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Benjamin Netanyahu’s Threats Against Iran are Political Bluffing

Monday, February 17, 2014

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with Juan Cole
By: Kourosh Ziabari

Although the Geneva interim accord on Iran’s nuclear program was a new opening in the course of Iran-West relations, some hostilities and disputes still remain in place, which is evident in the remarks made by the U.S. officials in the recent weeks, who have talked about all options being on the table or the allegations that the talks for a comprehensive solution to Iran’s nuclear case should stipulate limitations to Iran’s ballistic missiles program, as well.

Moreover, the intricacies in the mutual relations between Iran and the United States are not confined to the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. The two countries significantly differ on a variety of issues, and the nuclear dossier is simply one of them.

In order to discuss the different dimensions of the Iran-U.S. bilateral relations and the nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers, Iran Review conducted an extensive interview with Prof. Juan R. Cole, a prominent, world-renowned Middle East expert and public intellectual whose blog “Informed Comment” is considered as one of the most reliable sources of critical analysis about the Middle East current affairs.

He is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Fluent in Persian and Arabic, Prof. Cole has appeared on several radio and television channels as a Middle East expert and testified before the U.S. Senate. He has been interviewed on many famous television shows such as Nightline, ABC Evening News, the Today Show, Anderson Cooper 360°, Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, Al Jazeera, Charlie Rose, Fareed Zakaria GPS, The Rachel Maddow Show, The Colbert Report and Democracy Now!

Prof. Cole’s latest book “Engaging the Muslim World” was published in 2009 by the “Palgrave Macmillan” publications. The non-fiction book tries to investigate the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world and shed a light on how the Muslims and Arabs view the U.S. policies. Blasting George W. Bush’s policy of spreading Islamophobia, Juan Cole advocates diplomacy and rapprochement with the Muslim nations and warns against preemptive military strikes which the United States has been perpetrating for years in the Middle East.

Juan Cole has translated several works from and into English, including the poetic compositions of the late Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran. Cole’s main focus is on Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and the revolutionary wave of the Arab world known as the Arab Spring.

Juan Cole is by and large critical of the U.S. foreign policy; however, he used the opportunity of interview with an Iranian media to level some criticisms against Iran’s nuclear program, as well. In this interview, he said that Iran and the United States should move toward settling their disputes, but that it’s more optimal for Iran to suspend its nuclear activities for a while. What follows is the text of Iran Review’s interview with Juan Cole.

Q: What do you think about the importance and significance of the Iran Supreme Leader’s fatwa against the development and use of nuclear weapons? We should bear in mind that this decree has not been simply issued by a religious authority, but by a political leader. How can this fatwa serve as basis for talks on Iran’s nuclear program and be considered a confidence-building measure?

A: I have to tell you that I take the fatwa of Leader Ayatollah Khamenei very seriously, but I have been unable to convince anyone else to take it seriously. The West is a secular society and they don’t understand the concept of the rule of the jurisprudent, or velayat-e-faqih; they don’t understand the idea of the fatwa and taqlid, so they believe the leader is not telling the truth. What I’m saying is that while this is an important issue inside Iranian politics, it does not mean very much outside Iran.

Q: What’s your assessment of the recent developments in the course of nuclear talks between Iran and the group of six world powers?

A: I’m optimistic that the talks can lead to an agreement because I believe that both Iran and the government of President Rouhani and the Obama administration are eager for a breakthrough.

One of the difficulties the Obama administration has is that the economic sanctions have been imposed contrary to the wishes of President Obama by the Congress as a legislature and so he, in order to reach a deal, has to convince the Congress to reduce the sanctions, and this would not be easy.

Q: So you agree that there are certain elements inside the U.S. Congress, such as the pro-Israeli Congressmen and the neo-conservatives who are opposed to a breakthrough between Iran and the United States and find their interests in the protraction of conflicts and disputes between the two sides?

A: I don’t use this exact wording. What I would say is that a strong majority, perhaps 80% of the Congress, sees Iran as dangerous and they would not be easy to convince that Iran is being honest, forthright and cooperative. So, I’m saying that for the Obama administration, this is a difficult battle inside Washington to get these agreements approved by the Congress. There are some things that Obama can do without needing the Congress. He can take administrative decisions about the sanctions. So, these things he would do. It’s not just a matter of the neo-cons, it’s the vast majority of the Congress.

Q: There’s one fact which even the hostile U.S. politicians concede to, that is Iran has long been a peaceful country in such a turbulent region as the Middle East, and that Iran over the course of the past two centuries hasn’t ever attacked nor invaded any country or any of its neighbors. Can such a peaceful country pose a threat to the regional peace and security?

A: This is an argument which I’ve made, as well, that Iran does not have a history of aggression. But, again, I have not been able to convince the Americans about this, because they have a different idea of what aggression is, that is not just military attacks. They say Iran has supported Hezbollah in Lebanon which they consider a terrorist group; that it has supported acts of violence by the suicide bombers, even though it has not attacked any country with conventional weapons.

