Interview with Shahir ShahidSaless (Source: Entekhab News Site; translated by Iran Review)
Q: Let us begin with some basic questions. In your opinion, what is the main cause of the ongoing contentions between Iran and the United States? Why there is no perspective for reduction of hostilities on the horizon? What obstacles stand on the way of reestablishment of ties between the two countries?
A: This is a basic question and it takes a complete book to answer it. However, I will do my best to give a brief answer to it. Various theories have been given in an attempt to answer this question. Some experts believe that the challenge posed by Iran to the United States hegemony in the Middle East is the main cause of hostilities. The security of energy, especially oil, has been a main pillar of the United States foreign policy since the [former US President Franklin D.] Roosevelt was elected in 1933.
However, this theory falls short of providing satisfactory answers to a few questions. Firstly, during the entire period of the Cold War, the government of the former Soviet Union was a powerful foe for the United States which clearly announced that its ultimate goal was to topple the capitalistic system of the West. Despite all the apparent hostility of the Communist bloc against the West, the United States and the Soviet Union had both diplomatic and economic relations. On frequent occasions, both the United States and the Soviet Union arrested each other’s spies and then swapped them in a very civilized manner. There was a bridge connecting the western part of the [German capital city of] Berlin, which was controlled by the United States, to its eastern part, which was under the Soviet occupation. That bridge was famed as the Bridge of Spies over which the two sides swapped arrested spies. Therefore, mere hostility and struggle for hegemony over a region and even the whole world, especially in contemporary times, cannot be considered a factor which would keep two countries from having amiable relations. There is another example to the point. The [former US President Richard] Nixon made his groundbreaking visit to China under the rule of Mao Zedong at a time that China was at the peak of its anti-US rhetoric. The visit led to rapprochement between the two states. A worse case is the situation between Iran and the United States in which the two countries cannot even engage in any form of meaningful and fruitful negotiations. During the past 34 years, there have been overt and covert negotiations underway to improve relations between the two countries, but none of them have been either lasting or conducive to success, and all of them have failed.
On the other side, there is another theory and viewpoint which alleges that the existing challenge posed by Iran to the US hegemony constitutes the main reason behind hostilities between the two countries. However, it falls short of explaining the incident of hostage taking [at the US Embassy in Tehran]. What happened was that the former Iranian Shah went to the United States [after fleeing Iran]. Iranian students were concerned that the old story of 1953 [the year in which a US-sponsored coup d’etat restored Shah to power] would be repeated and another coup may be staged [by Washington]. The US Embassy was stormed as a form of simple protest which according to Mr. [Ebrahim] Asgharzadeh [one of the students who stormed the embassy] was supposed to end in a few days. However, documents attesting to the US espionage activities in Iran were recovered to which even Washington has owned up, and the situation took a totally different turn. Therefore, this proves that the first flicker of hostility and tension between the two countries was not over challenging the US hegemony in the region. There was another factor which turned the hostage taking into a crisis whose impact has weighed down on Iran's relations with the United States up to the present time.
There is still a third theory which says the Iranian government needs hostility with the United States as impetus for its survival and this is the main factor which has prevented the two countries from reaching a final solution for their differences. This theory is also defective from several viewpoints. Firstly, Iran is not delusional in its enmity toward the United States. Washington has been trying to topple the Islamic establishment in Iran since its inception and this line of thinking is still followed by the United States as “the option of choice” with regard to Iran. Therefore, saying that Iran is depicting a hypothetical enemy may be a good thesis for undermining the position of the Iranian government, but it will be of no good to a logical analysis. Since the inception of the Islamic government in Iran, the United States has been trying to either transform it or, under ideal conditions, to topple it. Therefore, Iran's animosity toward the United States is not just an excuse, but the Iranian government is actually being threatened by the US actions and policies. Does this mean that Iran has faced the United States as an innocent child? Of course not. Iran, on the other hand, has spared no effort to deal any blow to the US interests. A seasoned American politician had said in person to one of my friends that no government has ever harmed the US interests as the Iranian government.
