An exclusive interview with Gary Sick, professor at Columbia University and analyst of Middle East affairs
This is a word-for-word transcription of a telephone interview between me and Sara Massoumi of the Iranian website irdiplomacy. The syntax is not elegant, and there are far too many run-on sentences, but the analysis of US and Iranian policy accurately reflects my views.
This video is a 52-min compilation of recent conversations on “Charlie Rose” dealing with the agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program. Starting at minute 31 is a panel discussion on Iran with Gary Samore, David Sanger, Ray Takeyh and Gary Sick.
The other two conversations are with Tom Donilon, former national security adviser to President Obama, and Representative Mike Rogers, Chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
In the avalanche of reportage and commentary on the nuclear deal with Iran, here are a few tiny facts that may have escaped your notice:
France’s President Hollande made his triumphal trip to Israel (a hero because he put a speed bump in the way of an agreement); a few days later, France returned to the negotiations and quietly signed the text. Can he still wear his hero medal?
Opponents of the deal denounce the “shredding” of the United Nations Security Council resolutions (which demanded that Iran stop all enrichment) but fail to notice that all five Permanent Members of the Security Council negotiated and signed off on the text. These are the same countries that passed those resolutions.
Netanyahu just a year ago used a cartoon drawing of a bomb to illustrate that Iran was getting perilously close to a nuclear weapon; the agreement moves Iran far away from his famous red line. Is that a “historic mistake?”
Netanyahu in 1992 said that if no one intervened Iran would have a bomb within five years – and he has been saying the same thing ever since. He has been consistently wrong for more than two decades.
If you look carefully at the words of the opposition, you’ll see that they base all their objections on the supposition that Iran will renege on its commitments and the US will acquiesce. Do they have an alternative? Whining is not a policy.
The dog that didn’t bark: since the last Iranian election there has not been one peep from our old friend Ahmadinejad. Several American politicians who relish conflict in the Middle East have said they miss him. I don’t.
The other dog: the strangely silent Revolutionary Guards. Ditto.
Have you noticed how many of the people opposing the nuclear agreement are the same ones who thought invading Iraq was a nifty idea? War good; talk bad.
Iran is so determined to build a nuclear weapon that it renounces them under any and all circumstances, reduces its production of enriched uranium, and invites the largest group of inspectors in history to monitor its activities. Hmmm
Iran has been able to build a nuclear device for at least seven years and has not done so. In the eyes of some that is absolute proof of their deviousness.
Everyone is talking endlessly about the agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (France — yes, France — the UK, Russia, China, and the US) plus Germany, under the auspices of Lady Ashton, the representative of the EU.
Well, instead of just talking, why not actually read the text? It is only four pages, and it is remarkably concise.
The interim nuclear agreement with Iran is a potential game changer. The deal has been met with a mixed reception, but many see this development as significant. Mark Fitzpatrick, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Non-Proliferation at the U.S. State Department who is now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute and author of “All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran,” discuss how the deal came about and what’s next for Iran and the U.S.
Kenneth Pollack makes the common sense point that the pursuit of a “perfect” deal with Iran will necessarily result in either no deal at all or else set in motion the prerequisites for still another American war in the Middle East. This logic is deliberately distorted by those who want only regime change in Iran and consequently promote new sanctions to insure that conflict with Iran continues at all costs.
A bipartisan group of 79 former military and diplomatic leaders, intelligence officials, policymakers, and senior security experts sent a letter to President Obama applauding efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear standoff. The letter coincides with a new round of negotiations between Iran and the U.S. and allies. Many expect the talks to result in concrete steps toward an agreement on Iran’s controversial nuclear activities. “The hard work of diplomacy begins now,” the authors write in the letter to the president. “We support this new policy [of engagement] and pledge to help our fellow Americans appreciate the ambitious and transformative course you have chosen to build a more peaceful and more cooperative environment in the Middle East.”
There are popular fundamental misconceptions about Iran’s nuclear program: that the Iranian leadership has a fixed goal of acquiring a nuclear weapon, that if left alone Iran would build such a weapon and that this presumed ambition will be thwarted only if therest of the worldimposes enough costs and barriers. These misconceptions infuse much of the U.S. discourse on Iran, as reflected in frequent, erroneous references to Iran’s “nuclear weapons program.” These mistakes encourage a posture toward Iran that makes it more, not less, likely that Tehran will decide someday to build a bomb.
Public U.S. intelligence assessments are that Iran has not made any such decision and might never do so. Iranians have been interested in the option of a nuclear weapon, and some of their nuclear activities have helped to preserve that option. Whether they ever exercise the option depends primarily on the state of their relationship with the rest of the world, particularly the United States. As they sit down for their next round of talks with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the United States and its negotiating partners have an opportunity to forge a relationship with an Iran that remains a non-nuclear-weapons state — not so much because of technical barriers they might raise, but because the relationship would be one in which the Iranians would not want a nuclear weapon.