Q: But there’s one counter-argument against that, and that is if Iran has supported Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups which some Western powers consider as terrorist, then the United States itself has supported Israel, which the Muslim countries consider as an occupying power; they also mention the numerous wars in the Middle East which the United States has waged.

A: I would say that if the goal is to reach an agreement, then we have make arguments that the West finds credible. Let me just be very clear. The main problem with Iran getting a nuclear enrichment program has been a lack of transparency. The United Nations inspectors have asked for this. They haven’t found any evidence of a weapons program or the diversion of the Iranians to a weapons capability, and they keep saying that in their reports. But they still have questions that they can’t find an answer for. Personally I don’t believe that Iran is interested in making an atomic bomb. But they have to prove it to the inspectors that they’re not interested. It’s not something that you can take somebody’s words on. It’s not an issue on which there can be trust in the absence of evidence. So, I believe that if the Iranian government would be more cooperative with the inspectors, even if it finds the inspectors’ requests to be unreasonable, that is what would establish trust, along with increased transparency.

Q: Right. You know that several rounds of unilateral and multilateral sanctions have been imposed against Iran since 2006, including the UN Security Council sanctions, the European Union multilateral sanctions and the U.S. and other countries’ individual sanctions. But these sanctions have turned into laws, and a legal procedure should take place for their removal. Is it easy now for the West to lift the sanctions or ease part of them in order to reach an agreement with Iran?

A: It would be good if the multilateral sanctions or the UN Security Council and EU sanctions are lifted. I believe that if Iran will be transparent to the inspectors, and if Europe, in particular, can be assured that there’s no weapons implication in Iran’s nuclear program, then I think it would not be so hard for the multilateral sanctions to be lifted.

Q: And also there’s one question regarding the humanitarian impact of these sanctions in that they restrict the Iranian people’s access to foodstuff, medicine and other consumer goods. What do you think about this aspect of the sanctions and that they’re targeting the daily lives of the ordinary Iranian citizens?

A: Well, I think it’s a very unfortunate effect of the sanctions that they don’t simply affect the government, that is the target, but they affect the ordinary people. There’s no embargo of medicine, that is to say there’s no list of medicine that’s not allowed to be sent to Iran. But, the sanctions have hurt the people’s standard of living and some people who used to be able to afford medicine can no longer afford it, so it’s an indirect effect of the sanctions not a direct one. But it is unfortunate, and I think that the use of sanctions as a tool of diplomacy is a violation of international law.

Q: What’s your viewpoint regarding the dominance of the Israeli lobby over the U.S. Congress? You’ve surely noted that President Obama has made serious efforts to appease the Israeli Prime Minister after the conclusion of nuclear deal with Iran and assure him that all option are still on the table over Iran’s nuclear program.  The question is that, does the U.S. administration have the sufficient freedom and authority to interact with Iran in the light of the pressures made by the Israeli lobby?

A: Well, the thing I want to underline is that the U.S. government is not controlled by anybody, and the lobbies will lobby on behalf of Israel. Just to give you an example recently, the Israeli lobby were strenuously lobbying the Congressmen to get approval for a U.S. strike on Syria in response to the Syrian use of chemical weapons, but they lost and the resolution would not have passed Congress. So, it’s not a matter of control on somebody’s wills or a political fight. Most American politicians view Israel as an ally; they view Israel the same as they do the United Kingdom as a vital ally and a country with which they have a common interest. You don’t need to convince them very much to support Israel just as you don’t need to convince them to support Britain. So, the majority of the Congressmen believe that there’s an issue of importance to the United States on which they differ with the Israeli lobby. They know this and prefer the interests of the United States. The interest of the United States is to lift the sanctions on Iran, have better relations with Iran and resolve this nuclear conflict.

Q: You know that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been doing his best and pulling out all the stops in the recent months to drag the United States into an unwanted war with Iran, repeatedly calling for a military solution to Iran’s nuclear standoff. Does the military strike have any relevance now that a moderate president has come to power in Iran? What do you think about the consequences of such a war for the United States and Israel?

A: I no longer believe in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s threats to strike Iran unilaterally. I don’t think those threats are plausible. I think they are some kind of bluffing and boasting or threatening. So, I don’t believe that Israel has the capability to attack Iran that way, and of course if it did, it would trigger a war that would engulf the whole Middle East in its flames. So, the Obama administration has repeatedly warned the Israelis not to do this. It’s very clear that Obama has told Israel not to take such an action, and I think now that the negotiations have opened, if the negotiations are fruitful, it makes it impossible for Israelis to attack militarily, because they would be drawing a case against the international consensus and then will be extremely isolated.