This theory can be also questioned from another standpoint. Iran has frequently offered reconciliation proposals to the United States under three presidents: first under the presidency of Mr. [Ali Akbar] Hashemi Rafsanjani, then when [former Iranian President Mohammad] Khatami was in office, and finally under the [incumbent] President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. At the time of Mr. Hashemi, he clearly set unfreezing Iran's assets in the United States as Tehran's precondition for detente with Washington. The two sides got engaged in many rounds of negotiations under the [former US President George] Bush Sr. for the release of the American hostages who had been taken into captivity by the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. In return, the United States had promised that if Iran mediated for the release of the American hostages, Washington would unfreeze Iran's assets. Due to efforts made by Mr. Hashemi’s government, the American hostages were released in 1991. However, sometime later, Mr. Giandomenico Picco [a high-level UN negotiator for 20 years], told Iran that no assets would be unfrozen. In another case, Iran offered a lot of help to the United States during its invasion of Afghanistan whose details cannot be explained here. However, before a few weeks passed, Mr. Bush [then US President George W. Bush] introduced Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil.” The offer of “a big deal” to the United States by Iran in 2003, under Khatami, which has not been denied by Iran, was another instance of Iran's efforts to establish friendly ties with the United States. Such instances clearly prove that Iran has taken steps at various junctures to establish relations with the United States. Therefore, the theory that the very survival of the Iranian government depends on hostility with the United States does not match the realities on the ground.
Iran's hostility toward Israel and its alleged claim to annihilation of Israel has been mentioned as another reason by a group that believes this is the main reason for hostilities between Iran and the United States. The Iranian government maintains that “Israel” is like a cancerous tumor in the Middle East region which should be excised. In more accurate words, Iran says a referendum should be held to be attended by all the Palestinians (both those who are currently living in the occupied territories and those who have been forced out of their homes) in addition to Jews, in order to determine the future destiny of Palestine and Israel. Many analysts say the mere fact that Iran is not ready to recognize Israel and continues its hostility against Tel Aviv is a reason why the United States will be never able to reach reconciliation with Iran.
This theory is also faulty from a number of standpoints. Firstly, the unwillingness to recognize Israel as a state is not specific to Iran. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has about 60 members of which only about 10 countries have given official recognition to Israel. Close regional allies of the United States, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, also do not recognize Israel. Before recent developments in Syria, Damascus was the spearhead of hostility with and struggles against Israel. However, the United States had an open embassy in Syria. On the other hand, let’s see how the ongoing contention between Iran and the United States came into being and soared following the victory of the Islamic Revolution? During the entire hostage taking at US Embassy in Tehran, Israel was not a problem. Therefore, the occurrence and prolongation of hostage taking had other root causes which were in no way related to Iran's hostility with Israel. In addition, if the issue of Israel is so important to the United States, why every one of the US presidents who have come to office since the Islamic Revolution in Iran have brandished the olive branch? The last proposal for the reconciliation was offered by President [Barack] Obama on the occasion of the Iranian new year in late March 2009. This approach clearly proves that Israel, as a factor, is not of such an importance to prevent the United States from going on with its drive to mend fences with Iran.
There is another group of analysts who believe that the clash of different cultures or civilizations is the main source of hostilities between the United States and Iran. People like Bernard Lewis and [Samuel] Huntington argue that Islam sees the system of the Western values as the most important enemy of its own system of values. Having come to life again after many centuries of latency, it aims to topple the Western system whose set of values is at odds with those of Islam. The British thinker Bernard Lewis maintains that the confrontation between the governments of Iran and the United States can be only explained through this theory. In reality, however, this theory does not seem to be sufficient for justifying the main reason behind the continuation of hostilities between the two countries.
A major reason for this is the fact that when it comes to foreign policy, Iran has not been merely adhering to its value models at any cost, but has also paid due attention to expediencies. Otherwise, Iran should have come to loggerheads with the former Soviet Union as well; would have taken the harshest approach to the Chinese who do not believe in God; and would have come to blows with Russia over the suppression of Chechen Muslims, or with China for Beijing’s harsh and violent treatment of Uighur Muslims. In reality, however, none of these have happened.
The story that Mr. Saeed Qasemi [a commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)] has told about the origin of the motto, “the way to Quds goes through Karbala,” depicts an important instance of Iran’s expediency-based approach in foreign policy. The motto was first set forth by the late leader of the Islamic Republic [Ayatollah Khomeini] in the heat of Iran’s war with Iraq. [Qasemi says] while a group of famous of IRGC commanders insisted on going to Lebanon, join ranks with the Lebanese Hezbollah group, and fight with Israel, Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, warned them against entering into war with Israel and noted that they should instead focus on the war with Iraq and do not get involved in Arabs conflict with Israel. This is where the motto “the way to Quds goes through Karbala,” originated. At any rate, I am trying to say that the Iranian government does not come to blows with any other country on the basis of mere ideological differences and the government of the United States is also no exception to that rule.