The principal purpose for which Iran might seek such a weapon is deterrence against attacks on its homeland. This is the main reason that threats of military strikes are counterproductive. It is also why the likelihood of an Iranian bomb would recede if the West developed a relationship in which the Iranians believed they could live comfortably over the long term and in which the prospect of a military attack against Iran also recedes.
A focus on “breakout capability” and recitation of the mantra that “a bad deal is worse than no deal” overlook the enormous disincentives that Iran would have to renege on any agreement with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany — the “P5+1” — that helped to establish such a relationship. Iranian cheating would mean a redoubling of the political incentives in the West, and especially the United States, that have made it far easier for politicians to impose sanctions on Iran than to remove them. Iranians would be thrown right back into the economic vise they clearly want to be out of.
Reneging on an agreement also would go directly against the declaration of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that “production, stockpiling and use” of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam. A clear Iranian violation and movement toward a nuclear weapon therefore would involve almost as much of a loss of face for the supreme leader as it would for him to give up altogether Iran’s uranium enrichment program, as hard-liners in the United States and Israel unrealistically demand.
It would be a grave mistake for the United States and its partners to adhere to an inflexible negotiating position based on the mistaken notion that an Iran bent on building nuclear weapons can be coerced or physically prevented from doing so. If Iran really were bent on building the bomb, it probably would have done so by now, based on a nuclear program that dates to the time of the shah.
Certain prevention is impossible, whether through diplomacy, military force or other means. Like many other things in international relations, this issue is a matter of weighing relative risks. There is minimal risk of Iran throwing away an agreement that ended debilitating sanctions to pursue a nuclear weapons scenario that so far exists more in U.S. fears and politics than in Iranian desires.
The risk is much greater that an unbalanced, hard-line P5+1 position that offers only minimal sanctions relief while demanding substantial Iranian concessions would kill the best opportunity in years to build a better relationship with Tehran, would lose the additional scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program that any conceivable agreement would include and would stoke Iranian officials’ interest in building a nuclear deterrent as a way of dealing with what they would perceive as unending Western hostility.
The task ahead is diplomacy in the fullest sense: the use of negotiations not to break the will of an adversary but, instead, to find enough common ground to reach agreements that both sides will want to uphold.
Marwan Bishara, in his recent op-ed in the InternationalNew York Times (see link above) says that tensions between Saudi Arabia and the US have been brewing for months. Actually, as his article makes clear, many of these issues have been brewing for many years – long before the Arab uprising. Several of his assertions I found puzzling.
Bishara says “America chose Iran and Israel, over their Arab neighbors, as its designated “regional cops” in the 1960s and ’70s, at the height of the Cold War.” I’m not sure this is an accurate description of the U.S.-Israeli relationship; but on the Arab side this formulation no doubt refers to the Nixon Doctrine and the Two-Pillar policy in the Gulf. After the Iranian revolution and two wars (Iran vs Iraq and Desert Storm), the “twin pillars” morphed into the Dual Containment policy of the Clinton administration. The principal characteristic of that policy was that the United States took it upon itself, not others, to maintain security in the Gulf.
But then Bishara asserts that “Since the United States and Iran became sworn enemies after the 1979 revolution, America’s military wishes have by and large been carried out by Arab proxies, often at great cost in blood, treasure and stability. Lebanon, Iraq and Syria are among the countries that have suffered immensely.”
He does not mention U.S. military involvement in the Iran-Iraq war or the ejection of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait or the invasion and occupation of Iraq by U.S. forces. So what are these American “military wishes” that have relied on “Arab proxies”? Surely not Hezbollah fighting Israelis in southern Lebanon? Surely not al-Qaeda and radical Sunni Islamists bombing Shias in Iraq? Surely not the Sunnis fighting the Assad regime in Syria? So who are these Arab proxies of the United States carrying out U.S. military wishes in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria?
I honestly don’t know.
According to Bishara, “Arab powers fear that negotiations between America and Iran are likely to leave Israel as the one nuclear power in the region, while allowing its occupation of Palestine to continue unabated.” That is an entirely reasonable concern. However, it defines a set of realities that have existed at least since the 1960s, when Israel is believed to have acquired nuclear weapons. Iran, it is essential to point out, does not have nuclear weapons. Even assuming no progress on the Palestinian question by the Obama administration (which, to be fair, is making the most serious effort since the Clinton second term to negotiate a settlement), will things get worse if the U.S. manages to place additional controls on Iran’s nuclear program? Why?
Bishara fears that any U.S.-Iran rapprochement will be at Arab expense. He acknowledges that U.S. engagement with Iran might help resolve the Syrian situation and could potentially have some other positive benefits. But the risk, in his view, is that “Iranian-American détente will likely deepen the sectarian divisions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, setting the stage for an all-out regionwide sectarian conflict.”
The fact is, there is a regionwide sectarian conflict in full sway right now, and it has been fueled from the start by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states. Saudi Arabia moved troops into Bahrain to protect against suspected Iranian designs. The Sunni militants in Syria, who are now close to running out of control, were financed, trained and encouraged from the earliest days of the Syrian revolt by massive infusions of GCC money. And domestic crackdowns on Shia populations in the Saudi Eastern Province and elsewhere have been unrelenting.