I think that President Rouhani is wise to agree to the negotiations, and the evidence is that he and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are beginning a process which leads to peace with the West. But the Iranian side will have to show flexibility, as well. In the negotiations there has to be something given up by each side.

Q: As a next question, why do you think some Arab states in the Persian Gulf region are so fearful about the possible Iran-U.S. rapprochement? Does the reconciliation between Iran and the United States pose any threats to the Arabs?

A: First of all, I think that the Arab states are afraid that Iran is attempting to get a nuclear weapon and so they’re afraid of the power balance in the region. They’re also afraid that a nuclear deal that the United States strikes with Iran won’t forestall an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. So I think that’s their main concern. And although this is a matter of rivalry between some of the Arab states and Iran, I think that rivalry is not so serious that can’t be overcome.

So I think if the negotiations are successful, they will not only lead to better relations between Iran and the United States, they will ultimately lead to better relations between Iran and the Arab world. But again, I think Iran has to prove, not just allege, say or promise, that its nuclear enrichment program is truly for energy purposes and has no weapons implication and has to take concrete steps to demonstrate that this is the case, including reducing levels of enrichment, perhaps decommissioning some of the new and powerful centrifuges and I think giving up parts of the heavy water reactor in Arak because heavy water reactors can easily be used to make a bomb.

So Iran has to take very serious, concrete technical steps for transparency and confidence-building and demonstrate that its program is pretty peaceful. I think they can do that. The evidence shows that the program is peaceful. The Iranian state has taken some understandably nationalistic pride on its nuclear program and is somehow unwilling to be completely transparent, but if you go and take some concrete steps, then the United States and the Arab world will be relieved.

Q: There’s no doubt that Iran should make compromises and offer more transparency in its nuclear activities. But you surely admit that Iranians, on their own part, are somehow mistrustful toward the United States and talk of the long history of Washington’s interference in Tehran’s internal affairs and that the United States has long refused to recognize the Iranian government and has been pursuing a policy of regime change in Iran. What steps should the United States take in order to win the confidence of the Iranians and demonstrate that it’s entering the talks on equal footing and based on mutual respect?

A: I think when Obama came to office in 2009, he denounced the Bush administration’s policies toward Iran. President Obama addressed Iran on the occasion of Nowruz and used the term “Islamic Republic of Iran” which previous presidents refused to use, and he sought face-to-face, direct negotiations with Iranians which the Bush administration for the most part refused. So, the Obama administration has been trying to demonstrate to the Iranian government that there were some chances for new relationships and for making concessions to get the relationship.

I think very unfortunately, President Ahmadinejad and perhaps some elements in Iran’s security area seemed suspicious to the United States and its past actions and were unable to stand to President Obama’s overtures. I think this was the best opportunity on Iran’s part because I feel Obama was sincere for improving the relations between Iran and the United States. He is a realist and is not really interested in regime change. He got out of Iraq, which many Iranian observers doubted he would, and he seems determined to disengage from Afghanistan, and so I think he has demonstrated that the U.S. policies have changed and that it seeks better relationships with Iran. I think the onus is on Iran to address the concerns of not only the United States, but the Germans, the French, the British and even to some extent the Russians and the Chinese and remove their suspicions very clearly.

Q: In one of your articles, you noted that without an arch-foe the hawks in the U.S. Congress cannot further their interests. The military-industrial complex will not be able to win financial gain if the United States doesn’t have any major adversaries. Will this complex undergo a setback and decline if the United States and Iran settle their disputes and put aside the past acrimonies?

A: In some ways, there are people in the military-industrial complex that benefit from more conflict, but frankly, if Iran and the United States make peace and have better and improved relations, these people would be trying to sell weapons to Iran.

Q: Finally, what’s your practical suggestion for bringing the nuclear stalemate to an end?

A: The elements of a deal are clear with regards to Iran’s nuclear program. Iran should sign and abide by an Additional Protocol and nuclear inspection; it should give the UN inspectors the chance to see the designs of the centrifuges. It’s no secret. Iran is not risking its security by being transparent this way. If the inspectors want to see those designs, show it to them. Just show them what they want. And, I think it has been signaled by President Rouhani that Iran is willing to reduce the level of its enrichment, and these are the practical steps which Iran can take to demonstrate, even to the suspicious hawks, that this nuclear program is truly for energy production.

But let me make a point, if I may. Iran had better invest in the solar and wind power for alternative energy resources. Iran, as you know, is prone to earthquakes, and the nuclear reactors it has may be subject to what happened in Japan’s Fukushima in case of an earthquake and since Iran doesn’t want nuclear weapons, these alternative sources will be much less expensive for it and it can do much better if it turns to build wind turbines and solar energy power plants.

Key Words: Benjamin Netanyahu, Threats, Iran, Political Bluffing, Iran Supreme Leader’s Fatwa, Nuclear Talks, U.S. Congress, Hezbollah, EU, UNSC, Israeli Lobby, Arab States, Cole 

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