On the other hand, the United States gives priority to its own interests, not ideological values, when making decisions with regard to its foreign relations. Washington’s support for such regional governments as Saudi Arabia which show no respect for the most basic political, human, and social rights of their citizens, especially women, is a major instance of this fact. Staging coups in various countries, including our own Iran, has already proven that the United States’ claim to advocating democracy and human rights is just a foreign policy tool and nothing more. If such claims proved useful anywhere in the world, the United States would make sure to bank on them. However, if the US interests call, Washington will easily violate human rights and democracy and lend its support to nondemocratic governments.
Therefore, it would not be a satisfactory theory to simply say that the root cause of hostilities between Iran and the United States is the clash of their cultures.
Q: So, why do you think that Iran and the United States cannot get along?
A: Well, all the aforesaid issues which we discussed here are quite real and account for just part of the reasons behind the ongoing confrontation between Iran and the United States. What I said is by no means aimed to connote that all those theories are built on delusion. However, none of them can adequately explain why these two countries cannot engage in meaningful talks in order to reduce their differences. The main factor which has barred the two countries from talking to each other, or in better words, rendered them incapable of having purposive and meaningful negotiations is extreme distrust on both sides.
As said before, problems between the two countries started right after the victory of the Islamic Revolution and following the hostage taking [at the US Embassy in Tehran]. Of course, even that crisis had its root in what had already happened between the two countries in pre-revolution years. The US-sponsored coup d’etat on August 19, 1953, [which toppled Iran's popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq] in addition to Washington’s unbridled support for the former Shah of Iran, suppression of the Islamist forces by the Shah’s regime, and pressures from Shah for pushing the country toward Western modernization, led to bloody incidents of June 5, 1963. Positions taken by Ayatollah Khomeini against the Shah’s ambitious plans and his project of modernization within framework of the so-called White Revolution, led to Ayatollah Khomeini’s exile from Iran. When the Islamic Revolution triumphed, the seed of “extreme distrust” had been already sown between the leaders of the newly established revolutionary government of Iran and the White House as a result of previous conduct of the United States toward Iran. It was due to the said extreme distrust that when Iran's Shah went to the United States for treatment, the revolutionary youth of Iran were concerned that the White House was again contemplating another coup d’etat to get the Shah back to Iran.
Developments which occurred in later years further increased the distrust between the two countries. Plotting a military coup at Iran's Nojeh Airbase, inciting Iraq’s imposed war against Iran with director support of the United States for [the then Iraqi dictator] Saddam [Hussein], and providing chemical weapons to Iraq were other measures taken by Washington which further exacerbated the situation. On the other hand, the hostage taking had dealt a drastic blow to prestige and international standing of the United States while the existing bonds between Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah caused the United States to blame Iran for huge bomb attacks against the American forces in Beirut as well as taking American nationals hostage in Lebanon. As time went by, the distrust grew in dimension. Even every proposal for peace and reconciliation by either side of this equation was considered a plot by the other side. The Americans maintained that Iran is barely trustworthy, while the Iranians’ stance on the Americans was the same or even worse. Iran's influence in Iraq caused the American war machine to run aground after invading that country and the United States lost no time to introduce Iran as responsible for its failure in Iraq. This spiral of repeated faceoff has continued its upward rise as a result of which both sides have been rendered unable to embark on any form of negotiation to achieve a solution for their problems. When Iran's nuclear energy program came into the light in 2002, it was another shock for the United States. As a result, the wall of distrust grew higher and sanctions were imposed on Iran. Even positive steps that Iran took later, like suspending its [uranium] enrichment work for two years, were met with hostility on the US side. Mr. Seyyed Hossein Mousavian, a member of Iran's former nuclear negotiating team under President Khatami, has noted that the European negotiators told Iranian counterparts after various rounds of talks that the United States did not want to see even a single centrifuge operating in Iran. “We asked for how long?,” Mousavian added, “They said for at least 10 years!”
