Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with Shahir Shahidsaless
By Firouzeh Mirrazavi
Iran and the six world powers have been discussing ways to iron out differences and start drafting a final deal that would end the West’s dispute with Iran over the country’s nuclear energy program. The two sides wrapped up their fourth round of nuclear talks in Vienna on Friday May 16, 2014. Iran says there has been no tangible progress on drafting the text of a comprehensive nuclear deal. However, President Hassan Rouhani has expressed optimism that the nuclear negotiations with the Sextet of world powers will result in a final agreement. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also said a comprehensive nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers is “possible” if the parties to the talks with the Islamic Republic set “illusions” aside.
Iran and The United States: An Insider's View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace
Author: Seyed Hossein Mousavian & Shahir Shahidsaless
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic (May 22, 2014)
Iran Review.Org conducted an exclusive interview with Shahir Shahidsaless, an Iranian-Canadian political analyst and freelance journalist, about the latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 group in Vienna, the prospects for the resolution of the nuclear standoff, existing problems between Iran and the United States and the main steps that Iranian and American officials can take to dispel the current atmosphere of mistrust. His latest book, that he co-authored with former Iranian diplomat, Seyed Hossein Mousavian is Iran and the United States, An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace published by Bloomsbury Academic. What follows is the text of the interview.
Q: What is your viewpoint about the latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 group in Vienna? Do you believe that the current deadlock in negotiations is quite natural or it is just a beginning for the end of the optimism that existed in the past six months about the possibility of finding a solution to Iran's nuclear issue and sanctions through negotiations?
A: Last summer, I conferenced with Kenneth Katzman, a senior analyst and Iran expert at the Congressional Research Service, during which I asked his opinion about the US seriousness for ending the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. Katzman said that President Obama was determined to take the issue off his table. The developments that followed, starting from Obama’s call to President Hassan Rouhani and then the historical Geneva interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1, provided compelling evidence that Katzman’s assertion was accurate. So, here we have an administration that is determined to bring the issue to its end. But the question that needs to be addressed is “how far, in terms of concessions, would the US administration be prepared to go?”
Obama has serious constraints when it comes to dealing with Iran. It would be unrealistic to underestimate the power of a Congress that is heavily anti-Islamic Republic and subject to the influence of different lobby groups, first and foremost the Israel lobby. Obama and his administration cannot ignore the hawks in the US establishment, including elements such as influential Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez who is a Democrat but fiercely leads and advocates paralyzing sanction bills against Iran.
On the Iranian side, there are also several red lines drawn by the nezam (political system) that Zarif and his team cannot cross. Iran is not prepared to surrender to the US’ coercive policies for a variety of reasons: first because of the significant role that the notion of pride plays in Iran’s foreign policy. In fact, even many American experts argue that pride is the driving force behind Iran’s nuclear program. Second, because one of the pillars of the revolution has been and still is rejection of foreign domination. Finally, because Iran’s Supreme Leader argues that if they take one step back under bullying and intimidation of the US, Americans would reuse the same tactics (for example, imposing tough sanctions) until the Islamic nezam is toppled.
As the news emerges, it becomes apparent that there are major differences between Iran and the US on a number of issues. Mr. Araghchi, Deputy Foreign Minister, said in an interview after the recent discussions in Vienna that there were many cases of differences. I must add that on some of those differences, as news has revealed, there is a large gap between the two sides. The six powers (read the US), according to the news, want Iran to scale back its uranium enrichment activities including the number of centrifuges that spin. Iran does not agree, and apparently the difference between the two sides on this issue is in the range of tens of thousands.
There are other major issues that divide the two parts significantly: for instance, the duration of any limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities, the speed of lifting sanctions, and whether or not the final agreement should cover the scope of Iran’s ballistic missile program.
These are the bad sides of the story. The good side is that on both sides of the fence, there is the will to bring this issue to an end. President Rouhani’s grand policy is to reduce tensions in Iran’s foreign policy and reverse the trend of the economy, thus ensuring tranquility and progress. In this respect, Rouhani, being the Supreme Leader’s representative at the Supreme National Security Council for 23 years, is one of his most trusted personnel and has his support. This places Rouhani in a unique position to simultaneously negotiate inside and outside of Iran.
