivery of the S-300 surface-to-air defense missile system to Iran. However, almost immediately after the pact was signed last July, the Russians made the transfer. Iran followed up by publicly placing the S-300 missiles next to its nuclear facilities.
“The Iranians are sending a message to all those guys who thought one day they could attack it: ‘Those days are over and now we are already at the point where we can defend ourselves,’” said Davidi.
Economic outlook: Not bright
The nuclear deal removed many but not all international sanctions against Iran. And while it opened the country up to foreign investment, some of the dissidents argued Iran would not attract investors without much-needed transparency and domestic banking reforms.
“[The dissidents] gave a very lengthy analysis of the economy that tells you, with all due respect to the benefits of the JCPOA, the ability of Iran — because of its economic structural problems, the immense influence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard over the economy, and because of corruption — the ability to take full advantage of the new situation is not that bright,” Kuperwasser said.
Wanted: Free elections
The Iranian dissidents who met with the Israeli scholars also agreed on the need for “soft power” to topple the current regime.
The dissidents said that the issue of a successor to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is 77 and has been in and out of the hospital in recent years, is the greatest question mark in Iran’s future. They generally believed that the radical revolutionary forces in the country will likely choose the next leader.
In order to overcome the power of these theocratic forces, the dissidents argued that what is needed is fair and democratic elections. If Iranians are given the opportunity to have real democratic elections, they will vote for a change of government, as most are against the theocratic regime, the dissidents claimed.
“They don’t expect any military operations.They can arrange all kinds of demonstrations, popular activity that would put pressure on the government,” Kuperwasser said.
In stark contrast to the rest of the Middle East — Israel and perhaps Tunisia excluded — Iran is the only country where, if free and democratic elections were held, “democratic values” would have the upper hand, the dissidents told their Israeli hosts.