Interview with Hassan Beheshtipour*(source: Iran Review)
Rouhani election win overshadows next meeting with P5+1 in Brussels
Since April 6, 2013, when the representatives of Iran and the group P5+1 of world powers - comprising the United States, the UK, France, China, and Russia plus Germany - came together for talks, negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 have been at a standstill because of the presidential election in Iran. During eight years of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's term in office, the negotiations were actually stalled and every round of talks hit a stone wall due to a variety of reasons. Now, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is wrapping up his terms as president of Iran as a result of which he will soon transfer the responsibility for the country's nuclear dossier to his successor, Hassan Rouhani. Perhaps, the new president will have the key to cut Gordian knot of the case. This is why the representatives of the P5+1 came together last Tuesday in the Belgian capital city of Brussels, in order to come up with new plans for further talks with Iran and the exercise of active diplomacy to negotiations with the newly elected Iranian administration. In the following interview, the new agenda as well as the results of the group's meeting as well as the future outlook for negotiations between Iran and the West have been discussed with Hassan Beheshtipour, an analyst of international relations.
Q: What is your opinion about the Tuesday meeting of the representatives of the P5+1 group in Brussels? What were the basic goals behind that meeting?
A: This meeting was held between the member states of the P5+1 group in the absence of Iran. They wanted to make necessary coordination among them before engaging in new talks with Tehran. Among other issues, they discussed the best way of dealing with the new political developments in the Islamic Republic. They also believed that the members of Iran's nuclear negotiating team will certainly change in toto or partially. Therefore, they want to see whether they would be able to come up with new proposals on Iran's nuclear energy program. It is obvious that if they want to reach an agreement with the new Iranian administration, they should naturally offer new proposals to Iran. Therefore, it seems that the main reasons behind convention of the P5+1 group's recent meeting was the group members' need to get coordinated on how to deal with changes that have taken place in Iran, so that, they would enter any future talks with the Islamic Republic with a clear plan of action. They have also noted that negotiations would be held later than August, after the new Iranian president has been officially inaugurated and taken office.
Q: You said that the West should come up with new proposals for Iran. Wouldn't it be possible for them to just focus on their previous proposals? Weren't the proposals that the West offered Iran during Almaty talks notable enough?
A: It is a reality that the West's approach to Iran needs to be revised. Of course, Iran should change its old approach as well. The main factor which has caused the previous rounds of negotiations to fail was not the nature of the two sides' proposals per se. The negotiations actually failed due to mutual distrust and suspicion that existed between them. The West is suspicious of Iran just in the same way that Iran does not trust the West. It was because of this high degree of mutual distrust that Almaty 2 talks failed. They [the Western negotiators] had presented a proposal which was to a large extent acceptable for us. However, Iran could not accept that proposal simply because it could not put its trust in the West and did not know what else they might ask from Iran in return for the proposal. Therefore, it seems necessary for both sides to come up with new proposals accompanied with a new approach. Mounting pressure in addition to continued negotiation has been the main approach taken to Iran by the West up to this moment. We see that the same approach is still being followed. The Western countries have further intensified sanctions against Iran as of July 1, while they could have waited for a while until Mr. Rouhani and his new administration started to work. That is, they could have postponed the enforcement of new sanctions against Iran for at least six months due to the new political developments which have taken palace in Iran and by doing so they could have started to build confidence with the Islamic Republic. However, they decided to follow their old policy according to which they have imposed a new array of sanctions against Iran. The new sanctions are really tough and cover various fields of the Iranian economy, including automakers, Iran's national currency, new banks as well as new companies not included in previous sanctions. These measures clearly prove that they have not changed their old approach to Iran. The new proposal which I pointed to should be introduced in combination with a new approach; otherwise, it would be a simple repetition of the West's past proposals.
Q: You said the West should change its approach to Iran. What Iran, on the other hand, should do to facilitate the resolution of the nuclear standoff?