The US, on the other hand, is trapped in a dangerous trend in the Middle East, which is an unprecedented rise of jihadists in the region from Syria to Egypt to Iraq, coupled with an uncertain and threatening Afghanistan. Obama and top US intelligence officials categorize the situation as a major threat to the security of the US: first, because this trend threatens the stability of the US Arab allies and the region as a whole, which is one of the most strategic regions in the world for the US interests, and second, because jihadists are the sworn enemies of the US and their rise can potentially make the US and the West vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Any chance to stop and reverse this trend would be possible only if the US cooperates with Iran and collaborates in combatting the Takfiri forces.
Last but not least, the choice that the two sides make is not only about whether or not they agree to bring Iran’s nuclear crisis to an end. This is a very very sensitive issue that I want to emphasize on. The choice, in my view, is about peace and war. Why? Because if the talks fail, the US will go for de facto oil embargo on Iran. In such an eventuality, it is hard to believe that Iran would remain as an uninvolved spectator. Once patience wanes, Iran will retaliate to make life difficult for the US. Be it by the interruption of the flow of oil in the Persian Gulf or other means, the outcome of that would be an inadvertent or planned military confrontation.
What would be the bottom line? I would answer this question with one caveat-that the two sides act rationally. In that case, because the stakes are too high, I would say that even by July 20, and in the very last moments, an agreement may materialize. I agree with a US official, who after the recent talks in Geneva, said, “This has, candidly, been a very slow and difficult process and we are concerned with the short amount of time that is left. But let me be very clear: we believe we can still get it done.”
Q: Do you think that nuclear negotiations can form a basis for the resolution of the existing problems between Iran and the United States, or do you believe that these are entirely different topics in nature and should be addressed within a suitable time frame for each issue? To what extent do you believe is the possibility of final resolution of Iran-US problems?
A: I believe that a satisfactory solution to the nuclear issue will most likely create a platform upon which the two states can broaden their cooperation. The common interests such as security and stability of the region, safe passage of oil through the Persian Gulf, and combatting the rise of jihadist groups could potentially push the two countries toward detente once the nuclear issue is resolved.
Iran seeks non-hostile relations with America based on non-interference and recognition of Iran as a regional power. This has been the Islamic Republic’s ongoing demand since its inception; however, in practice and not in words, these demands have been rejected by the United States. In that framework, I believe Iran would consent to establish non-hostile relations with the US. However, there are convincing reasons that Iran would reject normal diplomatic relations with the US in the near future, to say the least. Here are the primary reasons.
First, the Iranian leadership has repeatedly expressed its deep mistrust toward the notion of the restoration of diplomatic relations with the US. Documents seized by students after the seizure of the US embassy reinforced the Iranian government’s mistrust of the US, which originated in their historical experience of the involvement of the US embassy in the 1953 coup. According to those documents, the embassy was involved in espionage and the expansion of its covert links with members of the new government and army.
Mistrust toward the restoration of full diplomatic relations is echoed in the speeches of Ayatollah Khamenei, who contends, “Any relations [with the US] would provide the possibility to the Americans to infiltrate Iran and would pave the way for their intelligence and spy agents.” The major concern has been that official diplomatic relations will enable the creation of covert links between the Americans and Iranians who are prepared to cooperate with the Americans to undermine the Iranian nezam.
Second, the Iranian nezam, based on Islamic values, claims that the US deliberately encourages liberal values (Iran’s Supreme Leader calls it tahajom-e farhangi, or cultural intrusion) among the Iranian youth both to erode their religious beliefs and to undermine the influence of Iran’s Islamic establishment. Observations reveal that there is some merit to this claim: The US has invested (and still invests) in the promotion of the American culture through the media, which is under its control or financed by them. Joseph Nye, the American political scientist who developed the concept of “soft power,” views American culture as one of the pillars of US power and instrumental to the projection of that power. It is a reality that many young people across the globe find American culture attractive and are influenced by it.
Based on this assumption, the Iranian nezam’s assessment could be that normal relations with the US would facilitate cultural exchanges, which may result in the Westernization of the country and the weakening of the ideological foundation of the Iranian society and political system.
To sum up, my view is that the Iranian leadership welcomes better and non-hostile relations with the US but not normal diplomatic relations-at least not at this moment and not in the foreseeable future. That said, a peaceful resolution to the nuclear crisis will pave the path for cooperation between the two states grounded on serious common interests that I mentioned earlier.
