Former minister assesses Iranian mindset, future prospects

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Syl Kacapyr

Abbas Maleki speaks on campus March 12.

In foreign policy, you don't "choose between good and bad," said Abbas Maleki, Iran's deputy foreign minister 1988-1997. "You must choose between bad and worse."

Maleki, the Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and associate professor of energy policy at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, spoke about "Iran's Foreign Policy and Its Future" on campus March 12.

According to Maleki, "the essence, the mentality of Iranians" is a feeling that "the world situation for Iran is becoming weaker every day." To strengthen their position, they look to modernism, nuclear power, nanotechnology, higher education and the expansion of naval forces, he said.

"Iran's approach to its neighbors is cultural first, then political, then economic," Maleki said. "Iran now feels that it has an Asian identity; it doesn't want to be a Middle Eastern country."

Regionalism is strong in Iran, Maleki noted. The country focuses on "self-reliance and the exclusion of extra-regional powers," refusing to accept "the emergence of an international system dominated by a superpower," what he called "a unipolar world order."

Where will Iran be in 20 years? Maleki asked. "Iran feels it must become an economic and technological power" in the East Asian region, he said. One way it could achieve this is by constructing pipelines and transporting goods from India and China to Europe by way of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.

Discussing U.S. and European Union sanctions against Iran, Maleki noted that "when you are in Tehran, you feel that the U.S., the U.K. and France are increasing pressure; therefore you are thinking about survival, not development strategies. ... When you sanction Iran it is not the government that receives most of the negative impacts or injuries -- it is the people."

Maleki advocated what he called "a pragmatic scenario" for Iran's future, where "tension would be controlled" and Tehran would seek "rapprochement with the Obama administration." In this scenario, Iran would improve its relations with its neighbors and invest in niche industries such as car manufacturing and telecommunications, he added.

In the "worst-case scenario," Maleki said, there would be "a rapid increase of political tensions on all sides," leading to the "eventual closure of Iran's market to foreign businesses, and sanctions would be tougher and harsher." This, he noted, would be "a nightmare for Iranians."

However, Maleki sounded a more optimistic note as well: "If we survive during these sanctions and issues," he said, "I think Iran will grow very rapidly again to be one of the major powers internationally."

As far as social change is concerned, "one of Iran's strengths is that 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30," Maleki observed. Online communication through Gmail, Yahoo! and Twitter is very common, he added.

The talk, part of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies' Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series, was co-sponsored by Team Iran-Cornell and the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs.

Joseph Mansky '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.


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