It is interesting that even the Western analysts have admitted that the main reason behind failure of [anti-Iran] sanctions has been lack of constructive negotiation and the distrust between the two sides. However, they keep tightening sanctions without noting that this is practically making any possibility of talks narrower. Well, it is common sense that when there is no negotiation, there is no possibility of reaching an agreement as well. However, one side of this equation is doing what it likes and keeps imposing stricter and stricter sanctions on Iran without attention to the above fact. In the meantime, the other side [namely Iran], says it does not want to negotiate with the United States and insists that the nuclear issue should be resolved through negotiations with the P5+1 group [which includes the US, the UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany]. It is obvious that [the member states of] the P5+1 group only reflect the United States’ will. As a result, it is impossible for Iran to resolve the nuclear issue through the P5+1 without reaching an agreement with the United States first. Here, I want to move a step farther and say that even if the nuclear problem is solved, there are other critical points and differences between the two countries, which if remain unsolved, may cause one of the two parties to disregard their commitments with respect to the nuclear agreement as well.
Q: So, you think that the root cause of the problem between Iran and the United States is severe distrust. Is there any other factor besides the distrust which could have caused Iran-US relations to hit a deadlock?
A: It is true that distrust plays a prominent role in this regard, but I must say that there are other factors in work which have been influential in creating the existing situation, while causing the distrust to continue to soar exponentially. “Perceptions and misperceptions” is one of those factors with “misanalysis” of the situation being the other factor. In line with its aggressive policies, the United States has mobilized big powers against Iran and has chosen pressure, sanctions, and threat as the main axis of its foreign policy approach to Iran in the hope that it would be able to make the Iranian government accept its conditions. This is a major instance of misanalysis on the part of the United States. The theory which says Tehran will give in to Washington’s conditions under mounting pressure has been formulated by a group of the American thinkers whose members lack enough understanding of the Iranian society, culture and government. The collection of the aforesaid factors has had a tangible effect on Iran's nuclear case and has barred both parties from finding a final solution to it.
Q: Can you bring examples of how misinterpretations and misunderstandings, on the one hand, and misanalysis, on the other hand, have pushed Iran's nuclear case into the existing standoff.
A: Before answering this question let me say that inattention to issues which will be discussed here has led the nuclear case into its current position and as long as these issues are not addressed in a constructive manner, the existing Gordian knot will not be cut. Fortunately, I and another expert on Iran issues wrote a long 20-page analytical article in criticism of the US sanctions policies in the Washington Quarterly journal, which is perhaps one of the most prestigious journals on the US policymaking, in December. In that article, the United States sanctions policies and viewpoints of theoreticians who advocated that policy (who had also published their own article on the necessity of intensifying sanctions against Iran just one year ago in the same journal) had been criticized and threats resulting from that policy had been pointed out.
It is generally believed in Iran that the Americans are sure that Iran has no plan to build a nuclear bomb and pressures imposed on the country are solely aimed at undermining the Islamic government. This theory, however, cannot explain that if the Americans are not actually concerned about this issue why they developed the extremely complicated program known as “Olympic Games” and used it to produce the Stuxnet virus in order to launch a cyber attack against Iran's nuclear site in Natanz? The details of this project which were revealed by the New York Times show that the United States along with Israel had first prepared a simulation of Natanz facility by taking advantage of centrifuges that they had seized from Muammar Gaddafi’s nuclear program (because they did not possess first-generation centrifuges anymore). Then they had produced the virus after a couple of years of hard work and had tested it on the simulated facility before launching the real attack on Iran's Natanz facility. This complicated and laborious project clearly proves that stopping Iran's nuclear energy program and dealing blow to it is, for any reason, important to the United States and this is not just an excuse. The question as to why despite possessing a huge nuclear arsenal, the United States is afraid of Iran developing nuclear weapon and whether that fear is justified or not, is a very important question which will be discussed later.
The Americans are afraid of Iran and fear that the day will come when Iran is endowed with the capability to build the nuclear bomb. They argue that it is correct that as long as Iran is member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and under meticulous inspections, it will never develop nuclear weapons, but it can quit the IAEA at any juncture with a three-month advance notice. In that case, Tehran will be able to build the bomb “quite legally.” This has already happened in the case of North Korea. Pyongyang quit the IAEA in 2003 and tested its first nuclear bomb in 2006.
