By Leah R. Harrison

Ken Stein for Atlanta Jewish Times

It’s a good thing Israel is strong, Ken Stein says. (photo by Leah R. Harrison)

Iran’s leaders got what they wanted most without giving up anything when the Obama administration took regime change off the table, Emory University professor Ken Stein told about 60 people gathered at the Weber School on May 5.

“When you tell the Iranian government you’re no longer interested in a regime change, we’re saying we are not interested in changing your ability to rule your country,” said Stein, the president of the Center for Israel Education and a professor of contemporary Middle Eastern history, political science and Israeli studies. He spoke at a forum co-sponsored by his CIE and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta on “Shifting Regional Landscapes: Israel and the U.S. in a Turbulent Middle East.”

By threatening action to topple the Iranian regime, the United States was the only country capable of denying a nuclear capacity to Iran, Stein said. But he cited quotes to show how President Barack Obama gradually shifted from a refusal to accept a nuclear Iran in 2012 to allowing Iran’s nuclear capacity but trying to contain its development.

Iran now can act without fear of restrictions. “That is a terrific victory for the Iranians without conceding anything. … We gave away regime change and got nothing in return,” Stein said. “We should have taken regime change off the table, but only in return for a 20-year moratorium on a nuclear weapon.”

Stein is not optimistic about the framework announced in early April of an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program or about the still-unknown details of the final deal, due June 30. Negotiation usually involves give and take, Stein said, “and that’s what the Iranians are now doing. They are negotiating in order to have us give, and they take. And by the way, in doing so, they don’t believe that they necessarily have to observe whatever agreements they reach.”

The sanctions preventing the free flow of Iranian oil are effective, and the Iranian economy is suffering. But when the sanctions are relieved under a nuclear agreement, Stein said, Iran will once again sell oil and bring in money and again will be an aggressor in the Middle East.

An empowered, unlimited Iran will add to instability in the Middle East, Stein said.

Israel is strong, he said, “and it better be strong if it’s going to be in the Middle East.”

The region has experienced change and turmoil the past five years, but still “the population is underserved, underrepresented and underemployed, with economies that can’t meet the people’s expectations.”

Power in the region is based on family relations and associations rather than qualifications and knowledge, Stein said. After a change of power, Middle East societies lack necessary underlying civic institutions to keep things running.

In the case of an overthrow, the structures are lacking for new types of governance to emerge, Stein said, and it is unrealistic to think that Jeffersonian democracy can be transplanted into the Middle East.

“George Bush asked for regime change, but was he sure what he was asking for?” Stein said. “Did Cheney and Bush understand that by … getting rid of Saddam Hussein … they would be popping the top on all of these ethnic, religious and confessional differences inside Iraq that had been contained for 50 years, 100 years, some would say even 1,000 years? Did they understand the consequences of their action? When you advocate for democracy and you ask for elections, be careful what you wish for.”

An example is Gaza, where democratic elections held in 2006 resulted in a big victory for Hamas. So Israel was rewarded for withdrawing from Gaza in 2005 with rockets, a governing party that refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, and no hope of negotiation ever, Stein said.

Those elections haven’t worked out well for the Palestinians either. In the latest example, the international community pledged $5.4 billion last fall for the postwar rebuilding of Gaza. But Stein said less than 5 percent of that aid has been delivered because of the lack of faith in Hamas to use the money constructively.

Stein thus expects the Middle East to remain turbulent, and he said the next U.S. president must have a full understanding of the foreign political cultures in the Middle East.