Mr. Bishara fails to explain why U.S. engagement with Iran is going to make this worse.
It is unmistakable from his language and his closing words that Mr Bishara – and presumably the Sunni states – feel that they have not been included in U.S. decision making, and that “authoritarian Sunni regimes in the region will probably seek to undermine…any agreement that foresees growing Iranian influence in their backyard.” He warns President Obama “to make sure the Arabs are part of, and don’t lose from, any future bargain with Iran.”
Clearly, that is advice that the U.S. president and his representatives should take to heart. In a fast-moving situation, they need to work overtime with both Arabs and Israelis to insure that the rationale for decisions that are being made and those being considered are well understood.
In the same spirit, perhaps it is also fair to point out that reducing contact with the United States or impugning its motives may not be the most effective means of sustaining the kind of dialogue that is required.
With the new Iranian president’s visit to the UN, many Americans hope their government will pave the way for better relations between the nations.
A 25-min summary of the UN appearances of Rohani and Obama, with long bits of my commentary, among others. This is a feature presentation produced by Susan Modaress, an Iranian-American journalist. This is a good example of the “new” PressTV — the former Iranian propaganda network that is now publishing more real news. Another small but hopeful sign.
Radio Farda is running a blog on US-Iran relations. I sent them a short comment. At the link it is in Persian, but here is the original:
The inability of the United States and Iran to sustain a meaningful dialogue over more than a third of a century has been a serious impediment to stability in the Middle East. The simmering cold war between these two states has exacerbated many existing problems, while maintaining a constant state of hostility that had the potential to burst into armed conflict with the least provocation or error.
The current opening, though far from a solution, provides the most promising opportunity in thirty-four years to resolve the core elements of this dispute. The nuclear “threat” from Iran has been hyped out of all proportion with reality. But for that very reason, it must be the starting point to any resolution of the core issues. It is essential to show that the Iranian nuclear program is manageable at modest to zero levels of risk in order to create the necessary trust to permit a reasoned discussion on other important issues. The skeptics and even the outright opponents of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement – in both countries – must be persuaded or neutralized by indisputable evidence of tangible progress on the nuclear issue.
Reduced hostility between the United States and Iran could potentially have a constructive influence on virtually every major issue in the region. The first and most obvious is Syria. Iran, for reasons based on its own recent history, opposes the existence or use of chemical weapons anywhere. As an ally of the Assad government, it is in a position, together with Russia, to keep the Syrian government on track as OPCW technicians carry out their inspections and destruction of chemical weapons facilities. Iran, also for its own reasons, wants to see an orderly transfer of power in Syria, avoiding the total breakdown of order and the takeover by radical Sunni elements. So the United States and Iran find themselves on the same page, even if their rationales may differ.
Other areas of mutual interest are control of the drug trade, stable government in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the transformation of Iran into a constructive player in the regional and international communities. On a strategic basis, the proposed American “pivot” to Asia is being impeded almost entirely by concern about U.S. ability to pressure and deter Iran. After the end of the war in Iraq, and as the Afghan war comes to an end, the mammoth U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf is justified almost entirely by concern about Iran. Even the Arab-Israel dispute is not immune from Iranian rhetorical interference and support for radical Arab oppositionists.
Many of these problems are not Iranian in origin or sustenance, and a warming of U.S.-Iran relations will not necessarily solve them. However, a more businesslike relationship between these two hostile powers would open avenues for dealing with a range of regional problems that seem nearly unthinkable at present.
Here is Steve Walt’s take on the same Kahl-Naderi article that I mentioned below. He concludes:
In short, the hard-liners’ approach to Iran still insists on maximal objectives on our end and zero carrots for Iran. It still sees sanctions and active threats of military force as the only way to convince Iran to abandon most if not all of its nuclear energy program. This approach is also deeply hypocritical, given America’s own nuclear arsenal and our propensity to use force with far greater frequency than the Islamic Republic has. And worst of all, it has been a complete failure so far: Iran has a far more extensive nuclear program than it did when the United States started trying to coerce it into complete capitulation. You would think that America’s foreign-policy establishment would look back at the past decade or more and at least consider a different approach, but that seems to be a very hard thing for us to do.
This is really an excellent piece. These two leading experts offer six reasons why the US cannot force Iran’s hand in the negotiations. For myself, I would add a 7th point:
The Perfect as the Enemy of the Good — It should not be forgotten that those who are now proposing total capitulation as the only acceptable Iranian outcome include many of the same people who were unwilling to settle for a few hundred or 2,000-3,000 centrifuges in Iran a decade ago. As a result, we are now faced with an Iran that has acquired an entirely different level of expertise and some 19,000 centrifuges. Judging by the quality of their past advice and its effects, some skepticism seems to be justified in evaluating their present demands about how to rectify the past ten years of policy failure.
Letter to the President signed by 35 prominent foreign policy figures (including me) congratulating him on choosing diplomacy to deal with Iran, acknowledging that there is still much to be done, and recognizing that he will face stiff opposition from some quarters.