The interesting point is that when any reference is made to the fatwa (religious decree) issued by [the Leader of the Islamic Revolution] Ayatollah Khamenei about prohibition on the production and proliferation of nuclear weapons (which has been frequently referred to by some American analysts), it comes under heavy fire from analysts who are close to Israel and ultra-right American thinkers, some of whom are Iranian. They claim that by doing this [issuing the fatwa] Iran is resorting to the Islamic principle of Taqiyya (telling a lie out of expediency). This issue needs clarification. For example, this is a primary principle of Islam and is not covered by Taqiyya. However, since there is no way for the two sides to get to talk about this, the issue has practically remained a mystery.
For now, just let’s assume that “from its own viewpoint” the United States considers its fear of Iran's nuclear energy program justified. The influential American analysts and politicians have put their heads together and have finally reached the conclusion that the only way to stop Iran's nuclear energy program is to mount sanctions and pressures against the country so high that Iran would be forced to its knees and give in to the United States’ demands. This analysis, however, falls short of taking a number of realities into account and has, therefore, failed so far. It is my understanding that the United States will not be finally able to bring Iran's uranium enrichment program to complete standstill.
First of all, Iran's nuclear energy program is now a matter of national pride for the country. Iranians have progressed so far in this filed that they are not ready to be humiliated by stopping that program under pressure and sanctions. Iran considers indigenous development of this technology one of its main honors as a result of which, shutting down the enrichment program would amount to negation of the country’s own identity. On the other hand, Iran argues why it should allow the United States to play with the country’s national pride and sovereignty by its double standards? Iran asks how come that Israel with about 400 nuclear bombs is not accountable to any authority in the world, but Iran's peaceful nuclear energy program should be stopped? Therefore, Iran stands up to what it calls “blatant US bullying” with all its capacities.
The Americans ignore this fact and argue that all decisions made in the world of politics are solely based on the “balance between profits and losses,” where there is no place for such issues as national pride and similar emotions. Therefore, they argue, if pressures mount on Iran, the country will finally give in. Such a misanalysis has caused them to continue with their aggressive policy of increasing sanctions against Iran. However, one of the widely accepted theories in international relations is the theory of “identity politics” about which many books have been written noting that this theory is returning as a major player to the global politics. The reason I use the word “return” is that for about four decades in which the world was engaged in Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the issue of “identity politics” played almost no role in international disputes. However, following the collapse of the Communist bloc, that theory has come to life again. The first serious confrontation rising from identity politics following the World War II was seen in the Balkans and during the ruthless war of the former Yugoslavia’s Serbs against Muslim people of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s.
At any rate, what I am trying to say is that the issue of defending identity and, ultimately, the national pride is a very important issue which can explain the reason behind Iran's resistance [to the West] and its unwillingness to accept suspension of uranium enrichment. This important issue should be included in the United States policies toward Iran. However, due to unshakeable and firm belief of the American analysts in the principle that Iran will sooner or later cave in under pressure on the basis of “profit and loss” calculation, they have paid no attention to the issue of “national pride.” Due to such oversight, the United States has been going on with its aggressive policy of pressure on Iran which nobody exactly knows where it may end up.
Another major problem is the type of the United States’ conduct and the discourse it has chosen on how to deal with Iran. Washington’s condescending position and resort to the regular threat that “all options are on the table,” cannot get along with the Iranian culture, especially with traditional religious culture of our country. In fact, the US approach shows that American politicians insist on avoiding recognition of a national identity and continuing efforts to change it. This, again, takes us back to the issue of identity politics and the resistance that Iran shows [against the United States] for protecting its national identity.
The next issue is lack of correct understanding of the Iranian government’s viewpoints about suspending uranium enrichment among the American politicians. Iranian leaders believe that any form of retreat in the nuclear case would be a major success for the United States after which Washington is sure to use other issues such as terrorism or the human rights [situation in Iran] in order to continue using the lever of pressure and sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Therefore, Iran argues that even one step backward would mean full retreat until the acceptance of complete defeat. In fact, even if the Americans’ theory about the balance between “profits and losses” is accepted to be accurate, we will also have to admit that in this special case, the Iranian government happens to be following the same rule. In other words, it argues that even one step aback would be equal to continuation of pressures from the United States until full defeat of Iran. This is why Tehran is not ready to give up its current position.