A: Iran, for his part, should also change its approach to this issue. In Iran, the dominant attitude is that the West cannot be trusted. The Iranians believe that the Western states are simply looking for excuses to mount pressure on Iran because they are, in fact, opposed to the Islamic establishment in the country. Therefore, the Iranian officials maintain that the row over the nuclear case is just a pretext for putting more pressure on Iran. Once it is solved, the West would resort to other pretexts such as the situation of human rights, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and other issues to keep mounting pressure on the Islamic Republic. I mean, the dominant view in Iran is that the West is opposed to the very fundaments of the Islamic Republic. Of course, I don't agree with this view, but this viewpoint exists anyway and it is based on this viewpoint that Iran does not trust the West. Therefore, if Iran's nuclear issue is going to be solved, the country must change its attitude and once more trust the West in order to see if the Western negotiators are really committed to their promises.
Q: Therefore, can the two sides still continue to negotiate over the West's proposal which was offered in Almaty meeting?
A: Yes. They had already asked Iran to shut down all nuclear activities at Fordow nuclear site. A while later, however, they only urged Iran to suspend those activities; that is, they changed their request from Iran. In another instance, they accepted enrichment in Iran and noted that Iran should only stop producing uranium enriched to 20 percent level. In addition, there was a positive point about the six-month period of suspension which the West had proposed. Iran had already objected that the West aims to make Tehran give up its inalienable enrichment right for good and ever in order to build confidence with the West. Their latest proposal, however, had envisaged the aforesaid six-month period of suspension which was a very good proposal. Iran, however, did not know what they might ask in later stages of negotiations. Therefore, the Islamic Republic emphasized that they should recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium on its soil. If they had recognized this right for Iran, a new chapter would have been opened in bilateral relations under which the two sides could have negotiated about the best way to address the West's concerns over Iran's nuclear activities. Iran, on the other side, would have been able to appear more transparent in this regard. This was a moderate approach to the resolution of Iran's nuclear standoff.
Q: So, you think that Iran should reconsider that proposal?
A: What I suggest is that Iran should change its approach. I mean, instead of putting emphasis on the past pessimism, which was of course an outcome of the West's own performance with regard to Iran, Tehran should for once trust the West. For instance, Iran can accept the six-month agreement with the West to see whether they will keep the promises they have agreed upon, or will continue to ignore their commitments as they did in the past. Therefore, if both sides changed their approaches and if new proposals were exchanged on the basis of the altered approaches, they might be able to come up with new mechanisms through which they would be able to solve this problem once and for all.
Q: How ready is the general political atmosphere in the region for such an agreement?
A: Well, to answer this question we must first see whether the existing differences between Iran and the West are fundamental or not. If we assumed that the nuclear issue is simply used as an excuse to put pressure on Iran and the West does not want this issue to be resolved, then it follows that the regional developments would have no effect on this issue because the other side is simply looking for pretexts to pile up pressure on Iran. On the other hand, we can also assume that the West is trying to find a way to trust Iran with its nuclear energy program and make sure that Tehran has no intention to build nuclear weapons. In that case, the next question would be what impact the ongoing developments in Syria, Egypt and Turkey could have on this issue? I believe that although the aforesaid developments can have some effect on Iran's nuclear dossier, under the current circumstances, they cannot be determining. I mean, they are not major factors determining the course of the nuclear case. Of course, if we wanted to limit our analysis to a regional level, in that case and at that level, such important regional factors as the situation in Iraq and Syria would become even more significant. However, this nuclear issue can be also approached at a bilateral level between Iran and the P5+1 group. On that level, it can be considered as an independent package and be resolved as such. I mean, the mechanism for the resolution of this issue can be kept limited to negotiations with the 5+1. However, we may also insist that an overarching package should be discussed by Iran and the West, which would cover all the regional developments as well as all the matters of dispute between Iran and the West, especially the United States, such as the nuclear issue, the situation in Syria and Palestine, the issue of terrorism and so forth. In that case, all those issues would become more complicated and it would be more difficult to find solutions to them. It seems the best approach is to try and solve these issues one at a time.
Q: Does this mean that you don't believe Iran and the United States would be able to solve their disputes through an overarching approach?
A: I think those people who believe that the two sides should put a comprehensive package of problems on the table and discuss it are ignoring the realities on the ground because this will never happen for a variety of reasons. They assume that all people and groups in the United States make their decisions on the same basis while, in reality, Obama and his administration are under tremendous pressure from the Israeli lobbies, especially inside the US Congress. There is serious conflict of viewpoints even inside the US administration with regard to Iran, for example, between Obama's national security advisor, Susan Rice, and the US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. And there are also differences in viewpoints between these people and the US Secretary of State John Kerry. I mean, we should not assume that the people making up the United States administration are unanimous about how to deal with Iran. There are serious differences among American officials and political parties.