At the link are my latest comments about the Rohani-Zarif visit to NY and the breakthrough in US-Iran contacts.
In this piece, for an Arab current affairs magazine, I stress the reactions of relative alarm by the Arab countries to the prospect of a US-Iran rapprochement. The Israeli reaction has been noisy and well publicized, but the Arab concerns tend to be expressed in private — even if they agree fully with Netanyahu.
That will become more apparent, in my view, as time goes on and as the words of the past weeks are translated into hopefully constructive actions.
This is my first take on the tectonic shift that happened between the US and Iran last week. I had the chance to meet Rohani twice. He is the real thing. My greatest regret is that the US passed up an opportunity for this kind of progress almost exactly ten years ago. But at that time, we were too busy invading Middle East countries to be bothered. That was a serious mistake. I just hope we are wise enough to make maximum use of this new opening. As I point out in the article, it is now or never.
Kevan Harris is one of the few commentators on Iran who actually visits the country regularly and conducts on the ground research. This article is an important corrective to much of the Western media.
Iran’s 1979 revolution, in helping to push out Jimmy Carter and bring in Ronald Reagan, offered up one of the few instances in the latter half of the twentieth century where domestic politics in a Third World country affected domestic politics in the United States more than the other way around. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini made no bones about it: The US couldn’t do a damn thing.
This fact remains an unspoken reason the Islamic Republic looms larger than life in our insecure American psyche. Thirty-four years later, it could happen again.
Wasn’t Barack Obama’s Friday fulmination against “extremists” in the Republican Party an attempt, perhaps by osmosis, to copy Hassan Rouhani’s refashioning of Iran’s domestic politics into a clash of “extremists” and “moderates”? Both presidents are faced with a divided and embattled conservative opposition. Both urgently need markers of progress — symbolic and real — to legitimate and push forward their agendas. Both men’s reputations are now linked together, for better or worse. Yet Rouhani, who clearly knows how to bend both the US and Iranian news cycles in his favor, seems to be more adept at handling his antagonists.
The recognition that Iran’s 2013 June election was no fluke has seeped in. Journalists and pundits are panting hard to fit the fast-paced events of recent weeks into the Procrustean mold of Kremlinology-cum-analysis that only sufficed when no competent Iranian interlocutors existed. Luckily, we are running out of Orientalist clichés from Victorian-era Persia travelogues to describe the situation: “rug bazaars,” “wrestling matches,” “chess games” and the like. Frankly, I’ve stopped reading the stateside stuff. Instead, a cursory glance at Iran’s domestic press displays a simple answer to why Rouhani has gotten this far, this fast: The new Iranian president seized hold of an already divided right wing and further fragmented it.
We now know, thanks to bleating by the losing team, that during the run-up to the June election nearly all the supposed pillars of the “regime” were busy throwing tantrums. In Qom, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi refused to back a conservative coalition that other high-ranking ulema such as Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani tried to foster, leading the seminaries to scatter their support to Rouhani among others. Mesbah-Yazdi, we were once assuredly told, was the true sinister power behind the state curtain.
The Islamic Republic’s Leader and Supreme Jurist, Ali Khamenei, never decided “to let Rouhani win,” as the US media bafflingly portrayed it, but instead prevaricated until it was too late to do anything to prevent the election from taking its course. He was locked, along with the rest of the conservatives, in a prisoner’s dilemma of his own making. In his September 5 speech to the Assembly of Experts,reported in the US for a throwaway line that “the US would suffer losses in Syria” in the case of Obama’s then-planned attack — which is true no matter whether Iran does anything about it — he spent the majority of his remarks trying to take credit for the entirety of Rouhani’s campaign platform. Rather than the point man and prime mover for the state’s decision-making process, Khamenei is the bellwether for where the political elite is already moving. It was only a few years ago when Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, was being touted as the (other) true sinister power in Iranian politics, not to mention the indisputable Leader-in-training. Heard much about Mojtaba lately? Maybe he and Mesbah-Yazdi took up backgammon.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and their postulated potentate Qasem Suleimani are the current moment’s bogeyman of choice. Yet quoting the IRGC’s mouthpieces for the purpose of divining Iranian politics is like watching Red Dawnto understand the nuances of US foreign policy. This is why few registered the fact that the IRGC’s main spokesman Gen. Ramazan Sharif gave post-election interviews to the two most famous reformist newspapers, Sharq and Etemad, for the purposes of reputational realignment. The IRGC had been most unfairly treated not by the Rafsanjani or Khatami administrations, Sharif declared, but by the usurping Ahmadinejad team. These particular IRGC exclamations were blazoned above the fold on Iran’s dailies, but more pugnacious IRGC boasts ended up on the front pages of America’s establishment press. The truth is not located in either rhetorical maneuver, but in the recognition that this organization is as divided as the rest of Iran’s political apparatus, with an internal clique of Rouhani sympathizers to boot. Hence the IRGC eating humble pie and throwing darts at the same time.