This set of issues, which was discussed above, has caused the nuclear issue to turn into an unbreakable deadlock between two countries.
Q: The United States has on several occasions offered to negotiate with Iran and has claimed that the talks would be aimed at resolving bilateral problems. Iran, however, maintains that Washington’s offers of negotiation are nothing but fraud and Washington is covertly trying to conspire against Tehran even when it is apparently showing a friendly face. How accurate, in your opinion, this analysis actually is?
A: Iran believes that it should not engage in negotiations with the United States because Washington is pursuing its own ominous goals. Part of this proposition is true. We know that [the US President Barack] Obama issued a message of friendship to Iran on the occasion of the Iranian new year [in March 2010] in which he explicitly talked about “a new beginning,” and reached out for friendship with Iran. (The Iranian Leader [Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei] has been also quoted as saying that Obama had written other letters on this subject and the issue was even disclosed by the US media.) According to a New York Times report, before issuing his new year message to Iran, Mr. Obama had ordered the Stuxnet virus to be completed as soon as possible in order to be used for a cyber attack on Iran's Natanz nuclear facility. Therefore, it is true that the United States’ offer of talks is not accompanied with genuine goodwill. However, the noteworthy point here is that we are talking about the world of politics, where willingly or unwillingly, there is no room for pure and honest friendship. There is a famous quote from the 19th century British politician, Lord Palmerston who said, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”
Negotiations between Tehran and Washington would not mark the beginning of all-out friendship and infatuation between the two states. The world of politics is basically not a good place to pursue such a goal because it is actually unattainable. Even establishment of relations and opening of embassies is not, per se, a goal. The main goal of negotiations is to find a way to reduce tension and move in a direction which will lead to reduction of sanctions and decreasing economic pressures on the country because the main targets of those sanctions are wage-earners and low-income people. Of course, I agree that accepting humiliation should not be part of the plan to achieve that goal. Even today, many articles are published in the United States, which introduce China as the biggest threat to future outlook of the United States. On the other side, Chinese experts on international relations publish many reports and articles on the internet all of which warn about the serious threat posed by the United States to China. However, relations between the two countries continue, despite mutual suspicion, and China is currently the second biggest trade partner of the United States.
Last year, the Chinese President Mr. Hu [Jintao] visited Washington and met with his American counterpart, President Obama. As usual, at the end of the meeting, both leaders appeared before reporters. Mr. Obama slammed and expressed regret over the situation of human rights in China, while Mr. Hu, reciprocally, advised the United States to stop interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. At the end of the interview, they shook hands, put up dashing smiles, and posed for photos. We, Iranians, cannot understand this behavior, but it is the stark reality of international relations in the modern world.
Q: Iran believes that it is entitled to uranium enrichment while the US argues that the Islamic Republic should stop enrichment. How the existing standoff could come to an end despite such a major difference in viewpoints?
A: This issue needs in-depth discussion. In short, however, it would be worthwhile to note that a prominent American professor of international relations, Charles Kupchan, wrote a controversial book entitled “How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace,” in 2010. In his amazing research, Kupchan argues that to bring down the wall of distrust between a big power and a smaller power, the first step should be taken by the big power. By taking reconciliatory steps, he says, the big power should win the trust of the smaller power and pave the way for finding peaceful solution to the existing problems. Mr. Amir Mohebbiyan (an Iranian political analyst), published an article which appeared on the website of the Iranian Leader last year in which he said (quote), “Iran does not pursue ‘hostility for hostility’ thesis and if a rational change is seen in the United States’ behavior, Iran will take note of it. Unfortunately, however, no such change has so far taken place and the American leaders stubbornly insist on their past positions and behavior.
The US policy will finally fail to bear fruit because it is based on an incorrect premise, and continuation of the existing atmosphere of hostility and animosity will lead to war. Referring to a possible war with Iran, two US secretaries of defense have already warned Washington against getting engaged in such a war. The former US Secretary of State Robert Gates believed that a war with Iran would also engage “our grandchildren,” while his successor, Mr. Leon Panetta, has noted that the war with Iran would cause Americans to regret what they had done.