The second point here is that there are also differing viewpoints in our country toward negotiations with the United States. Some people maintain that we should under no conditions engage in direct talks with the United States. Others believe that negotiations per se are of no objection, but under the current conditions when our country is under pressure, we should not enter into negotiations with the United States because we would not have the upper hand. [They say] we must first have the upper hand, especially by getting the West to remove sanctions it has imposed against Iran before engaging in real negotiations. There is even another group which believes that the world of politics is a place for taking major risks and we should engage in negotiations with the enemy under any circumstances because thousands of years of talks are better than a single hour of war. Therefore, negotiations can be a good means for the reduction of threats. As a result, there are also different viewpoints in our country. Of course, the Supreme Leader has the last say on this issue, but before reaching the level of the Supreme Leader, this issue needs to be assessed through expert discussions. Therefore, those who maintain that all the matters of dispute between Iran and the United States should be discussed and resolved en bloc and in the form of an overarching package, should pay attention to a few points. Firstly, all people with some degree of influence within the political structure of the United States should reach a consensus on the need to resolve the existing problems with Iran. On the other hand, the same consensus should be reached among various political groups in Iran as well. At present, these conditions do not actually exist, and I don't see any possibility that such an atmosphere would come into existence within the next couple of years.
However, if we choose to proceed in steps, we would be able to provide grounds for negotiating over other general issues as well. For example, if Iran's nuclear problem with the United States is solved, anti-Iran sanctions are partially removed, and some anti-Iran resolutions are repealed, the result will be the creation of a positive atmosphere. Under that atmosphere, the involved parties can even reach an agreement on the situation in Syria, or engage in negotiations over other important regional issues and their future outlook. Therefore, if we proceed step by step, we would be hopeful that all the problems would be solved in due time.
Q: What issues make you optimistic about the possibility of solving the existing nuclear problem in a step-by-step manner?
A: Just look at the United States. A secretary of state like Ms. Hillary Clinton, who adopted a harsh approach to Iran, has been unseated now and her place has been given to John Kerry. Although it has become a habit for some political circles in Iran to say that there is no difference between them, I am more inclined to think that John Kerry is much better than Ms. Clinton. The same is true about [the current] Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel as compared to his predecessor, Leon Panetta, or even about the current Director of the Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan compared to his predecessor, David Petraeus. I mean the political team which is currently in control of various political positions in the United States is in much better conditions for achieving an agreement with Iran. On the other hand, Dr. Rouhani's team is also in better conditions. That is, if the existing problems between Iran and the United States are going to be solved, this is the best time for this purpose.
Despite the above facts, I think that all these problems should be solved in stages because they cannot be solved in a rush. However, when a clear-cut issue like Iran's nuclear energy program is put on the table for negotiations, it is easier to consider special aspects of this issue. For example, the negotiating parties can discuss how Iran should make its policies more transparent in order to allay the West's concerns over the possibility of Iran moving toward building nuclear weapons, or how the Western side is going to guarantee that in return for Iran's goodwill gesture, they would recognize Tehran's right to enrich uranium. This issue will not be at odds with the UN Security Council resolutions because resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council have asked Iran to only suspend its uranium enrichment activities and have never denied Iran's right to enrich uranium. That is, the Security Council has urged Iran to suspend enrichment for a limited period of time in order to make a final decision on this issue in such a way as to dispel the existing ambiguities and give time to Iran to build trust with international community. In fact, we can proceed in the following manner. At first, the West should recognize in political terms the right of Iran to enrich uranium by adopting an official document. Then, Iran would be able to take a series of confidence building measures in order to prove that the Islamic Republic has no intention to produce nuclear weapons. This is quite possible and can be achieved through negotiations. At any rate, I think that both sides are willing to reach a final conclusion on this issue and the determination to resolve this problem exists in both sides.
* A researcher, documentary producer, and expert on nuclear issues, Hassan Beheshtipour was born on June 22, 1961 in Tehran. He received his BA in Trade Economics from Tehran University. His research topics span from US and Russian foreign policy to the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.
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