One reason that politics are again realigning in Iran is that Rouhani is cultivating key conservatives as stakeholders in his own administration’s success. This is the LBJ rule: Good politicians prefer to have enemies inside the tent aiming their liquid invectives outside rather than the converse. Unlike Khatami, Rouhani did not enter office feebly speaking of civil society, NGOs and other liberal armchair fantasies. Instead, Rouhani flipped the right wing’s national security discourse of “resistance” on its head. The president’s current adviser, former Defense Minister Akbar Torkan, put it quite plainly just before the election: “Who can say that imposing various sanctions on the country is a revolutionary move and in line with serving the political system and the people? In our opinion, rationalism is revolutionary.” Rouhani has reframed the debate: Moderation is revolutionary, extremism is reactionary. If these remain the new stakes, then the recalcitrant hardliners, especially if they repeat the tactics of the 1990s by resorting to extra-institutional violence, may find themselves with even less influence than before. The smarter conservative players are going along with the show for now.
The other reason that politics are realigning, one that the Obama administration recognizes to its credit, is that the segment of the Iranian population that occasionally sits out elections pushed back publicly on the political elite through what can best be described as a heroic act of collective consciousness. In a quite tangible sense, Rouhani won his current mandate through a social coalition we might call “Green movement plus”: the 2009 supporters of reformist candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, plus provincial urban fence sitters, plus ethnic minorities. Given the region’s further unraveling this summer — Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Turkey — it may well be the case that voting for Rouhani was the most revolutionary act available for Iranians en masse. It was for this reason that Roger Cohen in the New York Timesbranded the Islamic Republic an “island of stability” earlier this month — echoing Carter’s Tehran toast to the Shah in December 1977 — without a hint of irony.
Neither Obama or Rouhani know for sure how far they can secure their domestic clout. Yet, if I may lazily go Orientalist for a moment, both sides pushed against a wall and realized it was a beaded curtain. The politics, in sum, have just begun, and the bedfellows may get stranger.
The following interview (at the link) with Gary Sick and John Mearsheimer was conducted by Arash Azizi. Mr. Azizi is an Iranian-born journalist based in London, U.K. His work has appeared in many publications in Canada and Iran, including the Toronto Star, Macleans, Dominion, Shahrvand, Sharq, Aseman, Merhname and Kargozaran. Mr. Azizi was International Editor for Kargozaran, a reformist newspaper with one of the highest circulations in Iran before it was closed down by Iran’s hardliners. He has also translated eight books by various authors from English into Persian.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is set to arrive in New York early next week for the United Nations General Assembly and it’s anticipated that Rouhani will present to the U.N. an Iran ready to engage with the West. Gary Sick, senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute and adjunct professor at the University’s School of International and Public Affairs, joins The Takeaway to discuss the distrustful relationship between the U.S. and Iran. Bill Keller, former executive editor of our partner The New York Times, says Iran needs to be engaged in Syria talks with the West.
Interviewee: Gary G. Sick, executive director of the Gulf/2000 Project, Columbia University Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 16, 2013
For the first time in years, Iran’s annual appearance at the UN General Assembly annual debate this fall brings hopes for progress on some thorny global issues, says expert Gary Sick. He says new president Hassan Rouhani and the foreign minister, Mohamed Javad Zarif, will likely set a more constructive tone. Iran also offers a potentially useful channel for pressing Syria to give up its chemical weapons, given the country’s own suffering under chemical warfare during the Iran-Iraq War. On nuclear negotiations, Sick says it is crucial for U.S. envoys to meet directly with Zarif in private to iron out where the two sides want to end up in talks that have so far been fruitless.
Hassan Rouhani Hassan Rouhani (Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/Courtesy Reuters) Later this month, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, and its foreign minister, Mohamed Javad Zarif, will arrive for the UN General Assembly session. There’s an expectation of a new voice or a new approach from Iran toward the West. What do you expect?
The first message they’re going to be trying to portray, and that they want to be heard, is that they represent the anti-Ahmadinejad, that this marks a very big change. They are coming with a different kind of message. If I understand properly, President Rouhani has meetings scheduled with most, if not all, of the members of the P5+1 [the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany], the group that is negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. He does not have a meeting set with any American officials that I know of, but the possibility of a meeting with high-level Americans cannot be ruled out. Rouhani and President Obama will be speaking on the same day to the General Assembly. I wouldn’t predict that there’s going to be a meeting, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Of course, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made headlines early by saying Israel would be “wiped out.”
Rouhani and Zarif are going to send a message that will be very different. I suspect that there will be little or no mention of Israel whatsoever in Rouhani’s speech. He will instead be talking about the kind of role that Iran can play, a much more constructive role in international politics. Zarif is extremely well known in New York, Rouhani not, but a lot of people have had a chance to meet him and talk to him—these are not people who are going to simply say, “Okay, we’ll roll over and play dead, and you Americans or the West can get whatever you like from Iran.” That’s truly not the case at all, and anybody who thinks that these guys are patsies and they’re going to simply come and give away the store as far as Iran is concerned is really wrong.
They are tough bargainers, they have real principles, and they’re going to insist on them, but they’re going to put those principles out in a much more attractive way than the previous administration did. Ahmadinejad was a catastrophe for Iran. He did more damage in his eight years than almost could be imagined. And by the end of his eight years, just about everyone in Iran had come to that conclusion, as well.