However, without getting down to details - which need a lot of time to be properly discussed - it should be noted that the United States should first of all reach the conclusion that it is not able to bring uranium enrichment in Iran to complete standstill. Iran had no plan to enrich uranium up to 20 percent. When Tehran's request for purchasing 20-percent enriched uranium to be used at Tehran Research Reactor, which is specific to medical purposes and production of radio medicines, was rejected, the country embarked on enriching uranium to 20-percent level. Therefore, if the two sides took reciprocal measures to lift sanctions or render them ineffective, I think it would be possible for them to reach an agreement to limit enrichment level to, say, 5 percent. Secondly, the United States should give up its policy of pressure and threat. The most urgent step is for Washington to change its tone and put an end to frequent threats against Iran. Without that change, it would not be possible for the two sides to engage in meaningful, effective and serious negotiations.
It is possible for some people to say that this is only meaningful in theory, but how in practice and despite the existing atmosphere of serious distrust, the Americans can be convinced that they should take the first step? Here, theoreticians of international relations can help us. Jacob Bercovitch, the American scholar, conducted a research in 2007 in which he concluded that international disputes in the 21st century can be resolved through “mediation.” However, the important point is that the mediator should be totally well versed about the culture and way of thinking of both parties to a dispute and, therefore, be able to rapidly dispel and explain ambiguities to both parties.
Q: Let’s ask another basic question. To what extent Israel and the pro-Israeli lobby are effective in setting the course of the US foreign policy toward Iran?
A: The pro-Israeli lobby is a complicated and poorly organized collection of certain organizations which actively support Israel and which are topped by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). They also include a huge group of writers and journalists who are working in all American newspapers and other media; rich people supporting Jews, who of course do no comprise all wealthy Jews; think tanks which promote and theorize policies that benefit Israel; as well as a group of radical, but powerful, Christians who call themselves “Zionist Christians.” There are two theories about the role of the Israeli lobby in the United States foreign policy.
The first theory has been proposed by two prominent American scholars of international relations, that is, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer both of whom happen to be Jews! For the first time in the US history, these two American academics published a book entitled “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy,” in 2006. The book raised a lot of controversy and rapidly became a bestseller. Walt and Mearsheimer said in their detailed research that the United States’ all-out support for Israel neither meets the US strategic interests in order to be strategically justifiable (as it is actually detrimental to Washington’s strategic interests), nor is the United States morally bound to offer unbridled support to Israel. They have also presented frequent examples of the violation of ethical principles by Israel in order to prove that Washington’s support for Tel Aviv has no ethical basis. They finally reached the conclusion that there should be another factor in work which has left such a profound impact on the US foreign policy. By producing a great number of evidence they have proven that, in fact, the Israeli lobby is actually putting tremendous pressures on the American politicians to set the direction of their policies in favor of Israel and it has nothing to do with the US strategic interests or ethical norms. The influence and power of this lobby is also related to financial and propaganda assistance which it provides politicians who are apparently elected through people’s votes (and who include all kinds of politicians from the US president down to representatives of the Congress and Senate). The other way around, it means that if this group stops its financial and propaganda support for any candidate, he/she would greatly lose the chance of being elected.
The second theory has been formulated by another elite scholar, William B. Quandt. He believes that from the time they enter school, up to their admission to university and then through their political career, American politicians are bombarded by totally unilateral stories about Israel through the mass media. In those stories, Israel is always subject to injustice and its enemies seek to annihilate it. Quandt believes that when a person makes his/her debut in the world of politics through such a background, they are sure to approach the issue of Israel with some sort of prejudgment. From the viewpoint of Quandt, since American politicians enter the politics with preformed prejudice, convincing them to provide unlimited support to Israel is not a tough job for the pro-Israeli lobby. The only thing which that lobby has to do is to highlight anything which is against the Israeli interests, so as to prevent them from happening.
At any rate, taken from either of the two aforesaid standpoints, Israel has played a prominent role in shaping the US foreign policy. Here, I want to briefly explain a point. Perhaps you remember that during the recent presidential elections in the United States, [the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu made a trip to the US in order to deliver his famous address to [the annual session of] the UN [General Assembly]. Concurrently, some Israel media revealed that Obama had turned down his request to meet with him. Obama and his aides had noted that Netanyahu is clearly meddling in the process of the US election in order to change the result in favor of [Obama’s Republican rival Mitt] Romney. This issue in addition to Obama’s unwillingness to set “red line” for Iran's nuclear activities caused great strain in his relation with the pro-Israeli lobby. In the aforesaid article, I wrote that if Obama were elected, it would be for the first time in a few decades that a US presidential candidate has turned its back on the Israeli lobby and has yet been able to win the election.