Q: Suppose you are asked to list three main steps that Iranian and American officials should take in order of priority to dispel the current atmosphere of misunderstanding toward each other. What would be your suggestions for each country?
A: I can suggest many steps, considerable in importance-but then the question would be whether or not they are practical. Under the circumstances, I would suggest the following:
First, the two states cease hostile rhetoric against each other at the official level. Neither government can control individuals, political currents, and/or the media outside their authority, but state-controlled entities and institutions could be regulated. This would be a significant move, which is an indication of goodwill while at the very least would prevent the escalation of conflict. Halting negative propaganda can certainly change the environment, preparing it for negotiations aimed at easing tensions.
Second, because the element of mistrust is at the core of the Iran-US hostile relations, it must be addressed by some bold moves. The US can allow the resumption of the sale of civilian aircraft to Iran. Not a big sacrifice but this is a move that would certainly crack the wall of mistrust.
Third, a meeting at the leaders’ level of the two countries would be a historical, groundbreaking event that could ease tensions. Let us not forget that Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, when China was under the rule of radical Mao Zedong, marked the turning point in China-US relations.
Q: The book, Iran and The United States: An Insider's View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace, jointly written by you and Seyed Hossein Mousavian, came out on May 22nd . What is the main subject of the book and what goal(s) does it pursue?
A: Through sharing Dr. Mousavian’s memoirs as a top ranked diplomat and an Iranian foreign policy expert, the book employs historical facts, analyses, and arguments to answer to the question of “Why Iran and America have become locked in a rare escalatory and reciprocal conflict spiral?” Dr. Mousavian’s firsthand knowledge about the intricacies of Iran’s politics provides valuable insights and interesting conclusions on the matter. The current Iran-America pattern of conflict is very rare and was not seen even during the Cold-War era between the US and its adversaries. America had full diplomatic relations with the communist bloc even at the peak of the Cold-War. The book, at the end, based on its findings, attempts to propose a realistic, workable roadmap to resolving the Iran-US conflict.
Numerous books are written by Western, mainly American, experts looking at conflictual relations between Iran and the US from a variety of angles. However, none have presented an immediate look at this complex relationship from within the Iranian policy-making system, examining the way the Iranian nezam views its old and protracted hostilities with the US. This is the gap in the literature on Iran-US relations that this book intends to fill.
The book does not refute the mainstream explanations for the conflict between Iran and the US such as competition over interests, clash of cultures, hostile relations between Iran and Israel, and the role of domestic politics on foreign policy. In fact, it extensively discusses and sheds light on these theories. However, it argues that Western experts lend very little credence to some factors that have played a major role and operate as a barrier to establishing enduring dialogue and communication between the two states. And if the factors that have perpetuated this state continue to go ignored, it is unreasonable to expect a negotiated solution to the protracted and complex conflict between Iran and the US.
Let us take the hostage crisis as an example: The incident that, as tagged in the book, was the “big bang”-the beginning of the hostilities between Iran and America-occurred when many of today’s points of contention between Iran and the US either did not exist or were insignificant at that time. There was no competition over hegemony in the region between the two countries, cultural differences had not emerged, the issue of Israel was a non-factor, and there was no dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. As demonstrated in the book, a combination of profound mistrust, misperceptions, and misanalysis of the situation on both sides were principle causes of the formation of the crisis.
Have these elements been addressed in the policies of the two sides toward each other? The answer is definitely no. They are discussed by many western experts but never drew the attention that they deserve during the process of policy-making. In fact, the adopted policies almost entirely have ignored these factors and that is, as we argue in the book, the main cause of the failure of the US policies as well as the intensification of the hostilities to a perilous level. This primarily applies to the American side, which rests in the driver seat and adopts coercive policies based on an unsubstantiated rationale that the Iranian government will eventually surrender to pressure. The book argues that due to a number of reasons, coercive policies have been unable to force the Iranian government to bow and will not in the future either.
The book identifies another major element that has obstructed the formation of a long-lasting negotiation process: the role of spoilers within and without the two countries. We identify a pattern of intensification of efforts to neutralize attempts at reconciliation between Iran and the US at the moments when hopes for the betterment of relations appear in the horizon. With the increasing likelihood of reaching a deal on Iran’s nuclear crisis, the harsh reactions of the Israeli government and pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) urging the US Congress to pass new a sanctions bill, as well as the emergence of “WE are worried” movement in Iran, are clear examples of such efforts.
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