Rouhani’s coming at a time when there’s a very hot issue out there, which is the question of Syria and Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Where does Iran stand now on chemical weapons?
Iran was one of the first countries to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention when it was put forward some years ago. They have destroyed their entire stock and any capability that they had to make chemical weapons. They have been inspected, and nobody has ever suggested that they were cheating or that there was any problem whatsoever with their chemical weapons program.
The Iranians feel about chemical weapons the way the Japanese feel about nuclear weapons. They are totally neuralgic to these weapons because they lost something like one hundred thousand people either killed or injured with chemical weapons, and they are the world’s greatest repository of knowledge about how to deal with these problems because they’ve seen more cases than anybody. In my view—although they join with the Russians in raising questions about whether it really was Bashar al-Assad who used the weapons—this provides an interesting opening for the United States.
What do you mean?
If we want to actually negotiate something with the Syrians, Iran potentially is an ally. In terms of this issue, and the fact that they might be receptive to really acting as an intermediary with Assad to ensure that he follows through on his end of the bargain by admitting that Syria has chemical weapons, by joining the Chemical Weapons Convention, and then by following through—and it’s a tricky, long process—having Iran on our side would actually be a useful thing. And I hope that the tremendous hostility that has been built up between the United States and Iran won’t blind us to the reality of the fact that we sometimes have ideas in common, we sometimes have objectives in common, and that we can in fact build on that. And this is one of those cases.
And has there been any indication of the two governments—that is, the United States and Iran—having had any contact recently?
Yes, there has been. There have been hints that President Obama did send a message, a private message, to Mr. Rouhani, and there are hints that the message was in fact answered. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Obama said in a September 15 interview that the two leaders have exchanged letters.] The Swiss embassy is our protecting power in Iran, since we have no embassy there. They act as our ambassadorial representatives in Iran. And in the past, the Swiss have been quite active in carrying messages back and forth and representing the United States there. And I can tell you for a fact that the Swiss are gearing up in the anticipation that they will be playing a much more active role than they have in the past. Under Ahmadinejad the communications pretty much dried up, except for occasional warnings back and forth. But in this case, everybody realizes that we may have some really productive communications between the two sides.
On the nuclear negotiations, what is it that the Iranians would like to see from the P5+1 group?
It’s a two-sided game. The Iranians believe that our opening position, the position that we’ve stuck with from day one, is that Iran should give up a lot in terms of putting caps on its enrichment program or going to zero enrichment, reducing its activities everywhere, giving all kinds of pledges of heightened access to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, in return for the promise of a marginal improvement in their sanctions situation. The Iranians don’t see that as a good deal. Clearly, we’re going to have to give some, and they’re going to have to give some. And my own view is that we’re going to have opportunities here when Zarif is in town for people to meet with him privately.
What is needed is what happened when we dealt with Iran during the Afghan period, and to some degree even in the Iraq period, when they actually were very helpful to us. They actually helped us a great deal in terms of getting the Karzai government installed in Afghanistan in 2001–2002. Zarif was meeting with Zal Khalilzad, who was the U.S. representative, and they were having regular meetings. And ultimately that was all squelched by the speech by President George W. Bush saying that Iran was a member of the “axis of evil.” And he was saying that at a time when we were actively engaged in taking advantage of their expertise in Afghanistan to in fact accomplish our own objectives. And the Iranians saw that as a clear betrayal.
In this particular case, what is needed between the United States and Iran is a private meeting, without all the glare of publicity, something called the “heads of agreement”—that is, here’s where we want to go, this is where, at the end of the day, we want to end up, this is what we’re looking for.
How would you do it?
The trick has always been getting the two sides to actually agree about which way they want to go, and to begin to build a little trust. If I were doing it, that’s where I would start. I would start off the record, behind the scenes, with some quiet meetings, talking very substantively about what our mutual objectives in this process are. Is there anything we can agree on, and if so, let’s think about how we might in fact get there.
They say that they really don’t want nuclear weapons. We should take them at their word. So let’s figure out how you can satisfy us that you don’t want nuclear weapons, and to do that you’re going to have to do certain things. And they will say “Yes, we understand that, but also you have to do certain things.” And the big hitch in this whole thing is sanctions. The Iranians—we have actually imposed on Iran probably the most drastic sanctions ever really imposed on another country. And the thing that’s different about them this time is that it really manipulates the financial system. And that undercuts everything that goes on in the country.
The United States has mastered this financial sanctions technique to make it into a kind of weapon of mass destruction. We’re having an enormous impact on Iran’s economy. The problem is, it’s easy to put those on and it’s very hard to take them off. And people fall in love with their sanctions—that this is such a neat tool and a nifty way of bringing pressure, which you can never quite bring yourself to give them up. And we’re going to have to face that very soon, because if we are going to make any progress with Iran, we will have to give up something, and that’s what they’re going to ask for, and we’re going to have to confront the question of whether we care more about a deal with Iran or about our pressure with sanctions.