This development shows that the current situation in the United States as well as the arrangement of political forces has changed in such a dramatic way that a person like Obama can be elected as US president without effective support from the pro-Israeli lobby. This unprecedented issue can have unprecedented impact on the future outlook of the US foreign policy. Does this mean that Obama does not give a damn about Israel and its lobby anymore? Certainly not. Obama should move within the framework set by his party and, in addition, he still needs the support of the Congress and the Senate representative in order to outdo his opponents. Let’s not forget that the gravity center of Israel’s influence on the US policy is the US Congress. However, under new circumstances, Obama is in a position to bargain and relatively reduce the pressure that Israel is trying to put on him. In the meantime, since this is his second term in office, he has no concern about losing a reelection and is not afraid of the Israeli lobby anymore. These factors will once again prompt Obama to come up with a new proposal for negotiations with Iran. Recent remarks by the [US Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton and her offer of two-way talks should be considered along the same lines. Now, we must wait and see what approach the Iranian government will take to this issue.
Q: Now that you have talked about Mrs. Clinton’s proposal to Iran, please answer our last question. Why the United States has come up with this proposal at this juncture?
A: When, at the behest of a group of Iran experts, the United States decided in the fall of 2011 to make Tehran give up its enrichment program by imposing the toughest sanctions on Iran, including by getting the European Union in line [with Iran sanctions], they hoped that the Iranian government would give in to pressures when its economic integrity is at jeopardy. Of course, I must add that what happened [in Iran] following [presidential election] in 2009 greatly influenced that decision. Such influential thinkers as Richard Haass, who heads the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, and Ray Takyeh, a prominent member of the same council, who talked about compromise with Iran before those incidents, suddenly made a U-turn. They started writing articles about the so-called Green Movement noting that the Iranian government has been weakened and can be forced to its knees through serious sanctions. In practice, however, their project proved wrong. Prominent scholars such as George Perkovich (not to be mistaken by Jacob Bercovitch about whom I have already talked), who specializes on Iran issues and nuclear disarmament and has been also a staunch supporter of Iran sanctions, announced a few months ago that the nuclear issue has been so integrated into the Iranians’ sense of national pride that it cannot be stopped anymore. By and by, there were more doubts about effectiveness of sanctions. I have asked Americans in, at least, ten articles “what is your other alternative?” “What are you going to do if sanctions proved futile, which is sure to happen?” The answer is clear. [The two parties, namely, Iran and the US] must either sit [at the negotiation table] and talk, or opt for war. There is no third alternative. During the last year, many research articles have been published by various American research teams on how Iran's nuclear issue should be dealt with.
Not even one of them has pointed out that a possible war can put an end to Iran's nuclear energy program. They have, on the opposite, argued that in a best case scenario an attack on all nuclear facilities of Iran can put off the Islamic Republic's program only four years at the very most. Let’s not forget, and this is very crucial for making any possible decision, that when it comes to Iran's nuclear energy program, we are not faced with a single America, but there are [in fact] two Americas. One [America] is led by the White House and is by no means willing to enter into war against Iran while another one, which is lead by radical elements of the US Congress and Senate from both parties, seeks military confrontation with Iran.
The anti-war faction has reached the conclusion that the faceoff should be stopped through negotiation. On the other hand, the warmongering faction argues that the first group’s efforts are in vain because Iran is not ready to solve the issue through negotiation and diplomacy. Rejection of negotiation by Iran will only play into the hands of the second group, allowing them to keep mounting pressure on Iran which will ultimately end in war. This dichotomy is the main reason why the White House has opposed the new Senate decision for the intensification of sanctions against Iran, or resists Netanyahu’s request for drawing a red line for Iran's nuclear energy program. In fact, as I said before, the US Congress and Senate are controlled by Israel’s supporters and the Likud Party is currently setting the stage for confrontation with Iran. Iran can take the best advantage of this dichotomy through vigilance and a well-informed approach.
*Shahir ShahidSaless holds a master’s degree in international relations from University of London and a master’s in Geopolitics and Grand Strategy from Sussex University of the UK. Being a resident of Canada, he has carried out extensive research on Iran's relations with the United States and has many written works on this subject.
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