One of the arguments that is being trotted out to support the extremely unpopular proposal of a military strike against Syria is that it will establish US credibility against Iran. I understnad the motives. When you have a weak case, you pull out anything that you think will change the odds. But let’s just look at the facts:
Iran took a decision to proceed with a nuclear program roughly a quarter of a century ago. Since that decision, the US has invaded Iran’s neighbors to the east and west; we have surrounded Iran with military force that they could never possibly match; we have imposed the most draconian sanctions, possibly in world history, and have forced the gross devaluation of their currency while cutting off the bulk of their trade. We have acquiesced in the the assassination of their nuclear scientists and we have almost certainly conspired to introduce the most damaging offensive cyber attack (Stuxnet) in history against their nuclear sites. We have flown drones over their territory…need I go on?
Despite all that, they have proceeded slowly and steadily to increase their nuclear capability, in the process drawing closer to a possible breakout capability. They have already spent twice as long as any other country that chose to go for a nuclear weapon — and they still haven’t done it. In fact they say they reject the very idea. They have a new government that is committed to seeking a negotiated settlement to the nuclear issue.
So they don’t believe we are serious? And a limited strike on Syria is supposed to change this somehow for the better?
I have no reason to doubt that President Obama has, as he said today, made up his mind to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons by a US military attack. He has also been quite explicit that this is not intended to bring about regime change, and he is deeply aware of the dangers of getting dragged into the Syrian civil war, so the strike will be limited. It is, however, explicitly intended to prove that the US means what it says and to deter further use of CW by Syria or anyone else.
Imagine that you are a White House adviser and you have been asked to calibrate a military intervention that will send an unmistakeable message to Assad that his use of CW was a serious error and persuade him that any such action in the future would be unacceptably costly to Syria generally and to the Assad government in particular.
However, the attack should not change the fundamental balance of power in the civil war — specifically it should not empower the radical Sunni opposition forces that are potentially worse than Assad. The strike should not be so great that it inspires reckless behavior by other states or parties in the region — specifically it should not provoke retaliation, for example, by either Hezbollah or Syria against Israeli targets.
The attack should be time limited, so the United States should not be required to go back again and again — to “mow the lawn” in Israeli parlance. Above all, it should not require us to escalate, regardless of how Assad or his allies may respond.
Ultimately the strike should at best encourage a shift to a negotiating track or at least not place an insuperable obstacle in the path of a non-violent solution to the problem. Within Syria, the attack should not create a new wave of refugees or make the conditions of ordinary Syrians worse than it already is.
You may have up to ten days to present your plan (depending on the Congressional calendar), but your proposal really should be available tomorrow for proper vetting in advance and possible immediate use.
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It is on occasions like this that I am grateful that I am no longer a White House aide. I truly wonder if it is possible to balance all these moving parts and give the president the policy instrument he wants and needs. I am absolutely certain that I don’t know how to do it.
Syria: How much deterrence do you get from a flock of cruise missiles?
There seems to be a general agreement that, at a minimum, a flock of cruise missiles and/or guided bombs will make Assad stop and think twice before ever using chemical weapons (CW) again. Sadly, the facts offer very little grounds for optimism. Just recall that:
Despite Obama’s very clear and repeated warning, it appears that Assad was willing to use CW on civilians to serve his own strategic ends — apparently to clear out a rebel stronghold in a Damascus suburb which refused to surrender despite constant attacks and bombardments;
Not only that, but there is every reason to believe that Assad’s two most important allies — Russia and Iran — had counseled him not to use these weapons under any circumstances — certainly the Iranian position is crystal clear, since they were the victims of CW in their war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s and are as opposed to CW as the Japanese are to nuclear weapons;
And just to rub it in, Assad chose to launch his largest and most egregious CW attack just as a UN inspection team arrived in Damascus to investigate previous charges;
The facts and the timing suggest that Assad has his own strategic calculus and that he has discounted the reactions of the international community — most specifically the US but also his most critical allies.
His behavior reminds me of Saddam Hussein in the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war. The US (then his most important ally) was finally getting around to condemning his use of CW against civilians after years of deliberate ambiguity. But Saddam in effect flipped the bird. He was getting the results he wanted on the battlefield and in the sheer terror of the civilian population of Iranian border cities, and he wanted nothing more than to pour it on.
One should never underestimate the bloody-minded imperviousness of a dictator who thinks he is fighting for his very life.
If Assad has already discounted the bombs and cruise missiles that he must have suspected would follow, there may a grim second act in this tragedy.
It is entirely possible that he would respond by conducting still another attack in another location if he felt it served his existential purpose. What happens to the credibility of the US and the international community then?
The almost unavoidable answer, of course, would be to escalate, to join the Syrian civil war on the side of opposition, which of course includes radical Sunni jihadis, some of whom are aligned with Al Qaeda.
As this process begins, keep firmly in mind the brilliant successes of our previous entanglements in regional civil wars.
An exclusive interview with Dr. Javad Zarif, the newly appointed Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran
In this exclusive interview by the pro-Rohani website irdiplomacy.ir, Javad Zarif, the new foreign minister of Iran, lays out his strategy. The interview is short and speaks for itself. In my view, there are four basic themes:
if the political determination exists on both sides, negotiating a solution to the nuclear issue is practicable;
policies of moderation grow out of self-confidence, and Iran is prepared to follow a path of moderation;
the radicals (on both sides) are cowards who fear genuine negotiation - both sides must be capable of resisting the pressures of the radicals;
Iran has demonstrated through the recent election its willingness to change, now the US/West must do the same.
I have paraphrased his points to stress that he is speaking to the skeptics and radicals in his own country (who earlier this week badgered him during his confirmation hearings in the majles) as well as to their counterparts in the United States and the West.
Unlike the bluster and belligerence of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who did incalculable damage to his own country during his eight years of misrule — a fact that is finally becoming clear even to the radicals in Iran who originally supported him — Zarif’s words demonstrate a determination to alleviate some of the many problems facing Iran and the Middle East. And he believes Iran has a constructive role to play in that process.
Note that he states his position without harping on the fact that Iran has been victimized or that it is only doing what its critics in the west also do — the wearisome mantra of Ahmadinejad. He is surely conscious of Iran’s legitimate grievances and the double standards the West has employed to punish them, But instead of whining, he takes the rather remarkable position that the “the serious need of the region and the world is for serious measures to be taken to prevent radicalism through local democratic models.”
How long has it been since we have heard the leaders of Iran denouncing radicalism and calling for democratic alternatives?
I very much hope that the Obama administration is listening and is capable of responding in kind. There is an opening here, but it will remain open only if Obama and Western leaders are willing to stand up to the war-mongering rhetoric from some quarters.
U.S.-Iranian negotiations, now realistic for the first time in many years, are both more difficult and more important to U.S. interests than any Washington has faced in decades. Just getting started will be difficult.
Some thoughtful and non-hysterical ideas about how we might consider striking a deal with Tehran. By some people who have given it more thought than just the congressional calendar or their visceral hatred of Iran.
The House of Representatives is voting this afternoon to sharply increase sanctions on Iran and remove the president’s ability to waive restrictions, regardless of what Iran does — and all that just four days before a new Iranian president is inaugurated.
Why now? Well, because Congress is about to go home for vacation, and they apparently have nothing better to do.
The article at the link above, from the oldest anti-nuclear organization in the world, puts it in context.
Iran’s next president was the chief nuclear negotiator when Iran shut down a weapons program.
This is an extraordinary personal account of a critical moment in Iran’s nuclear history. It tends to confirm what many Iran-watchers have long surmised about the rationale of Iran’s nuclear activities prior to 2003. It also provides a convincing explanation of Iran’s thinking at that time.
Above all, it shows that the Iranian system is complex and difficult but. with the right leadership, is also capable of change and compromise.
Similarly to the four previous years, the summer of 2013 opens with Israel’s leadership heating up the atmosphere, talking about the pressing need to quickly stop the ayatollahs’ nuclear project and the possibility that “In the event of no other choice, Israel will have to carry out the mission on its own.”
So first, let’s all cool down. In contrast to previous years, this time around it’s abundantly clear that Israel’s threats are empty and fall short of real actions. The main — and justified — objectives are to keep the West vigilant, maintain the sanctions at their current level and not allow Iran to sell the world powers down the river again in order to buy time while pushing ahead full throttle.
The election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president has thrown a wrench in the wheels of the Israeli offensive. The whole game has been put on a several-month hiatus, forcing the players to go on furlough until next spring. Israel will not be able to carry out a strike in Iran as long as the United States awards Iran 100 days of grace.
This is perhaps the most comprehensive summary of the choices facing the US and its allies in the wake of the recent Iranian election. It is a balanced and non-hysterical analysis of the core issues, and it concludes that a reinvigorated diplomatic engagement is the most promising approach. This is a must read for anyone interested in the Iranian issue.
This is a serious and common-sense analysis of the opportunities and risks of negotiations after the Iranian election. I’m only sorry that it is always FORMER government officials who seems to be able to draw such conclusions.
Einhorn is a thorough professional with decades of experience in non-proliferation. He deserves to be heard.
If you think you detect a certain pattern in the responses of these organizations and individuals to the recent Iranian election, you just may be on to something. It is a coordinated effort to persuade the US government that a serious negotiation with the new Iranian president would be an error and futile. Everyone has to work twice as hard demonizing Iran now that Ahmadinejad isn’t there!
This list by the incomparable Marsha Cohen captures the process of building a political echo chamber.
Parsi and Marashi demonstrate why it is so very easy to be a recognized “Iran expert” in today’s Washington. First, you explain everything that happens, no matter weird or contradictory, as the wish of the Supreme Leader. Don’t bother with those messy internal factions or the views of the Iranian people; that would take too much effort and suggest that Iran has real politics that are often frustratingly hard to predict.
Secondly, you assume that anything surprising that happens (like an election that you had dismissed as impermissible just days earlier) is due to American pressure. That will confirm your policy brilliance and let you predict with confidence that more of the same will produce even more surprising results.